POLITICS OCTOBER 5, 2009
On an ordinary day, Henry Aaron, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, comes across as the quintessential policy wonk: knowledgeable, thoughtful, measured, perhaps even a tad boring. With his rumpled suits, snowy hair, and rosy jowls, the genial septuagenarian brings to mind one's favorite uncle--assuming that uncle had spent the past 40 years exploring tax policy, health care financing, and the intricacies of sprawling entitlement programs. He is, in short, not the kind of guy you'd expect, in his opening statement in a debate on health care reform held before the National Association of State Comprehensive Health Insurance Plans, to launch an extended, blistering, ad hominem attack on his opponent.
But this mid-September afternoon holds no ordinary encounter, and the object of Aaron's broadside is no ordinary adversary. A few feet from his maroon-flocked podium sits Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York, former fellow with the conservative Hudson Institute, and longtime scourge of health care reform. A constitutional scholar by training, McCaughey (pronounced "McCoy") blazed to fame in 1994 as the person who drove a stake through the heart of Hillarycare, with a detailed (and, as it turned out, false) takedown of the plan published in this very magazine. Fifteen years later, she has reemerged for an encore, penning op-eds and making the TV and radio rounds to issue apocalyptic warnings about the horrors lurking in the fine print of Obamacare. Pick an inflammatory, misleading rumor that has sprung up in this debate, and chances are McCaughey had a hand in springing it. She has, for instance, warned that a provision buried in the stimulus bill will soon have computers dictating doctors' treatment of patients based on government protocols. More notably, she sounded the (false) alarm that the White House aims to ration care based on patients' value to society--an idea that swiftly morphed into the "death panel" hysteria and then quickly became entangled in McCaughey's equally outrageous claim that the proposed reforms would force seniors into regular chats with their doctors about how to end their lives. That such claims are untrue in no way dims McCaughey's zeal. Confronted with conflicting information, she plows ahead with her unique interpretation of reality, leaving critics on both the left and the right nonplussed. One's only options, they say, are to ignore her and hope that she fades away-- or to go negative in the hope of discrediting her.
So it is that Aaron finds himself standing in the Crystal Ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Virginia, running through PowerPoint slides that detail--quote by excruciating quote--McCaughey's reputation as among the most irresponsible, dishonest, and destructive players on the public stage. He starts with Politifact.com's categorization of her commentary as "Pants on Fire," followed by New York Times articles debunking her assertions, followed by complaints from economist Gail Wilensky (adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign and head of Medicare financing under the first President Bush) that "these charges of death panels, euthanasia and withholding care from the disabled give rational, knowledgeable, thoughtful conservatives a bad name." Next comes a denunciation of McCaughey's "fraudulent scare tactics" by John Paris, professor of bioethics at Boston College; AARP executive vice president John Rother's protest that her statements are "rife with gross--even cruel--distortions"; a scolding editorial by The Washington Post about McCaughey's characterization of White House health policy adviser Ezekiel "Zeke" Emanuel as "Dr. Death"; and, to wrap it all up, Stuart Butler, vice president of domestic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, expressing dismay that the "personal attacks on good people like Zeke are outrageous. There are real policy issues that should be debated vigorously, but slandering a good person's name is beyond the pale." At one point, the debate moderator felt moved to reach over and give McCaughey's hand a comforting pat. She dipped her chin and stuck out her bottom lip in good-humored appreciation.
What kind of person drives normally staid wonks, including her own ideological teammates, to such stinging public reproof? Part of it is obviously the nature of her commentary. But beyond that, there is something about McCaughey herself that drives her critics wild--and has throughout much of her career. Friends posit it's her disconcerting blend of brains, beauty, and confidence. Detractors chalk it up to her rank dishonesty, narcissism, and lack of shame. Whatever the cause, the passion McCaughey inflames is familiar. Looking over the sweep of McCaughey's life, from her swift political rise (and fall) to her humble roots, from her straight-talking persona, fierce will, and blinding confidence to her gift for self-dramatization, head-turning looks, and embrace of the gender card, one sees precursors of a more recent conservative phenom. Replace the East Coast researcher's political-outsider, stats-wielding, pointy-head shtick with a political-outsider, gun-toting, populist one, and a striking parallel emerges: Betsy McCaughey is, in essence, the blue-state Sarah Palin.
