Dick Cheney came to the Nixon Library this week to talk about his new book, Heart—it’s about his five heart attacks and his heart transplant. When our most hated vice president visits the library of our most disgraced president, you look forward to a good night. So my friend Howard and I went to Yorba Linda, expecting a festive evening of Obama-bashing and a twisted trip back through the glories of the Bush years.
It turned out to be mostly a book event. Signed copies were for sale; Cheney did a Q&A about his book and took a few friendly questions. But the evening ended up as it had to: with Obamacare.
The news of Cheney’s heart transplant, in March 2012, had been welcomed by comedians everywhere. Jon Stewart declared it “the greatest joke setup ever.” Jay Leno had the best line: “This weekend, 71-year-old former Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant. And I thought this was nice: they let him shoot the donor himself.”
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart acted out the transplant surgery with himself as the surgeon; the old heart leapt out of Cheney’s chest and bit the terrified surgeon on the neck.
David Letterman said, “Finally all of those midnight trips to the graveyard with the hunchbacked assistant have paid off.”
Joan Rivers summed it up: “Rather surprised Dick Cheney got a heart, after lasting all these years without one.”
The Cheney event was held in the Nixon Library’s “East Room,” an exact replica of the room in the White House, with giant chandeliers, ornate wainscoting and a dozen flags in a row—except that the Yorba Linda version had two giant video screens so the audience of several hundred could see Cheney. The Q&A, conduced by Frank Gannon, a former Nixon assistant, was surprisingly lighthearted, given the somber subject of the book. Gannon’s list of questions couldn’t have been simpler: Tell us about your first heart attack—you were 37. Now tell us about your second.
Howard whispered to me, “It’s the organ recital.” He was referring to the old Jewish joke about the dinner table conversation of the aunts and uncles: “My liver isn’t doing so well,” “My kidneys hurt,” “I have angina.”
“Your third heart attack was my favorite,” Gannon said. It happened on the way into the House chamber in the Capitol to hear Reagan’s 1988 State of the Union speech. “I passed out,” Cheney said, and collapsed onto the floor. His press aide, who was with him, told him afterwards that “several of my colleagues, on their way to the speech, stepped over my body,” and kept going. As he told the story, Cheney chuckled. Those darn Congressmen.
After describing his heart transplant, Cheney thanked his doctor, who is his co-author, and the donor, who is anonymous. Howard whispered, “Notice that he didn’t thank God?”
The only question that got a big, excited response from the audience was, “Can you comment on Obamacare?” What was most significant in Cheney’s answer was what he did not say—the things said by right-wing media at the time of his transplant. The New York Post for example had run the headline, “Beware Obamacare: It might’ve killed Cheney.” The argument was that those dreaded “death panels” would have ruled that Cheney was too old—he was 71—and he would, therefore, have been denied a transplant. Breitbart.com said Obamacare required looking at cases like Cheney’s “as an avenue toward survival of the fittest.” The blog RedState declared, “A Poorer Man Than Dick Cheney Might’ve Died if ObamaCare was in Full Effect”—because of those death panels.
But as Gawker.com pointed out, pre-Obamacare transplant ethics already required that the age and future health of potential recipients be considered.
Cheney’s answer to the question about Obamacare was limited to a criticism about the tax on medical devices: “It really worries me,” he said, since stents had kept him alive for years. “I can’t think of a worse notion. If you want less of something, tax it”—an argument that the device tax will stifle innovation. Obama replies that all the industries that gain a windfall from the expansion of medical coverage should be taxed to help offset the cost of that expansion. But thirty Senate Democrats have called for the repeal of the device tax, including Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, which happens to be the home of Medtronic, one of the country’s largest device manufacturers.
In any case it’s a tiny part of Obamacare, significant primarily as a Republican talking point.
Cheney had only one other argument against Obamacare: “A lot of Americans aren’t going to have the ability to go with one doctor”—which, he said, was the key to his successful treatment. Therefore, he concluded, Obamacare is “a bad idea; if I had my druthers, I’d repeal it.” This won lots of applause. My friend Howard said, “But 50 million Americans have no doctor at all, and they will get one under Obamacare.”
The hour came to an end. The audience applauded warmly; Cheney grinned and waved goodbye, and we headed up the freeway, back to liberal L.A.