VETERAN’S DAY (BELATEDLY)
Let me be the last to make note of Veteran’s Day 2011 with two stories. The first is the story of Mitt Romney’s plan to make life harder for vets by privatizing their health care. Paul Krugman tells that story for the New York Times, here:
Oh, boy. Mitt Romney wants to privatize the VA.
This is awesome on multiple levels. First, you know what voucherization would mean in practice: the vouchers would be inadequate, and become more so over time, so that veterans who don’t make enough money to top them up would fail to receive essential care. Patriotism!
Second, the VA is one of the great policy success stories of the past two decades. Back in the early 90s it was a terrible system — but as Philip Longman showed, what followed was a transformation that should be emulated by the rest of our health care system. Integrated care — and effective use of electronic records — delivered rising quality of care even as it reduced costs. Yes, I know, someone will chime in with a VA horror story, because any large health system will make errors. But the VA clearly delivers care as good or better than most civilians receive, at sharply lower cost.
So naturally Romney wants to privatize it. Because let’s remember, he’s the serious Republican. . . .
The second is the story of the fifth annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit last Wednesday at the Beacon Theater in New York. More specifically, it’s about a guitar, but let me set the stage.
The stage came to life with Max Weinberg’s Big Band – bring back Big Bands! this stuff rocks! – and then Bob and Lee Woodruff welcomed the 2,800 guests, who had contributed as much as $2,500 for each ticket to help injured Iraq and Afghanistan vets . . . you will recall that ABC’s Bob Woodruff had much of his skull blown off covering the war. Following his recovery, he and Lee started ReMIND.Org.
The Woodruffs introduced the many injured vets in the two front rows, asking them to “stand if you can” as their names were called. One of them, Andrew Kinard – who lost both legs but now attends Harvard in the joint MBA/JD program – delivered inspiring remarks.
As did President Clinton (and, via a prerecorded video on the giant screen, President George W. Bush, to the bitter irony of which, if anyone felt it, there was no overt reaction). President Obama wasn’t there, but I noticed David Axelrod in the audience.
Then Sotheby’s President, Jamie Niven (actor David Niven’s son – sure, The Pink Panther, but, my God, man, The Guns of Navarone! My Man Godfrey!), auctioned off . . . nothing: just a chance to raise your hand and give $50,000 (as someone did) or $25,000 (four) or $10,000 (ten) . . . and on up thru $390,000, by my count. Maybe more.
Then Ricky Gervais did a riff on fat people that was a little tough, I thought (but very funny); and Jim Gaffigan was very funny; and Jon Stewart was very funny; and Bruce Springsteen was . . . amazing (a full account here in Rolling Stone.) And his backup was the rocking Max Weinberg Big Band – it was phenomenal. I mean, this was the second coolest thing ever. (I’m getting to the coolest thing.)
And then, after Bruce, when we thought we were done, Jamie Niven came out with Brian Williams (news anchor) and Seth Meyers (fake news anchor) – could they really be asking us for more money? – to auction off Springsteen’s guitar.
And the bidding started at $10,000 and went back and forth and got to $60,000 and Jamie Niven said, “Sixty thousand is nice,” as if he were patting a small boy on the head. Ample pause. “But it’s not enough.”
So someone went to seventy – “Do I hear eighty?” – and a guy a few feet away – I was on the aisle, he was on the aisle two rows closer to the stage – went to seventy-five, which annoyed Jamie Niven, who explained that in his profession this is known as a “split bid” (I think that’s what he called it) but the guy way across the theater, on Brian Williams’ side of the stage, went to eighty – and Springsteen walked over with his guitar from Seth Meyers’ side (our side) to Brian Williams’ side – and then our guy went to ninety and Springsteen walked back our way.
It went on like this, with Springsteen loping back and forth . . . and then he threw in his harmonica into the deal and the bidding went higher . . . and then his shirt, higher still, and of course the folks near me really hoped our guy, whoever he was (who WAS he?) would be the high bidder, because we figured the Boss would come down into the audience and hand the guitar to him.
And that – when our guy bid $160,000 and the Brian Williams side of the theater guy fell silent – is exactly what happened.
So I could have reached out and touched Bruce, and I could hear him thanking our guy for his generosity, and that is NOT what I meant, above, by “the coolest thing ever.”
The coolest thing ever is that as Max Weinberg’s Big Band was helping to bring the evening to a close, and the last thanks were being offered, there was some confusion on stage – “where’s the guitar? we need the guitar!” – and people talking into headsets (I knew where the guitar was; I had seen our guy hand it to one of the Stand Up For Heroes volunteers, to be shipped home, I assumed) . . . and here’s is the coolest thing ever. It turned out that our guy, whoever he was, had not asked the volunteer to ship the $160,000 guitar home. Rather, he had asked her to give the it to Andrew Kinard, the double amputee we had heard from earlier.
Just like that.
He bought the guitar for $160,000 and gave it, anonymously, to the wounded vet.
I asked Lee Woodruff who our guy was but all she would say was that, yes, he’s in “the financial industry” – I assume a hedge fund guy – and wants to remain anonymous. He did keep the shirt, I saw, as I expressed my admiration on the way out. Meanwhile, I plan somehow to make sure Andrew knows he needs to sell the guitar – he must feel zero guilt over selling it – and use the proceeds to help finance his bright future.
THE BRAVEST MAN IN UGANDA
Twelve hours later, I got to meet the bravest man in Uganda – possibly the world – when in the Kennedy Caucus room on the third floor of the Russell Senate Office Building Frank Mugisha, a diminutive 29-year-old gay Ugandan, received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. In Frank’s country, same-sex relations between consenting adults is punishable by life in prison. Legislation is pending to impose the death penalty. In a country of 32 million, noted Kerry Kennedy (Bobby’s daughter), there are just five visible advocates of LGBT equality. There were six, but Frank’s colleague David Cato was bludgeoned to death in January.
John Kerry (Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee) and Ethel Kennedy (Bobby’s widow) presented the honor. Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke via video. Donna Brazile emceed.
Next week he comes to New York for meetings. Then – and here is why I think he may be the bravest man in the world – he goes back to Uganda.
What tied the two events together was something President Clinton had said the night before. I wish I had a clip or a transcript, but the gist was: “Don’t give me despair; the future is filled with hope. There is an amazing generation of talented, enlightened, courageous young people who will move us forward.”
Like Andrew Kinard and Frank Mugisha.