I just left a meeting at the Capitol with Alice from our D.C. office after a long day of meetings, speeches, and interviews. It was incredibly gracious of the House staffer to meet with us at the late hour, especially as the chaos around the Capitol swarmed with prep for the President’s speech to Congress tonight. It was like Fort Knox meets a rock concert around the Capitol with both the security guards and speech guests electrified in anticipation.
I had just checked my Facebook messages to discover that my friend who has been working the system to get me into the President’s speech said they had run out of seating in the Gallery, so no luck. I knew it was a long shot (U2 tickets are easier to get), and I appreciated her trying so hard, but I admit that I was disappointed. I begged off of a reception Alice was going to, and rushed into the nearest cab to whisk me away from the chaos.
“Was she a Congress person?,” he asked in a thick accent that took me a minute to parse.
“Oh, uh, no…no, that was my colleague from work.”
“Are you watching the speech tonight,” he asked.
“Oh yes, I wouldn’t miss it. I had hoped to go in person, and for a brief moment I thought I might get to just be in the room for it, but it didn’t work out,” I told him.
“You can come with me if you want. I have a place we’re going…some of us changed our shift to be able to see it,” he offered.
“Oh, wow, thank you. I probably will just get some takeout and watch from my hotel room,” I replied. Though I immediately wished I had said something else.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Ah, I wondered with your accent.”
He laughed and said, “My English is good. I am a citizen now, but can’t seem to shake the accent.” He turned onto Vermont Street, and I saw some signs that we were coming closer to my hotel.
“I just wrote a letter to President Obama about this country,” he told me matter-of-factly. “This was the second one I’ve sent. They replied to my first one for him.”
I told him to drive around my hotel a couple of times because I wanted to hear the story.
He continued: “I told the President that he has to tell the people to stop abusing their freedoms. Like freedom of speech. It is shameful the disrespect these radio talk hosts and all the people showed him and the office of the President. Just no respect. I was embarrassed for America to question his speech to the children. That is just insulting. Disrepectful. Disgusting. Just because your people—our people—have freedom of speech does not mean they should abuse it. They take it for granted. They shamefully use it. Disrepecting the President now means that everyone in the future will think it is okay to disrespect the President.”
I told him I agreed, and we each shared some of the silly rumors about the President, his student speech, and the healthcare bill that were going around. He then told me more about the letter.
“It was four paragraphs. Very long paragraphs. Because then I told the President that he should not let people abuse our freedoms—that he lived overseas and should remind everyone that Americans have the luxury of being able to complain about things. But I don’t think everyone should talk so much, that they shouldn’t be able to criticize everything unless they offer their own ideas. Just because speech is free doesn’t mean you have to use it,” he said.
We parked in front of my hotel, waving away passengers who were trying to get into my cab. “Keep on driving, I’ll pay,” I told him. He went on.
“This healthcare debate is important. Why are people being so awful to the President and to what he is trying to do? He is trying to give everyone healthcare—which we should all have anyway. Again…don’t yell at the President or each others unless you have something useful to say…an idea to share. That should be the new rule: speak only if you have ideas to offer. You can offer a criticism, but only if you replace it with a better idea of your own.”
He then proceeded to tell me—and I do not exaggerate here—incredibly rich details about what his concerns were about the public option (he was worried it would be a big, slow government bureaucracy that would cost too much and lead to long waiting lines) but also his frustrations with “HMOs and big insurance companies who are more concerned about profits than patients.” He continued his constant refrain: “don’t yell and scream against the President unless you have some better idea to offer.”
He had pulled into a side street next to my hotel by this point. And gone was my stress of the busy day, the disappointment from missing the speech in person, the worry that all my advocacy for home-based care was falling on deaf ears. He asked me if I had insurance, and I told him that I do, through my work. I told him how I had often made much of my career choices about where I could get good coverage, and he thought that made good sense.
I asked, “Do you have insurance?”
He came back with no bitterness: “Of course not. That’s why I told the President that I love him and what he is doing and to let me know if I could help.”
I was incredulous. “You told him that you love him?”
“Yes, of course,” came his reply.
“Wow, thank you for sharing your ideas and letter with me. I really appreciate your thoughts here.” My words felt inadequate, but they were all I had. The fare came up $8, and I went through 1000 permutations in my mind at that moment about whether or not it would be insulting to give him a big tip, or offer to take him to dinner, or ask him if I could go with him to see the speech, or would a big tip be seem as paternalistic, would it send the message that I assume all cab drivers are idiots and he is a nice exception, would it be insulting, or should I ask to follow up with him in some way, but then again, hey, what crazy cab rider starts asking the driver for his address or phone number….AGGGGHHH!
So I gave him a twenty and said, “Keep the change. You have inspired me with your idea and your letter. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with me.” It was the best I could come up with.
He gave me a huge smile, and said, “Thank you very much. You Americans who were born here need to remember to value the things you take for granted…like free speech and the ability to even argue safely about things like healthcare reform. Where I am from, we can get killed just for having a different idea, or talking about it. And we can’t even begin to imagine the luxuries that people here take for granted. Don’t abuse those gifts and the leaders who work to give them to you. Good luck.”
A woman rushed into his cab, he pulled away, and I just stood there dumbfounded, inspired, ashamed, and lots of other emotions.
So America, as you watch the speech tonight or listen to the interpreted soundbytes ad nauseum or read blogs abounding…I hope you’ll remember a few things. That those of us with the privilege of healthcare coverage only have so much to say on the matter. That those of us who have grown up with the freedom of speech are perhaps abusing it and cheapening it, as we hurl and consume headlines that stir up public sentiments against fictional monsters while the talk show pundits laugh all the way to the bank. That our freedom of speech is not to be squandered or used recklessly or superficially. And that perhaps the most important speeches to hear may not come from Presidents but from the wisdom of the crowds who are around us all of the time, if we would just notice them, and listen.
I’ve just finished my takeout. I’m sitting outside at the Corner of L and Vermont pilfering WiFi from a nearby cafe. This blog is posted without me even having proofread the darned thing. Because I’m about to rush upstairs to take off my tie and painful shoes. Let’s hear what the President has to say and give him, and the office he represents, the respect they deserve.
Comments are welcome. please post to: http://blogs.intel.com/healthcare/
NOTE: ERIC DISHMAN’S ‘HOME BLOG’ PAGE HAS MOVED TO: blogs.intel.com/healthcare.