Saturday, January 27, 2007

People with Real Problems who President Bush Did Not Point to in the Gallery during the State of the Union

Huffington Post
Steve Clemons
People with Real Problems who President Bush Did Not Point to in the Gallery during the State of the Union

I haven't posted a follow up piece on the broader parts of the President's State of the Union Address -- beyond this foreign policy essay -- and I haven't posted on Senator Chuck Hagel's impressive and courageous leadership on the Iraq War Resolution this week, as well as Senator Biden's leadership -- because I have just been seriously depressed and distracted by an encounter I had the night of the State of the Union speech.

We all have personal stories. We know people who are sick, who die, who need a helping hand. But in Washington, we deal with the macro-dimensions of policy and we rarely think about the individuals involved. That's why I don't think Barbara Boxer was out of line in any way at all by admitting that both she and Condi Rice were a step removed from the real costs and consequences of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the President does get to "point up at the gallery" in the Chamber of the House of Representatives on the night of the State of the Union address and point to heroes who did something significant and who can possibly inspire others. Hillary Clinton can pick names and questions from tens of thousands she received in her "Conversations with Americans" and "humanize" an interaction that is nonetheless symbolic and can't really be more than a macro-level encounter with the millions of people who have to consider voting for her or someone else.

But on the night of the President's State of the Union, I met a young man whose situation is probably like many Americans -- too many -- and whose story needs to be revealed and considered.

Like some the President noted Wednesday night, this young man really deserves to be pointed to in a gallery in the House of Representatives or Senate.

In fact, Speaker Pelosi or Senator Reid should invite this young man to sit in the Gallery during a Congressional Session -- and they should speak to him, recognize the burdens he is carrying on behalf of his family and how the environment for working families in this country is hell for some. His story is tragic, and yet this kid is a hero in my mind for what he is doing -- and someone, or many of us, should be trying to help him and others like him.

So, I'm going to point at the Gallery, my own gallery, for a moment -- and I hope that Speaker Pelosi or Majority Leader Reid consider my proposal about this guy and his situation, or others like him.

Until they do offer to invite him to the House or Senate, I am going to keep his identity concealed as far as the blog goes, but if they do want to do something extraordinary for an impressive person then I will reveal who he is in some way that does not damage his current work situation.

I do want people to help him.

I attended Wednesday night a quite splashy State of the Union pre-party sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly. One interesting thing I noticed about the attendees this year as opposed to earlier years is that the Republicans were there in force. John Boehner and Roy Blunt hovered a long time in the spectacular reception foyer of the Thomas Jefferson Building. Some Dems were there -- but last year, there were many more. An indication of change.

At 7:30 pm, Al Jazeera had arranged for me to be picked up by a town car and driven to their studio so that I could do an evening of political commentary, along with a Republican party strategist, on the State of the Union. But when I got outside, the Capitol had become like the Green Zone in Baghdad with a curfew.

Police were everywhere. There was absolutely no vehicle traffic around the entire Congressional complex, including the Capitol and all of the House and Senate office buildings. So, I had to walk from the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building to Louisiana and D Streets -- pretty far for a guy who had thrown his back over the weekend.

By the time I got there, a military or police guy dressed in black with an M-16 was seriously hassling the driver of the car I was supposed to get into -- and the fact that he was a 22 year old Afghan-American sent off a number of red flags that made the security folks think there was something was up. They searched him, made him open the trunk and searched the car as he waited for me -- but the guy tenaciously waited until I got there and then drove me to the studio at 16th & K.

I do a lot of TV work, more lately, and most of the studios -- CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera -- send town cars to drive their talking head talent to and from their offices or homes. I know many of the drivers, and most of them are middle-aged, know the city unbelievably well, and have an odd kind of confidence that comes from driving around people like James Woolsey, Mike Isikoff, Richard Perle and others and eavesdropping discreetly on their cell phone calls that they make in the car. These drivers know a lot -- and are great sources of interesting gossip.

This kid was new, and it was obvious. This is also the first time that he had had an encounter with an M-16 carrying Capitol policeman who didn't do anything inappropriate perhaps but who probably thought that a young, clean cut guy who has dark Middle Eastern/South Asian features parking a black town car near the Capitol on State of the Union night was exactly what he was trained to disrupt.

I talk to people -- all sorts of folks. It's how I learn things, particularly people who work on the periphery and sometimes right in the chambers of powerful political players. But I just wanted to calm this guy down and help him get me to the studio as I was already late.

I asked him questions -- and as I asked more, our exchange got quickly beyond the bland, impersonal banter of most town car talk. I want to emphasize that this young man did not set out to reveal his personal story to me. I want his employers to know -- in case they read this -- that he was the epitome of a professional. I pushed him, tactfully, to answer my line of questions -- some of which I sort of boldly put to him and which perhaps because of his youth and inexperience he answered honestly and without guile or shading.

This young man is a 22 year old American of Afghan descent, born and raised in Fairfax, Virginia. He is sharp-looking and personable, but innocent of politics and how the sharks and barracudas of Washington that he's driving around really operate.

He has been driving for just two months and has been logging 100 to 120 hours a week. He starts driving at about 11 am, or earlier and works until 4 am in the morning, every day of the week.

There are only 168 hours in a week, and I validated by drivers at the town car service today that he is in fact working the number of hours he reported.

What he is doing is unsustainable, and as I pressed him on why he seemed to be engaged in this desperate-sounding work pace, his voice quivered and told me that he had to support his family because his father and mother had both become ill.

He was the kind of guy who just doesn't talk much, but it was clear that he wasn't going to refuse to answer my questions -- and I pried, perhaps inappropriately.

