Once upon a time in America, a select group of people were invited to depend on the federal government for medical treatment for vaguely described but serious symptoms. These people were not in the best of health to start with, and they trusted the good faith and truthfulness of their solicitors. History told them the federal government was on their side. Several hundred signed up. And, indeed, they did receive some kinds of medical care -- in many instances more than they otherwise would have -- plus hot meals.
When this started in 1932, the government withheld a key fact: The new "patients" had syphilis, and the program they entered was designed, not to cure it, but simply to track its progression, which would be examined in autopsies. These goals did not change after penicillin was shown to be an effective cure in 1947. The "patients" (actually subjects) were never told about penicillin. Deceit was not a barrier in administering this program; indeed it was essential to its administration.
When the Tuskegee experiment on black sharecroppers ended in 1972, 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis. To my knowledge, no one ever went to jail for it -- a national disgrace.
Today, from the head of the federal government, the Commander-in-Chief, the man who wears compassion on his sleeve, do we hear an echo? Well, actually, we don't hear much of anything but tardy, forced, standard-issue indignation, although occasionally we get Veterans Administration updates from the ever-chipper Jay Carney.
What has been going on with the VA -- its fabricated waiting lists, its lies to those to whom it owed care and to their families, and its "die-on-the-wait-list" outcome for dozens if not hundreds of servicemen -- all that has significant differences from the Tuskegee scandal. The problem, of course, is the similarities. One of them is that, to the federal government as presently administered, a certain class of people just don't matter.
Some in the class, of course, do matter. One of them would be espionage artist Pvt. Bradley/Chelsea Manning, to whom hugely expensive transgender services are apparently being rushed. Indeed, as waiting lists for desperately needed care for patriotic veterans are being finagled, the head of the Defense Department occupies himself in TV interviews telling us that the military should review -- ready now? -- its policy on the transgendered.
What is his idea -- what is this Administration's idea -- of what's important?
We don't know yet the full extent of this VA scandal, not in any way. We don't know how many VA hospitals were jiving veterans seeking care. We don't know how many waits lists were manipulated or simply fabricated in order to delay or deny care. We don't know anything close to all the number of diseases or injuries that went untreated or undertreated until irretrievable damage was done, or until it was just too late. We don't know how many veterans died. The report out of the Phoenix VA hospital had the number at up to 40, but it's not clear that it will stay that low once this matter is seriously investigated (if it ever is). We don't know how many more facilities will turn out to have been involved, although more seem to turn up every day. It's some comfort, I guess, that at least the Department of Justice is looking into it.
Lastly, for now, one cannot help but hear in the background Attorney General Holder's call for a more brutally honest discussion of race, and his condemnation of the American people as cowards for failing to take it on foursquare.
OK, let's say some unpleasant things about race -- unpleasant but true. Our military veterans are 79.6% white, as are (we can assume) the people to whom medical service was denied. What would happen if, say, President Bush had presided -- and knowingly presided from the day he took office -- over a federal program that, through cheating and fabrication, denied legally-due medical treatment to a population that was nearly 80% black? And if all those years of willful indifference resulted in massive, needless suffering and dozens or perhaps hundreds of deaths?
We all know what would have happened. It would have been Bush's Tuskegee.
This is Obama's.
UPDATE: Hat-tip to reader TarlsQtr for passing along this gem from Charles Krauthammer's summary of Obama's response to the scandal: "I just found out about it from the press and have been working on the problem for six years."