Hillary Care

Sen. Bob Dole

Sen­a­tor Bob Dole rubbed his swollen jaw. “Tooth’s killing me,” he barked. “Head­ed to the den­tist.” He ges­tured toward a young woman stand­ing behind him. “Suzie can tell you all you need to know about . . .” He frowned at me. “Remind me again what you’re here for.”

Hillary Care,” I said.

He waved his hand in the air dis­mis­sive­ly. “Noth­ing to wor­ry about. It’s dead in the water.”

We sup­port the bill, Senator.”

He scowled. “Well, it won’t get a sin­gle Repub­li­can vote!” He winced and grabbed his mouth. “You tell em what-for, Suzie.” And he hur­ried out the door.

Stand­ing in the Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader’s office beside Safeway’s CEO and its Senior VP of Pub­lic Affairs, I stared bale­ful­ly at the emp­ty door­way, Sen­a­tor Dole’s toothache hav­ing tor­pe­doed an hour-long meet­ing we’d sched­uled weeks ear­li­er. Not an aus­pi­cious start to our trip to the Hill, I thought, wor­ried that this day might turn out to be a career lim­it­ing experience.

Labor rela­tions was one of my areas of respon­si­bil­i­ty at Safe­way. The company’s con­tracts with the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) union required us to pro­vide Cadil­lac health­care cov­er­age to our store employ­ees. Our nonunion com­peti­tors didn’t offer health­care, giv­ing them a huge cost advan­tage which they used to under­cut our prices. They were killing us.

Safeway’s CEO made the prag­mat­ic deci­sion to sup­port Hillary Care because it would lev­el the play­ing field. We were skep­ti­cal that the bill would actu­al­ly pass, but we thought we could gain a side ben­e­fit by sup­port­ing it. The UFCW was a major pro­po­nent of the leg­is­la­tion. By join­ing hands with the union, we hoped to improve our rocky rela­tion­ship and enhance our cred­i­bil­i­ty about cost reduc­tions at the bar­gain­ing table.

Sen. Craig’s Arrest­ing Offi­cer and Mugshot

We sched­uled a full day of meet­ings at the Capi­tol Build­ing to lob­by for Hillary Care, start­ing with Sen­a­tor Dole. After he vamoosed for the den­tist, I pre­sent­ed our argu­ments to Suzie, his staffer. She dis­agreed with every point I made, end­ing with, “The last thing we need is politi­cians decid­ing what a bro­ken leg is worth.” Sen­a­tor Dole’s oppo­si­tion remained firm.

We trun­dled down the hall to Idaho’s Sen­a­tor Lar­ry Craig. You may remem­ber him. An under­cov­er police­man arrest­ed him in the men’s bath­room of an air­port for pass­ing a note under the stall solic­it­ing a sex­u­al encounter. The sen­a­tor claimed he had a wide stance when squat­ting, saw the note beside his shoe, and picked it up out of curios­i­ty. He resigned from the Sen­ate in dis­grace, but that was a decade after our meet­ing with him. In the ear­ly 90’s, wide-stance Lar­ry still wield­ed a lot of clout. He must have been up late the night before our meet­ing (doing God knows what) because he nod­ded off about half-way through my elec­tri­fy­ing pre­sen­ta­tion. Out num­ber two.

My par­ents had met Vir­ginia Sen­a­tor John Warn­er and his wife, Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor, at a clam bake on the North­ern Neck. Dad didn’t like him. Mom didn’t like his movie-star wife because of her track record with hus­bands (the sen­a­tor was her sev­enth mar­riage) and her wardrobe at the clam bake. “Some­body ought to tell that woman she’s gained too much weight to traipse around in tight jeans.”

At least my par­ents got to meet the sen­a­tor. He didn’t grace us with his pres­ence, send­ing his chief of staff in his place. I made my pitch. He looked at me like I was a Russ­ian spy and showed us the door.

On a roll by then, I whiffed with Sen­a­tors Kempthorne and Gorton.

I was 0 for 5 when we talked to Sen­a­tors Rock­e­feller and Fein­stein. They said they were in favor of the bill, but that didn’t improve my bat­ting aver­age. They’d announced their sup­port for it months ear­li­er. The way things were going, I was relieved that noth­ing I said turned them against it.