His 43-year old father had male breast cancer which has now evolved into bone cancer. His father was some kind of techician or engineer, and his father had no health insurance. His mother also has some kind of throat ailment that he could not define for me very well, but she is also unable to work.

He has three younger sisters -- and after his father fell ill, this driver had to withdraw from the ITT Technical Institute where he was two semesters away from getting an MIS degree (Management Information Systems) in business technology. The college tried to work with him given the tragic nature of what has happened to his father and organize a morning set of course that he could work through at 8 am, but he could not do it because he was getting just no sleep.

Wow. This is the nicest young man you could imagine -- born in this county in an immigrant family that has worked hard to get ahead -- and like any family, or perhaps many families, something unexpected has torpedoes the family's ability to stay afloat. I felt that I could sense how close his family was because it was clear to me that this person was not yet street-smart, had been sheltered by close parents and family and now was just trying to figure out things in a world that was moving very fast, and in which he felt like he was losing his grip.

Knowing that the President was going to address health care issues that very night, I asked if his dad had gone right away to get treated when he knew he was ill with the first round of health care. He responded that his dad avoided going because he didn't have health care but that also tried at various times to go anyway -- and that the doctors didn't want to see him or treat him because he had no coverage.

He had no coverage. The doctors did not want to treat him.

The breast cancer worsened and I think (as I don't know health patterns of this sort well) metastasized into bone cancer.

The driver's father is now receiving some kind of chemotherapy, but to me -- the situation sounds bleak.

As he drove me down K Street, he said that he had driven a couple of people who knew about these health realities and asked them what he might do that he wasn't doing, and as he told me that a couple had said that the chances for his father were dim, and that his dad "probably wouldn't make it," tears welled up in this kid's eyes.

And then I had to go hear the President talk about health care and that he was going to create a new category of deductions for the poor to deduct some health insurance costs from their taxes:

And so tonight, I propose two new initiatives to help more Americans afford their own insurance. First, I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents.

Families with health insurance will pay no income on payroll tax -- or payroll taxes on $15,000 of their income. Single Americans with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $7,500 of their income. With this reform, more than 100 million men, women, and children who are now covered by employer-provided insurance will benefit from lower tax bills.

At the same time, this reform will level the playing field for those who do not get health insurance through their job. For Americans who now purchase health insurance on their own, this proposal would mean a substantial tax savings -- $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach. Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making health care affordable for more Americans. (Applause.)

My second proposal is to help the states that are coming up with innovative ways to cover the uninsured. States that make basic private health insurance available to all their citizens should receive federal funds to help them provide this coverage to the poor and the sick. I have asked the Secretary of Health and Human Services to work with Congress to take existing federal funds and use them to create "Affordable Choices" grants. These grants would give our nation's governors more money and more flexibility to get private health insurance to those most in need.

I'm not going to take a pot shot at the President's plan and say that it's just not fixing the problems of the guy I met Wednesday night. The President or anyone working at the highest level of political discourse in health care can't get lost in the weeds of individual problems.

But i was hearing and looking at a weed that just needs some kind of attention.

And when I heard the President point into the Gallery -- as all Presidents do -- to salute a guy who risked his life for someone in the New York subway, or made a lot of money as an entrepreneur working in child education products, or threw himself into harm's way in a gun fight to protect someone and kept fighting despite some serious wounds -- I think that this young town car driver I met is just as much a hero in trying to take on something at 22 years of age -- no degree -- and work an insane number of hours that very few of us watching the President or sitting in the Congressional Chamber or enjoying our crab dip and pork fiesta at the State of the Union/Atlantic Monthly pre-party gala could handle.

This kid needs help or he's going to collapse. And there are no doubt many others out there like him who need help too. We have to get health care realities changed in this country -- and what the President suggests just does not do it. But I'll leave that policy debate for another day.

This kid needs a break from someone with resources. He needs to finish his last two semesters at ITT and to do that he either needs an offset from a job that is more rational that helps him pay the costs for his family and allow the school to again put together the arrangement so that he can both manage work and his courses.

He is not well-trained, and he doesn't have much experience -- but he really does need to be given a chance by someone. Interview him if you are in the area and you have something a sharp, young guy without a degree but who seems hard-working, dependable and trainable might be able to do.

Another way to help him for those well-heeled types who are constantly in town cars in Washington, DC is to request his car which is encouraged. I will convey his "driver number" and the name of the car to credible people who contact me via email if they wish to help him. The drivers of these cars receive about 30% of the income and the limo service from which they rent the cars for their shifts take about 70%. Just something to know about.

My email address is

Another way to help this kid is to contribute to him. I don't know any slick ways to do that. But people can send him checks if they like -- and I would be happy to provide contact information so that can be done. This would not be a deductible charity. It's just helping someone out with some funds to offset his time so that he can finish his school.

There is no way that this young man can make his situation work the way he is going.

Folks can send money to "The Washington Note/Qaiss Fund" if you like at:

The Washington Note 1630 Connecticut Avenue, NW, 7th Floor Washington, DC 20009

I will then just transfer these funds to him. And I guess paypal can work as well -- but I would need donors to specify in their paypal request that the donation was intended for this young man and his family. Just label it "Qaiss".

I rarely do this. It feels awkward now. I'm going to post this in a couple of places including my own blog, Huffington Post, and TPM Cafe.

And as I said, I know this is long, rambling, and a "pointing at the Gallery" exercise. But this guy -- and others -- deserve to be pointed to and supported. I really was inspired by this young man's commitment to his family and his selflessness.

What I know though is that he just can't survive his situation he's in, and he and his family will be in even worse dire circumstances than they are now when he collapses.

And at the root of this is a family who has and had no health care. Just like millions of others, and increasingly more each year.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note