The Forgotten War

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective. -- President Franklin Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, January 20th, 1933

I think we have stopped a lot of what needed stopping. And I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts. -- President Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, 
January 11, 1989

While Michael Vick was apologizing for his complicity in the inhumane treatment of dogs and Alberto Gonzales was resigning over his complicity in the inhumane treatment of humans, something substantially humane and potentially revolutionary was happening in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One by one, on August 27th and 28th, four Democratic presidential hopefuls and two Republicans took turns on stage delivering statements and answering questions on cancer. Hosted by Lance Armstrong and Chris Matthews, the Livestrong Cancer Forum was a watershed moment, introducing Cancer to the upper tier of campaign issues.

We were born and bred under the roof of the house that Ronnie built, an America overly interested in self-interest. We are soon-to-be (fingers crossed!) survivors of the Bush Administration. For us, skepticism about the power or even intent of politicians and government to affect lives for the better was not borne out of experience. We didn't learn disillusionment by way of Vietnam, assassination, or Watergate.

By the time we were flipping channels, cynicism was already an entrenched fact of public life. The only President we ever saw use executive power to push progressive interdependent answers to big problems was named Jed Bartlett. And he was on The West Wing.

So what the hell were a 24 year old woman and her 25 year old boyfriend doing schlepping to Iowa last week to see a group of "when I'm president, when I'm president, when I'm president!" OCD patients speechify yet again, at yet another "issue forum?"

There are two of us, so it's kind of a two-part answer. One of us is the daughter of a cancer survivor. Before her mother's diagnosis (for the purposes of this article, we'll be referring to each other in the oh-so-endearing third person for the next few paragraphs), this daughter didn't know anybody who had cancer - well, except for her grandfather, but he was in his eighties, and that's what happens to people when they get old. They get cancer, right? Suddenly, everyone she knew seemed to be affected in some way by cancer - no, it seemed like everybody HAD cancer. Cancer and the cancer community were everywhere. It's a truth most of us need to face up to in a hurry:

Cancer kills nearly 600,000 Americans annually, 10,500 monthly, and 1,500 daily. As Armstrong put it, "that's 9/11 every other day". Cancer is the leading killer amongst Americans under the age of 85. One in three women and one in two men will at some point in their lives be diagnosed with some form of cancer. The people in their lives will be directly affected.

The woman had always had a glancing interest in politics. While already an empathetic (and if the boyfriend may now interject, advanced) woman, her vision adjusted to a new world in which the possibilities of empathy as part of public discourse might open the door to solutions for problems as deep and grave as the cancer quagmire. She saw her Mother's pain, bravery and triumph. She took classes on healthcare policy and set herself to becoming a cancer activist in her own right.

The boyfriend, we should note, is a political junkie who vividly remembers rolling out a sleeping bag on his parents' bedroom carpet so that he could stay up late and watch Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis speak at the Democratic National Convention. We should also note that, through the experience of losing an Aunt to brain cancer, losing an Uncle to the aftermath, and becoming intimately invested in the strong survival of his girlfriend's Mom, the guy also came to be educated that this disease calls out for drastic attention.

By the time we got to Iowa, we were cautious and relatively closeted idealists. Had the forum lived down to the base standards of youthful disaffection or the faithless negativity of Fox News, we'd have related the following rundown and been done with it:

  • Hilary Clinton was thorough, unerringly on-message, and in full command.

  • John Edwards was energetic, full of feisty conviction, and heartfelt.

  • Bill Richardson had some of the best lines of the forum ("surge in the war on cancer"), though they were buried in the shallow grave of his, um, loquaciousness...

  • Dennis Kucinich was a Vegan.

  • Sam Brownback tried to be JFK. After blistering interrogation from Chris Matthews, it turned out he was only the arch conservative Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

  • Mike Huckabee was funny, engaging, and apparently oblivious to the fact that he is a Democrat who happens to think that evolution is a crock.
  • Each of the above candidates distinguished themselves from the remaining ones in another respect: they were there. Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is showing up. The rest of the field was apparently advocating for the invisible minority.

    While we're quite sure that no one running for President is Pro-Cancer or Anti-Armstrong, the truancy of many contending candidates like Rudy Guiliani, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and John McCain was conspicuous and shameful.

    Instead of the Livestrong Forum as a photo-op festival full of "cancer bad" sound bytes, several of the candidates (H-Rod and J-Ed) brought detailed policy memos to Cedar Rapids. All declared their intent to renew efforts to find cures for cancer and more effective treatments for cancer patients at the federal level. Each committed to making cancer a national priority. Everybody pledged to find more federal dollars for the National Cancer Institute.