Blonde, wide-eyed, and smiley, McCaughey doesn't look much like a formidable political brawler. A well-tended 60, she still has a penchant for short, high-slit skirts, revealing blouses, and spike heels--all on display at her afternoon debate with Aaron--which give the impression less of poised-to-kill tiger than on-the-prowl cougar. Prone to sitting with her mouth slightly open, as though she can't take in quite enough air through her pert nose, and every now and again flashing a grin that seems more involuntary tic than deliberate response to anything occurring around her, McCaughey radiates aggressive optimism mixed with spaciness and just a dash of vulnerability.
But McCaughey is no powder puff. She clawed her way up from a troubled, blue-collar background that makes Palin look like a spoiled debutante by comparison. Born Elizabeth Helen Peterken in Pittsburgh, Betsy spent most of her youth in Westport, Connecticut, along with her twin brother, William. Her mother was an alcoholic who died of liver disease at age 42 (a year after Betsy graduated from college), and her father was a maintenance worker in a factory that made nail clippers. Over the years, McCaughey (who opted to respond to my inquiries via e-mail) has been vague about her early life, making occasional reference to some not-so-pleasant memories. She says her lean upbringing helped her understand what it's like to struggle for basic needs like health care (which her family could not afford, she points out). Longtime friend Brondi Borer says it also instilled in her a fearlessness and a fierce work ethic. "The way she got everything she got was by working hard and being smart and having to be better than [those around her]," Borer says. "Nothing came easily to her when she was growing up." A competitive and conscientious student, McCaughey won a scholarship to a boarding school in Massachusetts for her last two years of high school, followed by a scholarship to Vassar. From there, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Columbia. But McCaughey was well aware that a fine education wasn't her only shot at a better lifestyle. She once quipped to the Albany Times Union that, while at Vassar, she only dated Yalies. In 1972, she married one, Thomas McCaughey, an aspiring investment banker with whom she had three daughters. For the next 20 years, as her husband conquered Wall Street, Betsy dabbled in a number of careers (writing books, lecturing at her alma maters, guest curating at a local museum--at one point, she even toyed with becoming a TV reporter). But, in 1992, she and Thomas split, and Betsy found herself cast out of her comfortable role as Park Avenue wife.
With the help of a friend on the board of the Manhattan Institute, Betsy landed a fellowship at the conservative think tank, with a mandate to write about electoral reform and the legal system. Instead, in early 1994, she published a scathing vivisection of the Clinton health care plan in The New Republic. Touting her academic experience, McCaughey painted herself as a dispassionate truth-seeker who felt an obligation to read the entire 1,342-page bill (something few lawmakers were willing to do) and flag its malignancies for the rest of us. To emphasize how judicious her research was, McCaughey sprinkled her article with page numbers, directing readers to the exact subsections and footnotes of the text on which her criticisms were based. But, while McCaughey's reading may have been uncommonly thorough, it was also fundamentally incorrect--or grossly dishonest, depending on your view of her (and of a recent Rolling Stone article exposing her consultations with Big Tobacco during the writing). One of her most resonant claims, that the bill would bar people from paying their doctors for care beyond what the government plan covered, was utter bunk. And the analysis went downhill from there, as tnr staffers, among others, later detailed. ("The force of her articles derived from her claim that there was ‘no exit' from [Clinton's] mandatory insurance plans. She was wrong," Mickey Kaus wrote the following year.) By the time such misinformation was dismantled, however, it was too late. Prominent reform opponents from Senator Bob Dole to columnist George Will ran with her claims, and Betsy soon found herself the new darling of the GOP. From the ashes of Hillarycare a political star was born.
Long before Palin was hauled in from Wasilla to save John McCain's presidential bacon, McCaughey was shuffled from academic obscurity into the political big leagues to help conservative gubernatorial candidate George Pataki woo the moderate female voters of New York. Like Palin, McCaughey was essentially unknown to the head of her ticket. Her Hillarycare piece had caught the eye of then–New York kingmaker Senator Al D'Amato, who--comparing her to Jeane Kirkpatrick--delivered her to Pataki as a pretty political ingénue with policy cred.
