The Guys Who Actually Did Advocate ‘Death Panel’ Health Care

It’s hard to believe now, given the proven effectiveness of Sarah Palin’s ridiculous claims about the Obama health care agenda, but there actually have been some politicians who really did support actual “death panels.”

It’s been a while since Richard Lamm, who served three terms as Colorado’s governor from 1975 to 1987, and John Silber, the longtime Boston University president who finally stepped down for good in 2003, have been in the news. But there was a time when both men openly courted the kind of controversy in which Obama—through no doing of his own—has lately found himself. 

It was in a speech about health care in 1984 that Lamm noted the high cost of all of the medicine and machinery that can artificially prolong life and spoke of a “duty to die.”

 “We've got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life," Lamm, then 48 years old, declared.

Not surprisingly, his words sparked a highly emotional national debate. Critics accused Lamm of horrific cruelty, while the governor countered that he just wanted to start a much-needed discussion about how long society has “a duty to keep people alive with artificial means.”

Unlike Obama, it was an argument that Lamm welcomed. In fact, it was only the latest in a string of blunt pronouncements that earned him the nickname “Governor Gloom.” Previously, he had suggested it was unwise to spend public money educating mentally retarded children “when after four or five years all they do is roll over” and argued against investing heavily in access to public facilities for the handicapped.

All of these controversies won Lamm a national reputation, but none more so than the “duty to die” line, with which his name has been inextricably linked since he uttered it 25 years ago.

After declining to seek a fourth term as governor in 1986, Lamm briefly toyed with seeking the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination before backing down and returning to Colorado. When Senator Tim Wirth decided to step down in 1992, Lamm entered the race to succeed him, but ended up losing the Democratic primary to Ben Nighthorse Campbell by 16 points. One factor: elderly voters who hadn’t forgiven or forgotten “duty to die.”

Lamm made one more comeback bid in 1996, foolishly taking Ross Perot’s bait and seeking the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. In reality, the Texas billionaire was just looking for a foil—someone to beat up at the Reform convention to create the appearance of strength and momentum.

Lamm’s brief return to the public eye was accompanied by countless news stories that played up his infamous line. He was going to lose to Perot no matter what, but this attention surely didn’t help, and when Lamm’s defeat was official, his political career was over.

And then there’s Silber, a culturally conservative Democrat, Kissinger buddy and transplanted Texan who took a leave from his B.U. post in 1990 to run for governor of Massachusetts. Like Lamm, Silber understood the value of blunt candor. He also couldn’t help himself, and his “Silber shockers” quickly came to dominate the campaign narrative.

Perhaps his most memorable shocker came just over a month before the Democratic primary, when Silber used a health care forum to embrace Medicaid rationing. Specifically, he called for cutting back services to the elderly so that more young people could be cared for. “When you’ve had a long life and you’re ripe,” Silber said, “then it’s time to go.”

“I wouldn't tell any 80-year-old that he shouldn't be allowed to have a heart transplant, but I would not have the slightest hesitation in telling an 80-year-old that I would not use the limited funds of the state of Massachusetts to provide you with a heart transplant,” he added.

Naturally, his opponents had a field day. “We don’t make those choices as a humane society,” Frank Bellotti, his chief Democratic rival, declared. “He thinks he’s running for God,” said Bill Weld, who was then seeking the Republican nomination.

The debate was purely academic, of course. Paying for surgery for the elderly was (and is) the purview of Medicare, a federal program, not Medicaid. And, anyway, there were no 80-year-olds anywhere who were receiving heart transplants.

But Silber sensed an opportunity in provoking the fight—and he was right. In an improbable upset, he erased a 23-point deficit to defeat Bellotti in the September primary. Interestingly, that triumph was keyed by the same kinds of people who today’s “death panel” scare is aimed at: culturally conservative blue collar voters who reflexively distrust “elitists” and their institutions.

Silber, who also said during the campaign that he wouldn’t deliver a speech in a predominantly black Boston neighborhood because it was filled with drug addicts, connected with these voters in part because of his “ripe” line. They saw fearlessness, honesty, and authenticity—especially in the face of condemnation from the “liberal” media. He only lost in November because culturally liberal voters, turned off by this same rhetoric, defected to Weld, who won by 4 points.

Both Silber, who flirted with the 1992 presidential race, and Lamm had White House aspirations. But neither of them ever came close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To listen to today’s health care debate about the perils of death panels, you’d never know it.

The Guys Who Actually Did Advocate ‘Death Panel’ Health Care