    All of the candidates, through substance or in absence, revealed more than might be readily apparent about their potential Presidencies.

    The forum got the cancer conversation up and running again in National politics and on national TV. The candidates who came had clearly gone to school on the subject. Like cancer itself, the forum was bipartisan. This was a declaration of a return to the politics of public interest. The ones who came talked of drawing researchers back to the field with the promise of greater grant funding and collaborative, creative efforts to combat the root causes--"genetic, behavioral and environmental", as Hillary put it.

    The implication that science does offer the promise of being able to disarm each of these "triggers", given the proper resources and top-down direction, is an implication that everyone involved believes that government must do more than trickle down. It needs to marshal its resources and inspire its citizens (co-governors) to look up. The people who physically evaded questioning seem to believe otherwise.

    Aside from speaking to bygone Big Think like universal healthcare, and the structural vision necessary to execute Big Thoughts, the forum allowed a peek into the candidates' capacity to deal with the number one issue on the campaign trail: war.

    You may not have heard about the one we've been fighting for three and a half decades.

    Before the curtain came up on Watergate and down on Nixon, The Tricky One himself had the foresight and muscle to get an extra 100 million bucks, along with the promise of future funding as needed, for the National Cancer Institute. Asking Congress for the money, Nixon suggested, "The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dreaded disease."

    Signing the National Cancer Act of 1971 into law, Nixon effectively declared an open War on Cancer. He mobilized the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland, converting it from a biological warfare facility into what would become a world famous center for AIDS and cancer research.

    The two of us, of course, don't remember Nixon declaring a war on cancer, and we haven't witnessed anybody in the executive branch waging one since. Instead, we've seen several close family members and friends, along with their doctors, fighting mostly without the aid of their government. It's hard to say that America is losing this war, considering, as Lance Armstrong framed it Monday, "it's the war we forgot to fight."

    Under the Bush administration, it has become the war we're not interested in fighting. In 2006, for the first time in 35 years, funding for the National Cancer Institute was $40 million dollars. Bush has proposed cutting another $9 million from this year's budget. As Sen. Clinton said on Monday, Bush has not only halted the war on cancer, he's "led an assault on science and research."

    Meanwhile, it's been close to five years, and nearly 4,000 Americans have tragically lost their lives in Iraq. Over that same period, almost 2.5 million Americans have lost their lives to the ongoing war on cancer. 2.5 million dead is not just a horrific slaughter. It's genocide.

    The Cancer question begs many others in evaluating the candidates. These are the two that should be central however, given the urgency of our present.

    Which of these candidates has the structural vision to competently prosecute a war for national survival against a clear and present enemy? Will the next President have the leadership to resurrect the "bold initiative" into the legislative lexicon?

    Apres Bush, convincing Americans that another war is worth fighting--particularly a
    war "on" something--will require earnest and forceful powers of persuasion. The challenge seems to lay in finding some hybrid by which we can establish that self-interest and public interest are one and the same.

    Further, a president willing to take on cancer must be able to dislodge the misperception in the public mind that cancer is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Cancer is not Senator Brownback's gathering "tsunami." The number one killer of Americans under the age of 85--that demographic qualifier will be obsolete by 2010 if current trends continue--is not an "Act of God."

    The empathetic divide between those touched by cancer and those who have yet to be must also be bridged. While internal polling by the Lance Armstrong foundation found that the greatest fear of respondents was a cancer diagnosis, most were in denial about their actual chances of being diagnosed.

    We began to get answers to these questions as of Monday. For that, Lance Armstrong and his foundation should be recognized and commended. Continuing to seek complete responses to the specific threat of cancer will also reveal a fuller portrait of each of the candidates on domestic and international policy. As we analyze which answers we like best, we will build a better mirror for ourselves.

    As the stats bear out, the so-called "Cancer Community" is not an isolated, exclusive club. Instead, the Cancer Community is rapidly enveloping the community at large. It is a pervasive and diverse threat, indifferent to demographics, political affiliation, race, religion, creed, social status, or wealth.

    So that the way we choose to address cancer going forward will represent the way we choose to address one another. It will be a statement on who we are and who we aspire to be. The next president will of course be the profound measure of that choice, and to see these candidates through the lens of the cancer issue is to see what kind of President, and what kind of government we can shape in the next election.

    For the sake of the suffering, the soon to be suffering, and relapsed political cynics everywhere, pay attention.