McCaughey survived the campaign well enough. She has an enthusiastic, almost motivational speaking style and clearly enjoys the spotlight. Celebrated for both her brains and beauty, she was declared a brave new model of feminist pol. (A glam-shot photo spread in Vanity Fair set the GOP abuzz, while the New York Post cheered her for having "Henry Kissinger's brains and Jessica Rabbit's body.") Even some of her academic quirkiness--her love of raw data and obsession with pie charts--conveyed a not-politics-as-usual freshness. Admittedly, there were bumps of the sort former Governor Palin could sympathize with: Anonymous Pataki staffers dropped quotes about the newbie candidate being unusually self-absorbed, and her frequent clashes with the veteran Pataki aide assigned to help her adjust to campaign life were downright operatic. (During one battle, McCaughey had her campaign van pull over on the side of a highway as she shrieked at the aide to get out.) But the fantasy didn't seriously unravel until after she and Pataki won.
From the get-go, it was clear McCaughey had no intention of fading into the background like most lieutenant governors. Even before taking office, she used her own money to hire a publicist to boost her profile. Seizing her role as resident policy expert a little too vigorously, McCaughey began inundating the governor with policy papers. When Pataki tried to brush her back ("I'm the quarterback of this team," he once growled), McCaughey began going off the reservation, issuing unauthorized reports and press releases and publicly contradicting various administration positions. Some early missteps could be written off as inexperience, such as when she voiced her pro-choice views at the state Conservative Party's convention. Others smacked of naked, if perplexing, self-promotion. Most famously, she chose to remain standing during the full hour of Pataki's 1996 State of the State address, her face hovering over him in all of the camera shots.
After that, things really got nasty. Pataki aides and other party leaders slammed McCaughey as a disloyal, self-promoting, "unstable," "paranoid" "ditz." (Pataki's chief spokesperson, Zenia Mucha, was an especially harsh detractor, once musing, "How do you describe someone who is too bizarre to describe?") The governor stopped including his lieutenant in meetings--or talking with her about much of anything. For several weeks, he pulled McCaughey's police protection following allegations that she had been using her troopers as errand boys. The state GOP chairman publicly attacked her; she got into a radio smackdown with the state parks commissioner; and, for a time, party leaders refused to make her a delegate to the 1996 Republican National Convention.
Whatever the roots of the feud, McCaughey's self-dramatizing, often erratic reaction to it furrowed brows. She took to the radio to denounce Pataki's people of "McCarthyism" for questioning her loyalty. She accused the governor of instructing the trooper assigned to drive her to intentionally make her late for an official event. (Not long thereafter, McCaughey's press secretary quit, claiming she had been asked to lie in support of McCaughey's story. McCaughey offered to take a polygraph test to prove her claims.) She even suggested to the press that her children might become targets of her political enemies. Upset over her exclusion from the Republican convention, she made plans to attend as a correspondent for a local radio station. Word on the street was that she had begun meeting with Democratic consultants and was considering switching parties to challenge D'Amato for his Senate seat. In an unrelated episode, but one that fed her eccentric image, when McCaughey's housekeeper accused her of harassment and of failure to pay taxes on the woman's wages, the lieutenant governor called a press conference to deny all charges, during which she dramatically slammed $1.44 down in front of the cameras and declared it the sum total of what she owed the state labor department.
Few were surprised when Pataki dropped McCaughey from his reelection ticket in April 1997. By year's end, she had become a Democrat (grandly invoking Winston Churchill--"I'd rather change parties than change my principles"--to explain the shift) and launched her own bid for governor. The maneuver discombobulated both parties. Some Democratic leaders saw McCaughey as a grasping, unqualified opportunist. But, by that time, she was the wife of Wall Street big dog Wilbur Ross. (In December 1995, the bride and groom, an even more prosperous Yalie than Betsy's first husband--Ross has been a member of Forbes's billionaires club since 2005--held their reception aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, surrounded by their 600 nearest and dearest.) A staunch Democrat, Ross had pledged not only to fund his beloved's gubernatorial run, but also to open his wallet to supportive down-ticket candidates.
