Dear Congressman Goodlatte:

Picture 8My wife and I attended the Town Hall meeting you held yesterday in Lynchburg to air public concerns about healthcare and health coverage. We appreciated the chance to hear what you and our fellow citizens had to say. We were glad that this discussion was conducted civilly. This is an emotional issue, and an important issue. In a way, it’s a test of our democratic system: How good are we at solving a complicated problem like this – with economic, moral and political dimensions – when Washington opens up the process so fully to non-experts, semi-informed folks and the stirred-up mob?

I remain optimistic. I was encouraged to see the way that you articulated a point of view that, while more conservative than my own, is a perfectly reasonable one. You seem knowledgeable, sincere, and willing to speak the truth to people who have misconceptions about healthcare, on either side. For instance, to the woman who worried about bureaucrats pulling the plug on granny, you pointed out that the feared “death panels” is a myth and that you, in fact, support end-of-life directives and living will agreements arrived at between a patient and doctor (and presumably, covered by insurance, whether private or public). When another person expressed a fundamental distrust in the government having any role in healthcare whatsoever, you pointed out that your argument is not with the government having a role, but with the current House bill.

But beyond the relative civility of that town hall meeting, there is a distressing lack of truth-telling and calm consideration – something more like a seething hatred and fear that I sensed even there, though you did a good job of keeping it in check. I did not speak out, but I do have one plea to make. Please, help provide leadership for the people who are the most emotional and least informed. Instead of being a follower, because “people are afraid” or “people just don’t want bureaucrats taking away their choice in healthcare,” give them the information and perspective they need.

For instance, several people asserted that proposals to reform our healthcare system are “unconstitutional,” one lady even suggesting she’s ready to rise up in rebellion. You’re a lawyer; you went to W&L Law School (I happen to teach journalism at W&L). You know that these efforts are not unconstitutional. Article One, Section One of the Constitution clearly gives Congress legislative power. Please, the next time someone says this is unconstitutional (and you know well that such assertions are a flag for what Republican advisor Mark McKinnon calls the “right-wing nut balls” and “freaks”), call them out. This is NOT unconstitutional, except to the most extreme libertarian interpretation.  This is democracy at work.

A more subtle example. As I listened to your talk, something was bothering me about the way you talked about “the federal government.” When I was young, elected officials like you came to talk to us in our public schools. I remember them talking about “our government,” or “your government.” That made a huge impression on me. Now, many people talk about the government as if it were some evil, alien force.

Less extreme opponents of change have many good points to make. But I notice that their points are usually based on their own narrow experience and self-interest. Of course most people are satisfied with their current healthcare. But to provide leadership, you and our other elected officials (W&L graduates like Rep. Joe Wilson, especially) should be pointing out the problems that are systemic, even if those problems in the system hurt only a small minority. This takes moral vision.

To take my personal case: No one could be happier and more secure with health insurance. My wife and I are both on the faculty at W&L; I just got tenure; and our health insurance at W&L paid an unbelievable amount of money to cover our daughter Sarah’s treatment for bone cancer, then for therapy-related leukemia (including major lung surgery for metastatic nodules, and a bone marrow transplant out of state). Sarah seems to be in the clear now, is starting at Sewanee, and happy as can be, a beautiful and talented girl. This experience has profoundly changed my outlook about healthcare. I believe it is a human right – at least when it comes to life-saving treatments like Sarah got. I cannot understand how any American could be satisfied with the current system, where some families cannot protect their children as we did – because they can’t afford it. I thank God every day for Sarah’s life. But Sarah would probably not be alive today if, at several critical points, we had hesitated or taken less than the best options because of financial questions. Tell the people about this injustice.

And tell the people about the costs. Yes, the various proposals entail costs that are troubling. I appreciate your concern about the federal deficit, and I share it. But people are unaware of what the current system is costing them, because these costs are as hidden to them as are the cases of people who suffer because of lack of coverage, or denied claims.

At the beginning of your town hall meeting, you led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am deeply moved when I say this pledge. When I thought back about the narrowness of some people’s expressed views, it occurred to me that they are stopping in the Pledge with the word “liberty,” in a narrow sense of individual liberty. They do not seem to be reflecting on “justice,” and who this “liberty and justice” is for, not only “each” individual, but “for all.”


Doug Cumming

Note: If you want to write Congressman Goodlatte (R-Va.), too:

Representative Bob Goodlatte
2240 Rayburn HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515

Or write your own Congressman.

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press. His father, Joe Cumming, was the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine during the years of the Civil Rights movement.

  1. Doug,
    You make us homefolks proud. Say on, Doug Cumming, say on!
    Jonny Hibbert

  2. Austin McMurria

    A man
    a moderate
    a patriot
    a hero
    but above all, one who makes me proud to be human, hopefully of his ilk

    thanks Doug

  3. Nice to read an article that can stick to the facts versus interjecting their personnal opinions. I am proud to see W&L is still producing great lawyers and leaders.
    Please keep teaching the guiding principles that Robert E. Lee established for W&L.
    These are the principles which truely change how students live and act after graduation! We need more educators like you!

  4. Chrys B. Graham

    Thank you for your words and your thoughts, yet again. Well done, Doug.

  5. I hope that we have quality affordable health care for all by the time your daughter finishes college and comes out from under your health care plan. Otherwise, she likely will be considered uninsurable due to her pre-existing condition of being a cancer survivor. Having uninsurable adult children with pre-existing childhood health conditions (juvenile diabetes and epilepsy) is what galvanized Atlanta lawyer Kathie McClure to quit her law practice to criss-cross the nation in support of health care reform. Check our her journey at

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