We closed the day with Oregon’s Sen­a­tor Mark Hat­field. He’s gen­er­al­ly for­got­ten now, but he was a big deal in his day. Insid­ers say Richard Nixon’s choice for VP at the 1968 G.O.P. con­ven­tion came down to Hat­field and Mary­land Gov­er­nor Spiro Agnew. Nixon chose Agnew. A bribery scan­dal forced Agnew to resign dur­ing Nixon’s sec­ond term, and Ger­ald Ford took his place as VP. I’ve often won­dered what the world would be like today if Nixon had cho­sen Hat­field and he had suc­ceed­ed Nixon to become our 38th President.

When we met with him, he was a grand­fa­ther­ly 72, dressed in a blue shirt and red sus­penders that flanked a lit­tle pot­bel­ly. When I fin­ished my pre­sen­ta­tion, he leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I’ll tell you how this will play out.” Hillary Care would receive no Repub­li­can sup­port, he said, and Sen­a­tor Dole would block it from com­ing to the floor with the fil­i­buster rule. As time dragged on, Democ­rats would jump ship and pro­pose com­pro­mise bills. None would gain momen­tum, and uni­ver­sal health­care would die with­out a vote in the senate.

And that’s exact­ly what hap­pened. Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader George Mitchell declared the final com­pro­mise bill dead on Sep­tem­ber 26, 1994.

Although Hillary Care failed, we achieved the bet­ter rela­tion­ship with the UFCW we had hoped for and our con­tract nego­ti­a­tions were less con­tentious from there on.

An unex­pect­ed byprod­uct of our efforts came along lat­er when the Pres­i­dent of the UFCW invit­ed me to a lun­cheon with Pres­i­dent Clin­ton and a small group of his sup­port­ers. These affairs usu­al­ly require a huge cam­paign dona­tion, so I begged off. “Can’t fit it into the bud­get,” I told him.

You won’t have to pay,” he said.

F.O.B. Ron Burkle, Host­ing Fundraiser

What’s the catch?”

No catch. The Pres­i­dent wants to thank Safe­way for its help with healthcare.”

The lun­cheon took place at bil­lion­aire Ron Burkle’s Bev­er­ly Hills estate. Safeway’s VP of Pub­lic Affairs and I walked up a ser­pen­tine dri­ve­way to a mas­sive man­sion where Secret Ser­vice agents searched us before we were admit­ted to a spa­cious din­ing room that was obvi­ous­ly way above my pay grade.

Pres­i­dent Clin­ton entered from a side door and worked the room, spend­ing one-on-one time with the thir­ty atten­dees. When he came to me, he beamed and thanked me for Safeway’s help. I’d heard that some politi­cians have a charis­mat­ic mag­net­ism, but I’d nev­er expe­ri­enced it. I did then. I wasn’t a fan of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton before or after that lun­cheon, but when I was in his pres­ence, talk­ing with him about our daugh­ters going off to col­lege, I felt a pow­er­ful grav­i­ta­tion­al pull into his orbit that I didn’t expect or under­stand. I want­ed to like him. I want­ed to believe in him.

After the lun­cheon, he stopped on his way out of the room to speak to me again. He said he might make anoth­er run at expand­ed health­care. I offered our help. I heard cam­eras click­ing as he shook my hand. The call for help nev­er came, but pho­tographs of the hand­shake arrived in the mail.

Think­ing I’d impress my par­ents with what a big wheel I’d become, I sent them the pho­to­graph of me shak­ing hands with the Pres­i­dent. On our next call, Dad’s first words were “I hope you washed your hands after they took that picture.”

In the end, my for­ay into the polit­i­cal world on behalf of Hillary Care left me kind of cold. Pres­i­dent Clin­ton was by far the most tal­ent­ed politi­cian I met, and he turned out to be spec­tac­u­lar­ly flawed. Look­ing back on those days now, I’d say Dad’s pithy hygien­ic advice made good sense in the polit­i­cal are­na even before Covid-19 came along.


Post script: I met Pres­i­dent Clin­ton once more years lat­er. I’d heard he had an astound­ing mem­o­ry for peo­ple he’d encoun­tered only briefly. The rumor was true. He remem­bered my name and I felt that pull again, at least until I got out of the room.