This, understandably, did not sit well with McCaughey's primary competitors. Nor did McCaughey's challenge ease tensions with Pataki, her boss/rival. (Even as she ran against him, she declined to resign the lieutenant governorship.) Two months after switching teams, she grew suspicious that Pataki was bugging her phones. She brought in a counter-surveillance expert to do a sweep of both her office and home, and, when he didn't find anything, refused to pay his $3,000 fee, the contractor alleged. (Like so many of McCaughey's troubles, this one made its way into the tabs.) Compounding her troubles, the candidate was tearing through campaign staff like tissues (continuing the trend she'd set as lieutenant governor). She had a reputation as a controlling, demanding, abusive micromanager, and every week seemed to bring news of another staffer heading out the door. (One woman lasted only a day.) With each departure came a string of unflattering quotes about McCaughey's instability, indecisiveness, and narcissism. "A lot of politicians are out for the limelight, but Betsy's constant need twenty-four hours a day was something I'd never seen," departed aide Kayla Bergeron marveled to the Daily News. Speechwriter Sam Thernstrom charged that McCaughey tried to force him to stay by involving his mother, writer Abigail Thernstrom, who was an old friend of the candidate's: "She said if my mother didn't make me stay, she'd make certain I never worked again."
For a while--a long while actually--McCaughey won plaudits from many New Yorkers as a hard-charging, independent woman whose troubles stemmed largely from her refusal to be pushed around by a sexist political establishment. Part of this flowed from the periodic cretinism of male colleagues--like the time D'Amato suggested his new protégé secure Mayor Giuliani's endorsement for the 1996 ticket by making him "an offer he couldn't refuse," or the time Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wiggled his hips mockingly while snarking that he didn't possess McCaughey's powers of persuasion. But the lieutenant governor fueled this battle-of-the-sexes storyline when it suited her. A couple of years into the job, when State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno publicly groused about her "overly aggressive" lobbying, McCaughey countered: "When a man makes a stance in defense of the public, he's called a man of principle. When a woman does, she's criticized as being overly aggressive." Later, as her feud with Pataki heated up, the lieutenant governor publicly complained that she was under attack for not being part of the old boys' network. And when, two weeks shy of the 1998 Democratic primary, McCaughey announced that her husband Wilbur was cutting off her campaign funding--a move presaging the couple's post-election divorce--she kicked the woman-against-the-odds shtick into high gear. Failing to secure her new party's nomination, she nonetheless stayed in the general election on the Liberal Party line. Sure, she was facing a rough road, she told The Washington Post at the time, but, she noted, "Women, especially, are saying to me, ‘You go, girl!'" Come November, McCaughey pulled less than 2 percent of the vote.
However badly McCaughey may have been treated by the men in her life, the defiant, go-girl shtick was an odd choice for a woman whose candidacy had been almost single-handedly bankrolled by her husband. But McCaughey is not one to get hung up on such ironies. Nor did she apparently put much stock in the old adage of live by the husband's wallet, die by the husband's wallet. Rather than put the unpleasantness behind her, two years after the election, McCaughey filed a $40 million fraud suit against her by-then ex-husband, claiming that he had reneged on his promise to fund her campaign unconditionally. In the meantime, she returned to the world of conservative think tanks, this time looking to political pal and president of the Hudson Institute Herbert London for a fellowship at his shop, where she remained until just a few months ago. (The dissolution of her post was unrelated to her recent notoriety, London assures me.) Retaining an interest in the health care system, McCaughey began crusading to reduce the number of hospital-contracted infections, and, in 2004, founded RID, the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths--a worthy, if not especially high-profile, pursuit. As for the abuse heaped upon her during her political years, McCaughey harrumphed to the New York Post about how easy it was for women such as herself to be dismissed as "ditzy" or "the dumb blonde." "That will change," she predicted, "as more women enter into politics." No evolution (or even revolution) in gender politics or regular politics, however, is likely to dispel the aura of melodrama that seems embedded in McCaughey's genetic code. As Vanity Fair scribe Michael Wolff, a knife-edged observer of all things Upper East Side, puts it, in a quote that sounds eerily like a description of Sarah Palin, "There was always this sense of chaos that surrounded her."
