Paul Greenberg

"I'm from Washington and I'm here to help," said the caller.

It was early in the morning, but the well-attired visitor was already sweating through his dark suit as he whisked off his sunglasses and set down a bulging briefcase.

"Come on in, stranger," said the old man as he opened the door. "Don't want you standing out in this sun. You might not be used to it. Ease on in. Loosen your tie. Here, let me have your suitcoat. You don't want to move too fast in this weather. Ain't no use rushin'. You'll get there soon enough. We all will. How about a cup of coffee? Coke? Something a little stronger? I know it's early in the day, but I got a feeling it's gonna be a long one."

"No, thank you. I'm being driven."

"I noticed. Invite your driver in. Maybe he could use a pick-me-up."

"No, thank you. He's got to keep the air-conditioning going. We love the working man in Washington, but not up close. They sweat, you know."

"You think?" said the old boy, who could feel himself getting a little hot himself under his khaki collar. "Nice car even if it doesn't have a bed to put your hay in. Purrs real good."

"Thank you," said the visitor, shooting his cuffs as he eased onto the tattered old sofa and started putting out his booklets, pre-signed forms in quintuplicate, official badge, laptop, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, BlackBerry, stylus, apps menu, battery charger, HEW and DHS directories, and OPM Guide to Federal Employees' Benefits, which he never left home without.

There wasn't room enough for it all on the rickety old coffee table. He had to stack the paperwork on the floor.

"Make yourself to home," said the gracious host. "Thought you might be a Jehovah's Witness till I saw the automobile and chauffeur. They always dress nice. Mormons, too. Always a pleasure to have 'em come by. They don't ask for anything, except maybe my soul, and I'm afraid it's all shriveled up in this heat. Don't know what the farmers'll do less'n we get some more rain. I was just thinking the other day that...."

"Yes, sir, I'm sure you were," the visitor interjected. He sounded in a hurry. "But I'm here to make you an offer you can't refuse."

"Try me," said the old boy. "You might be surprised at all the money-back, sure-fire, can't lose, 30-day-free-trial, money gladly refunded offers I've turned down. More and more of 'em as I get older and learn better. Age is just a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter. Speaking of Satchel Paige...."

"Yes, sir, but have I got a deal for you, Mister ... Arkansas, is it? Nice place you got here, but if you don't mind my saying so, it could stand some work...."

"Don't mind at all. Love to have strangers drop by and criticize my interior decoration, or just tell me how to run my business, especially someone who's so well dressed and well connected."

"Why, thank you," said the visitor, smiling modestly. "Now what we're going to do for you and a carefully selected list of 49 other states -- plus a few territories, commonwealths and such -- is help you meet all your Medicaid needs. Absolutely almost free. It's a once-in-a generation, once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-history, once-in-eternity opportunity."

"You don't say?"

"Yes, sir. If you'll just agree to expand your Medicaid program, which really needs some fixing up, you'll have to admit, our new, supercharged Obamacare plan will pay for every new beneficiary you add -- every last one -- under our new souped-up federal mandate. And not just up to the usual 85 percent across the country. And soon there'll be millions and millions more of them nationwide, believe me. Your Medicaid costs could jump 20 percent over the next year. We're already paying for 70 percent of it here in Arkansas, and you still can't seem to make the books balance. You're going to need all the help you can get, my friend. Lucky I came along. If you'll just sign on the dotted line . . ."

"Did you say absolutely almost free? What's the catch?"

The visitor looked almost hurt.

"Catch? There's no catch. It says right here in the small print, which nobody ever reads, and you certainly don't need bother your head with all this stuff, but if you're curious, well, the federal government will cover all the cost of your new, expanded, better-than-ever Medicaid program. All of it, 100 percent, every penny. And for two whole years. No payments due till 2014! How about that? Hard to believe, isn't it? My boss thought I'd gone crazy when I told him what all I was going to offer our lucky customers."

"Yep, sounds too good to be true. I wonder why. What did you say happens after two years?"

"Oh, that," said the stranger, "Then the reimbursement rate for new additions will fall to 90 percent, which is still mighty generous. After all, here in Arkansas, you'll be adding 200,000, maybe 250,000 people to the Medicaid rolls in a state with a population of about 3 million. We're glad to help. Here, you can use my pen...."

"That's mighty kind of you, sir, but there's no need to hurry. Let me think about this. Ten percent of a lot of money is still a lot of money, and we're having trouble paying for Medicaid as it is. I hear tell some of my neighbors have said No Thank You because, two years down the road, it'll cost states like Florida and Texas billions. If it costs Arkansas only millions, it's millions we ain't got. Unlike you folks in Washington, we can't print our own money. Matter of fact, we even got a law here against the state running a budget deficit."

"Quaint," said the man from Washington. "But think of this as an investment, not an expense, as ..."

"A sub-prime loan with a teaser rate and balloon payment after two years? Another bait-and-switch promotion?"

"You've been reading the business pages again, haven't you? I hate it when you people do that. It just confuses you. If you don't sign up now, you'll never have another chance to drive this baby off the lot. And you'll be mighty sorry."

"Maybe, but I'd kind of prefer to make my own decisions, even my own mistakes. That way I don't have nobody to blame but myself. We're kind of independent down here. Always have been. Though I'm not sure we'll always be, not with all these absolutely almost free offers bearing down on us like a line of 18-wheelers straight out of Washington."

The visitor, glancing at his Rolex, began gathering up his papers. It was clear he had a lot of other calls to make today. He almost dropped his iPhone in his hurry.

"Don't go away mad," said his host, seeing the stranger to the door with a smile, and remembering to hand him a sack of homegrown tomatoes for the road. Never send a guest home empty-handed. It's a rule in this part of the world. The old boy watched the limo drive smoothly away. Then he locked the door. Firmly. And bolted it. And added, under his breath, "Just go away."


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.