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Inoculated from Reality 

by Robert Herold

Remember Jane Byrne? She was the Chicago mayor who lost her job because she didn't get the streets plowed. After all the bajillions poured into this all-too-long, all-too-nasty campaign, President George W. Bush may go down in history as Jane Byrne II simply for not making sure the country had enough flu vaccine.

Turns out that this vaccine issue has legs. Bob Schieffer, moderator in the third presidential debate, first raised the issue. He asked the president to explain why it was that Americans were going to face a flu season without the benefit of enough vaccine to go around. The president gave a lame answer about how we had relied on a single British supplier for half the vaccine and discovered too late that it was contaminated -- like it was just an act of God. He then went on to tell us that if it weren't for the threat of those damn lawsuits, maybe we wouldn't have this problem. What a perfect political answer: It gave him the chance to slam "Old Europe" and lawyers in one fell swoop. Trouble is, the story doesn't hold water and his excuses aren't getting him off the hook. Even his telling us that he was going to set an example by not getting a shot. In a nation overflowing with pills for erectile dysfunction, shouldn't we have enough vaccine to inoculate our commander in chief?

Kerry looked at the proverbial hanging curve ball just waiting to be smoked out of the park, but he didn't even take the bat off his shoulder. He ignored the question and instead returned to his general criticism of the president for not solving the health coverage issue.

After the debate, however, Kerry quickly realized he finally had an issue that is revealing, important and one that will stick. If more people become infected with the flu because it is so much more prevalent this winter, Americans could be in for a very dangerous -- and unnecessarily deadly -- winter. Now we learn that the Centers for Disease Control has worried about this crisis in the making for quite some time. Yes, America only uses two suppliers. And in almost four years, the Bush administration has done exactly nothing to fix the problem.

Here's the answer Kerry might have delivered then (and, in so many words, is delivering at every opportunity now): "The President has just admitted that, once again, his administration was asleep at the switch. Just as they did nothing their first eight months in office to respond to obvious warnings of terrorist attacks (except to cut the terrorism budget in favor of Star Wars), now we see that they have ignored all the warnings regarding the flu vaccine."

If they followed Karl Rove's usual script, as they always do, they likely settled on a preferred set of political priorities and worked backward. Indeed, the president, in his response, tells us exactly what his priority has been in this case. He wants to make an ever stronger case for litigation reform. He thinks the flu shortage helps him make that case. Again, this administration elevates its political agenda above science, above empirical reality, above experience, above even good sense.

This fits the pattern, which, fortunately, is becoming plain for all to see in time for the election on Tuesday. For example, we learn that we didn't put the necessary number of troops into Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter) because Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld was intent on proving to the Army that it could fight and win with far fewer troops because of all the smart weapons. I don't accuse Rumsfeld of a conspiracy; I do, however, question his good sense, and I suggest that his arrogance has made a very big mess of things.

But he is no different than Karl Rove, who, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, serves as a kind of shadow chief executive, preferring policies that appease the president's so-called "base," even if such decisions bring serious consequences. Bush always goes along with the gag.

Really, the president has to know that the litigation reform issue completely misses the point of the question, which is, simply put, "Where is the vaccine, Mr. President?" This emerging and potentially very serious problem appears to have come about on his watch because of a leadership style that demands that policy be driven by ideology.

What other explanation could there be? Does the president really want us to believe that more suppliers couldn't have been found had this administration really tried to find them? Does he want us to believe that he is so powerless? At the debate, Bush admitted that he couldn't protect us from the flu, but he wants us to believe he can protect us against terrorism?

And now we learn that members of Congress will get flu shots, as will -- yes, you are reading this correctly -- convicts! Now imagine that you aren't in the designated "at risk" category and you hear this news.

The president's all-too-typical response aside, we now are stuck with a version of the "lifeboat" moral dilemma. Who do we allow on the boat? Who must we toss off? And this is no classroom exercise: tens of thousands of people die from the flu every winter.

The Centers for Disease Control, reflecting Bush's view, has moved to apply a heavy-handed, simplistic, bureaucratic solution to what is a very complex ethical problem -- a problem that begs for reflection. Unfortunately, as we have learned, reflection is a commodity in short supply in the White House.

Publication date: 10/28/04
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