As McCaughey finds herself in the middle of yet another maelstrom, friends and supporters express dismay at people's eagerness to say such terrible things about her. They stress her sincerity, her intellectual integrity, and her commitment to the facts. "Betsy does her homework" is an oft-repeated theme. "I have trouble buying into the premise that she is making errors and wrong and false statements because she's so meticulous, and she'll give you a source on everything," says Elizabeth Whelan, head of the American Council on Science and Health, an industry-friendly (and -funded) group on whose board McCaughey sits. Certainly, McCaughey has cultivated an image as facts-focused truth-teller, usually by way of contrast with the slipperiness of political types. Recounting her fateful first reading of the Clinton bill, McCaughey told TNR in late 1994, "I was shocked. ... For the historian, the ultimate value is being faithful to the truth. And the plan was very different from what I'd been led to believe." During the heat of her gubernatorial race, McCaughey, asked about her ideological leanings, told The New York Times that she thought of herself "more than anything, as an honest, call-them-as-I-see-them person." And she invariably presents her warnings about Obamacare as part of her commitment to exposing the truth, no matter how unpopular. As Borer sees it, that's what makes McCaughey such a lightning rod. "It's the emperor's new clothes," she explains. "That's what Betsy's all about: Looking at the emperor walking down the street and being the one saying, ‘He doesn't have any clothes on.'"
By contrast, McCaughey's many detractors would argue that the problem is her dogged insistence that the emperor has no clothes when everyone else can see that he's wearing flat-front khakis and a navy-blue golf shirt. While not everything she says is off the mark, says Gail Wilensky, one of McCaughey's conservative critics, "It's very frustrating to see somebody who makes outrageous statements that bear no relationship to reality receive so much attention." Yes, McCaughey professes to have read the legislation currently circulating, and, as in 1994, she brandishes that fact like a talisman that can dispel any conflicting viewpoint. But, also as in 1994, she spins out an indefensibly sinister, apocalyptic translation of the text that no amount of countervailing evidence can shake. Thus, health care adviser Emanuel's theoretical writings about how to allocate scarce resources, such as human organs, morph into McCaughey's conviction that Obama's "deadly doctor" advocates denying treatment to the elderly and infirm on cost-benefit grounds. Likewise, a database to coordinate information on which treatments work best for which patients--an initiative supported by wonks across the political spectrum--is seen by McCaughey as the first step toward government-programmed computers ordering doctors how to do their jobs. Within the self-styled empiricist resides the mind of a pathological alarmist.
Asked why her analysis bears no resemblance to that of other experts regardless of ideology, McCaughey consistently responds, "My reading of the bills is correct." Even when it is pointed out that her interpretation is clearly hyperbolic--e.g., her fantastic assertion on Fred Thompson's radio show that "Congress would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that, every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner"--she will not budge. Ironically, her familiarity with the data, combined with her unrecognizable interpretation of it, makes it nearly impossible to combat McCaughey's claims in a traditional debate. Her standard m.o. (as "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart recently experienced) is to greet each bit of contradictory evidence by insisting that her questioner is poorly informed and should take a closer look at paragraph X or footnote Z. When those sections don't support her interpretation, she continues to throw out page numbers and footnotes until the mountain of data is so high as to obscure the fact that none of the numbers add up to what she has claimed. "It's impossible to keep up with the quantity of misinformation," laments Henry Aaron. "It's like being sprayed with muddy water."
Since her earliest days in the spotlight, McCaughey has presented herself as a just-the-facts-please, above-the-fray political outsider. In reality, she has proved devastatingly adept at manipulating charts and stats to suit her ideological (and personal) ambitions. It is this proud piety concerning her own straight-shooting integrity combined with her willingness to peddle outrageous fictions--and her complete inability to recognize, much less be shamed by, this behavior--that makes McCaughey so infuriating. In this way, perhaps most of all, she resembles the tell-it-like-it-is good ol' girl Palin, whose scorching self-regard and ostentatious disdain for politics-as-usual infuse even her most self-serving fabulisms. Palin, of course, hawks homespun wisdom, faith, and common sense, in contrast to McCaughey's figures and footnotes. But both women have an uncanny ability to shovel their toxic nonsense with nary a blink, tremor, or break in those dazzling smiles. People of goodwill and honest counsel don't stand a chance.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.