MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As the White House gears up to sell health care, one of America's most highly regarded trial attorneys is honing her courtroom skills for the coming battle.
It is Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course. But rather than arguing a case before a jury of 12 men and women, the First Lady soon will be appealing to an entire country on the need for change.
During a televised, statewide health care forum here Tuesday night, Mrs. Clinton dramatically previewed a repertoire that earned her a place on the American Bar Assn. Journal's short list of the country's top lawyers.
Like every good courtroom advocate, she knew the answer to each question she posed.
Deftly, she elicited often-wrenching testimony from a carefully chosen array of West Virginians, suffering as a result of the current health care system, then drew morals from each witness's plight.
"I've been an expert witness in trials, and it's the same kind of thing. The way she asks questions and gets dialogue going really gets to a point," said Dr. Robert D'Alessandri, dean of West Virginia University's Medical School.
To Michael Elins, a Martinsburg small businessman, and Jerry Kief, one of his employees who is worried about losing his insurance, Mrs. Clinton promised: "The kinds of reforms the President will propose will make it not only possible to insure everyone, but will do it at affordable costs that will be bearable for both the companies and the employees."
To Daisy Altman, a 78-year-old Cabin Creek woman, Mrs. Clinton promised home care as a way to keep older Americans out of nursing homes.
To Dr. James Comerci, a family doctor at a rural clinic near Wheeling, she promised to institute a uniform insurance-claim form that would lessen the paperwork burden on all physicians.
Mrs. Clinton's appearance reflects a growing conviction in the White House that it will not be enough to dwell on the merits of a massively complex agenda. Administration strategists believe that people also must be sold on Hillary herself--so they will be willing, in effect, to join her in a leap of faith into an untested health care system.
The White House Task Force on National Health Care Reform, which Mrs. Clinton chairs, is readying final recommendations that may reach the President's desk by the end of next week. He is expected to announce his legislative proposals in mid-June.
In anticipation of the contentious, high-stakes struggle just around the corner, Hillary Clinton has begun testing ways to sell the Administration's message. And that is what brought her to Morgantown, where she appeared before a live audience at West Virginia University's Health Sciences Center, talking with audience members and, by satellite, with other handpicked West Virginians.
The most compelling story--introduced by a short video--was that of Craig and Vicki McClung and their four boys, ages 8 to 13, who live in Rainelle.
One of their sons has spina bifida, which qualifies him for Medicaid, but the rest of the family has no health insurance, and mounting bills.
When the video ended, Mrs. Clinton took over.
"Have you had any medical needs that . . . have gone unmet because of no insurance?" (Yes, said Vicki McClung, who also said she urges her active sons not to participate in sports for fear that they will be injured.)
"If you had insurance, would you have gone in (to seek care) earlier? And is there any reason to believe that it might not have been as expensive or you might not have been hospitalized overnight?" (Yes, yes and yes.)
The hour passed quickly and many issues--like how to pay for health care reform--were never explored. It was time for closing arguments in the court of public opinion.
"Tonight really points to the need for change. And one thing we haven't said is what the cost of staying where we are is," Mrs. Clinton said, looking into the TV camera.
"While we sit here for the next minutes and hours and days, our health care costs will continue to go up . . . . And our country will spend over $100 billion more next year and that will not give one more ounce of care to anybody who doesn't have it already. So there's not really a choice . . . . "