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He [Harold Ross] was reminded of a pleasant afternoon that the two of them [Ross and Mrs. Roosevelt] had spent a few years earlier, talking for hours as they rode along in Mrs. Roosevelt’s sedan. At one point the former First Lady suddenly allowed as how “old people ought to be bumped off when their usefulness is done.” . . . [H]er remark took Ross by surprise. “I mildly raised the question of who would make the decision as to when the moment had come,” he recalled,” and she didn’t have a ready answer for that. —Thomas Kunkel, Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker (1995)
This brief scene from Kunkel’s biography of Harold Ross captures in miniature the whole story of progressivism in America.
Let’s have Eleanor Roosevelt represent the progressives, those in government imposing progressivism by the power of government and the ones outside of government cheering on the progressive project. She is perfect for that role. Ross, then, makes an interesting choice to represent the rest of us. Like many Americans who overcame impossible odds to achieve much in life—one thinks of Lincoln, Grant, Edison, many others—he does not look the part (he’s a “genius in disguise”). And as with many ordinary Americans, he was not greatly interested in politics; he always resented how the horrors of the 20th century kept interfering with his vision of a magazine dedicated to great writing and sophisticated humor.
Now that we have our characters in place, what is the action in our little drama? One person in that sedan understood where progressives were taking America; the one who was along for the ride did not. The progressives always knew where they were taking us; the rest of us keep being “surprised.”
That Roosevelt did not have “a ready answer” to Ross’s common sense question did not mean she did not know who would “make the decision.” She knew. The time was not yet ripe for answering that question. As a beloved teacher and friend of mine liked to say, “You have to work up to a thing like that.”
Much would have to be accomplished and much would have to be undone before progressives could begin openly insisting on the need for death panels. Gaining complete control of health care, they knew, would give them the key. They understood that to get in position to bump off the old folks “when their usefulness is done” they would have to realize their dream of socialized medicine. Once there is no alternative to government health care, the problem of exploding costs will give the progressives the opportunity to get grimly serious about the “regrettable but necessary” steps required to reduce spending on old people, if you know what I mean.
Fortunately for Ross, he died before his companion on that drive and her friends could get the death panels up and running, though you have to admit they have been making fantastic progress in their project of killing inconvenient babies. If many Americans were surprised when Democrats recently came out in favor of infanticide, it only means that—like Ross and too many of us—they have been enjoying the ride without paying much attention to where it is going.
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