It was the most expensive campaign ever launched, but opponents were determined to defeat the president's health care reform plan.
"Would socialized medicine lead to socialization of other phases of American life?" began one of the pitches used in a massive advertising and lobbying effort. "Lenin thought so. He declared: 'Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the Socialized State.'"
That may sound like it was ripped from today's headlines — or at least, the debut this week of Fox News' latest talking head, Dr. Ben Carson.
But although the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon has been using the last sentence of that quote to trash Obamacare, it dates back more than 60 years — from a pamphlet circulated in opposition to another president, Harry Truman, and his own attempt to expand health care coverage.
Some things really never change. Not only is the same red-scare flag being waved today, there's this: Neither then or now, no one seems to have evidence that such a bon mot ever passed Lenin's lips.
"It was a completely made-up quote," Princeton sociologist Paul Starr tells me.
Starr is the author of the 1983 book "The Social Transformation of American Medicine," which won the Pulitzer Prize and a host of other accolades as the definitive history of the country's health care system.
He is also a founder of the American Prospect, a proudly liberal political magazine, which I suppose will give some the license they want to dismiss what he has to say — a skepticism that funnily enough vanishes when it comes to anything from the other end of the spectrum.
In any event, Starr's book details how the American Medical Association went full throttle against Truman, charging its members $25 each for a $1.5 million lobbying campaign against his call for a national health insurance system for everyone — what we now would call a single-payer plan, or basically, Medicare for all ages.
Creeping socialism was a pretty convincing argument in the Cold War years, and the AMA's political consultants organized meetings and put out pamphlets using the alleged Lenin quote.
But as Starr notes in his book, "The Library of Congress could not locate this quotation in Lenin's writings."
I reached out to David Walters, an administrator of an online Lenin archive, to see if he might find have better luck, but he too came up empty.
The closest Walters could get to approximating the sentiment if not the words of the Lenin quote comes from a 1919 party conference in which the leader said hunger, a lack of soap or fuel and "lice that carry typhus" could "prevent our tackling any sort of socialist development."
Walters, who also directs the Holt Labor Library, said it would be out of character for Lenin to say, first we socialize medicine and then everything else. Rather, he advocated seizing governmental power first and then enacting wholesale socialist reforms, Walters said.
Similarly, Mark G. Field, a leading expert on Soviet socialized medicine and professor emeritus at Boston University, has written that the notion of socialized medicine as "a first wedge for the introduction of socialism … had as much logic as arguing that firehouses cause fires."
Field said when I called him that he had "very great doubts" about the validity of the Lenin quote.
"Lenin had more important areas to worry about," said Field, an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. "The priority for Lenin was industrialization and the ability to produce weapons of defense and attack."
I tried to reach Carson through his publicist to ask his source for the Lenin quote, which he used Wednesday on Fox's "The Kelly File" and repeated Friday at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. (There, Carson also said Obamacare was slavery.) I didn't hear back from the publicist, but the Lenin quote can be found on multiple conservative, anti-Obama websites.
On Fox, Carson expanded on the quote by saying, "In other words, you've got to get the socialized medicine as the foundation, because it gives you control of the people. Once you get control of the people, you can do what you want."
Despite its fuzzy origins, the Lenin quote has persisted because it fits "the right-wing mythology," Starr said.
"It really is representative of a larger mythology that the American conservatives have come to believe in," he said, "this idea that by providing a means for everyone to get health insurance is to undermine freedom. It's crazy."
He notes that even if Lenin had said or believed this "keystone" theory, the quote still makes no sense in the current context: "What's being offered isn't socialism," Starr said. "It's private insurance that's offered in the health care exchanges."
And in fact, said Walters, when anyone claims Obama is a socialist, it is the latter who is insulted.
"None of us would ever associate our politics with his, which are designed to save capitalism," Walters said, "not bury it."
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