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August 19th, 2017

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Man of the year: Jonathan Gruber

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Jan. 13, 2015

     Man of the year: Jonathan Gruber Gruber and his, likely, only friend.

It's that time of year when the Man/Woman/Representative Figure of the Year is unveiled. Their pictures show up on magazine covers, the front pages of opinion sections and business quarterlies and whatever other publications choose to make a big to-do over the hero -- or villain -- of the last 12 months.

The rest of us get to wonder if anyone will remember these Stars of the Year 12 months from now, let alone in 12 years. Fame is fleeting, though infamy, alas, has a way of lasting forever, like damnation. (Hitler and Stalin both made Time magazine's annual cover as newsmakers of the year, and so did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Elizabeth II).

This year the leading actors of 2014 were pictured in various poses, some almost with halos around their heads, while others might as well have been wearing horns. Let's just say the starring cast of 2014, like that of all years, was various -- from brave Ebola fighters to troublemakers big and little and in-between, from Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang to the mullahs in Teheran, who are about to get their own nukes thanks to a complacent administration in Washington.

Who would be your choice to represent the uneven spirit of '14?

Mine would be clear -- someone who represents not just a single year in the news but a zeitgeist, a spirit of the times, a whole way of looking at the (mis)governance that characterized not just the year but a whole era. His name, though let's hope it'll prove one of the forgettable rather than influential ones, is: Jonathan Gruber.

Oh, yes, him. He's the character who made headlines, and contributed the quote of the year, when he was caught on an immodest and certainly impolitic video explaining what genius he had displayed in designing, presenting and then selling the much vaunted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, now better and scornfully known as Obamacare.

The trick, Professor Gruber proudly told the kind of captive audience some professors love to prance and dance before, was to take advantage of the act's "lack of transparency" and the "stupidity of the American voter." There you have the whole ethos not just of statist rule in the Age of Obama but in every other.

As the professor summed up his approach, "It's a very clever, you know, basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter." And for this he collected some $400,000 in consulting fees from the Obama administration and millions more from state governments who sought his sage advice in designing their own insurance exchanges.

No, you may not be able to fool all the people all the time, as Mr. Lincoln pointed out, but you can make a pretty penny, or rather a pretty million, trying to -- and, in Professor Gruber's case, succeeding. At least till he blew the whistle on himself, unable to resist the temptation to brag on his political prowess.

At least since the ancient Greeks, hubris has had a way of doing our leading men in -- though in Sophocles' plays, the result was tragedy, while in the politics of our times, the result is more like farce.

Once he had let the wildcat out of the bag, nobody in power seemed able to remember who this Jonathan Gruber was. He was just "some adviser who never worked on our staff," President Obama commented, washing his hands of the professor as best he could. Never mind that his administration was paying the professor more than any cabinet secretary, or that the White House log showed the Great Gruber dropping by a score of times to visit as Obamacare and the pitch for it took shape. Now nobody there knows his name. ("Jonathan Gruber, who he?")

Nancy Pelosi, who was speaker of the House when the professor's brainchild was rammed into law, professed innocence, even ignorance, about the identity of one J. Gruber. "I don't know who he is," she non-explained. Even though she was also shown up by a video. It had her on record in 2009 hailing "Jonathan Gruber of MIT's analysis of what the comparison is to the status quo versus what will happen in our bill." But suddenly Jonathan Gruber was the Forgotten Man of Washington politics -- an unperson.

Not even Jonathan Gruber seemed to remember Jonathan Gruber. Why, he had nothing to do with getting Obamacare passed, he claimed, he was strictly a numbers man, not a politician. You'd have thought he'd just been scrawling some figures on the back of an envelope. Was it his fault he'd been mistaken for the father of Obamacare? Somehow this wonderful government program, this Signature Accomplishment of the Obama administration, had become the red-headed stepchild the professor was not about to claim as his own. Ain't politics grand?

Jonathan Gruber is my pick for Man of the Year, or at least Goat of the Year, because his story sums up the emptiness of political discourse in our low time, its sham slogans and lack of any constancy of purpose, the reduction of American politics to the strictly tactical and its absence of any strategic thought, and finally the immense self-satisfaction of our movers-and-shakers -- at least before they're exposed, or, even more delicious, expose themselves.

It's not that our self-styled elite are evil; they're just resorting to these low tricks for our own benefit, you see, because we the mere people have no idea what's good for us, like a government-run system of health care.

But what may be the worst feature of the Saga of Jonathan Gruber, Man of the Year, is the immense self-satisfaction so many of us have derived from it -- as if we had never had any intellectual pretensions of our own that proved embarrassing.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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