Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died April 8 in London at the age of 87, was often quoted as saying, "No one would have heard of the good Samaritan if he hadn't been rich."
The actual quote, given in a January 1980 television interview at No. 10 Downing St., was slightly more nuanced.
After Thatcher agreed with the journalist that her program would create more economic inequality, she argued that it also would create more wealth overall and that everyone would benefit. "No one would remember the good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money, as well," she said.
(Of course, no one would remember the good Samaritan if he had not been an exception — that's why he was the focus of the parable — and it's hard to base a societal model on the citizen who is the exception.)
Give her credit for having convictions. Margaret Thatcher was an unflinching political fighter who believed that government efforts to support the poor and working classes were stifling economic growth, and she set out to undo them.
As Thatcher exited the world stage, Bill Clinton entered. He became president on a different vision. At the 1991 Democratic Leadership Council conference in Cleveland, he offered "a new choice, rooted in old values ... that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsive government — all because we recognize that we are a community. We are all in this together, and we are going up or down together."
About a year later, when Clinton had been nominated as the Democratic candidate for president and I was working in the office of Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, I took a call from an angry constituent.
She ripped into the congressman for co-sponsoring a bill for universal health insurance, something Clinton also was promoting in his presidential campaign. Before she hung up, she shouted, "I'm not paying for lazy people to have health care!"
Clearly, the idea that "we are a community" — that "we are all in this together, and we are going up or down together" — struck this voter as a hostile ideology, both a threat and a taunt.
I don't know what her family circumstances were. I suspect she wasn't rich. She may have been economically comfortable by some measure but probably didn't feel comfortable. If we had talked longer and more openly, I suspect she might have told me something like this:
"My husband and I work hard to make what we can and buy what we need, and we save the rest. We are not rich and probably won't ever be. But we're never going to quit working and depend on the government to take care of us. If it's true that we're going up or down together, then we're going down — because there is no way we're going to lift all those people up. We've been trying that for years, and it's never worked. It never will work, so I want out of the deal. I can't take care of myself and my family and those people, too."
It's hard to say how many of the people who opposed Clinton's health care plan or Barack Obama's did so for those reasons. But I suspect it's not a small percentage of the opposition. And it suggests a challenge for the United States.
During her time as prime minister, Thatcher sold off state-owned industries, shifted jobs to the private sector and sold a million units of public housing to the people who lived in them. She made deep cuts in public spending and cut the power of trade unions. But she never tried to dismantle Britain's National Health Service, which offers every Briton free access to health care as a right of citizenship. Instead, Thatcher declared, "The NHS is safe in our hands."
Was that because Britons believed that the system worked and they didn't want the government to take away something they liked? Or was it also partly because Britons have a feeling of community that Americans do not — a feeling that "we are all in this together" and that no citizen should be denied a doctor because she doesn't have the money in her pocket to pay for it.
If a feeling of community played a role in Britain's strong defense of the NHS, then it raises questions for the United States: Can a country prosper if its people have little sense of community? And is there any way to restore a sense of community once it's lost?
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.