When he ran for president the first time, in 2008, Barack Obama appeared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars to assure them that he felt their pain (though probably not in the same places). He said he would fix what was wrong at the Veterans Administration, put an end to long lines and improve the quality of the care veterans deserve. He gave it a nice Washington name, “comprehensive reform.”
But soon the campaign was over and “comprehensive reform,” as it usually is, was shoved down the memory hole. The VA, dysfunctional for decades, continued to spiral downward, and in 2014 several veterans’ hospitals were discovered to be solving the problem by cooking the books. America’s fighting men were discovered dying while waiting for care they had earned, and then some.
President Obama sacked the administrator of the VA and appointed Robert McDonald to fix things with more of that elusive comprehensive reform. Under pressure to deliver more than more talk, in a fit of frustration Mr. McDonald said waiting in line was not so bad, and compared waiting in line at a Veterans Hospital to waiting in line for the ride with Mickey Mouse at Disney World, where, truth to tell, the lines were considerably shorter.
Mr. McDonald and his bureaucracy asked for, and got, more money. He didn’t use it to hire more doctors and nurses, but to hire more lawyers and public-relations flacks. Hundreds more of them, not to improve service to veterans but to improve the bureaucracy’s public image. The VA now spends more on public relations and image building than all but three other federal agencies.
While many in Congress and the VA’s own inspector general suggest that the situation is worse, not better, this year than last, Mr. McDonald proved one thing — public-relations flackery works. The lines are as long as ever, but the flackery has improved, in volume if not in persuasive power.
Hillary Clinton cautioned MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow months ago not to be “overly concerned” about the complaints. The scandal, she said, was “overblown” by critics of the Obama administration and of course “congressional Republicans.” She had been assured that “it’s not as widespread as it has been made out to be.” If a bureaucrat says everything is OK, why listen to the veterans? Besides, none of the veterans who died waiting for help have complained. Doesn’t that make everyone feel better?
But just to make sure that the public, if not the veterans, will be satisfied with her “concern,” Hillary has another solution. It’s called “comprehensive reform.” Donald Trump has a plan, too. One of the candidates will be elected, with the power to make a plan work.
The veterans are not yet impressed. They’ve heard verse after verse of this old song. Until a president cleans house at the Veterans Administration, sacking career bureaucrats who are more comfortable with flacks and lawyers than with the doctors and nurses needed to fix things, the veterans will have to be satisfied with another verse or two of comprehensive flackery.
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