What Andre The Giant Teaches Us About The Health Care Debate
The story goes that a surgeon could fix Andre The Giant’s ravaged back well enough for him to continue wrestling, except that the resident anesthesiologists had no idea how much anesthesia to give the 7’5 500lb. man. It had to be enough to keep him absolutely still during the delicate spinal surgery, but not so much that it killed him. Finally, the doctor asked the wrestler how much he drank. “It usually takes two liters of vodka just to make me feel warm inside,” replied the prodigious tippler. The doctor then calculated the appropriate dosage, based on his patient’s alcohol consumption.
And so a modern medical breakthrough was achieved.
Another story has a green Hulk Hogan touring Japan with Andre the Giant, who was enormously popular in the country, and being stuck on the giant’s beer watch. Andre was a big-time beer drinker–by most accounts, nearly 100 cans a night. He would chug a can of beer, crush it with one hand, and toss it at Hogan’s head. Hogan would count the peals, and when Andre got down to just a case or so left, he’d have the bus driver stop at the next gas station or supermarket. Hogan would run inside, buy all the beer he could, and race back to the bus. Sometimes, Andre would tell the bus driver to leave early, just to mess with Hogan; Andre’s bassoon-like laugh would echo across the bus as Hogan ran to catch-up.
Andre’s laugh always presaged such mischief. One night in the mid-70s, after wrestling Madison Square Garden with “The Dream” Dusty Rhodes, Andre decided that he was sick of climbing in and out of cabs; he and Rhodes would commandeer some horses from the local constabulary and drive the team 18 blocks across town to their hotel. When the police finally arrived to the hotel, Rhodes and Andre were drinking brandies in the hotel bar lobby, seemingly as innocent as angels.
Andre The Giant’s drinking exploits are the stuff of legend. The barkeep who said Andre could drink as long as he wanted in Kansas City, never suspecting he’d serve him 45 more vodka tonics in the coming hours. The time Mandy Patinkin showed up to the set of The Princess Bride green as spinach, after trying to keep up with Andre the night before. The $40,000 tab he ran up at a hotel during a month spent shooting the fim in England. The customized Lincoln Continental retro-fitted with a front seat ice chest full of cold Budweisers.
What made Andre drink so much? Critics debate this point, reaching no clear consensus. Perhaps it was his congenital gland disorder, which caused his enormous and often-painful rate of growth. Or his understanding that this condition would lead to a premature death. His undeniable joi de vivre, which both attracted others to him and encouraged such reckless behavior. Or, the fact that he compensated for a lonely, isolated childhood.
The British critic Richard English suggests that such speculation misses the point: “[His medical condition] did not darken Andre’s. He chose instead to pack his days with as much insane, drunken fun as they could hold. Instead of languishing in the darkness, he chose to walk in the sun.”
What Andre The Giant teaches us about the current health care debate is much less profound. It’s less about the politics of health care reform than the potential of one detail to repeat so often that it seems like an abundance of information.
Or in this case, sources.
In the preceding paragraphs, I’ve rolled off a series of entertaining, well-research anecdotes and points of view, from 138 different websites, about Andre The Giant. Except that, in reality, they are really the same article, Mr. English’s well-researched, informative, and entertaining 2006 study of Andre The Giant for Modern Drunkard magazine. This article, and its contents, are repeated in different formats, with and without citation, on different websites, under the general guise of “wrestling facts” or “drinking facts.”
Merely by doing a Google search of “andre the giant” together with “bassoon-like laugh,” I located every repeating variety of one anecdote in the article (the Hogan-beer-cans-in-Japan).
Tomorrow night, President Obama will wrestle the primetime event of his presidency to date, an address to a joint session of Congress about health care reform.
How well President Obama and Congressional Democrats navigate the endgame of health care reform will have little if anything to do with the sheer load of crap that has passed for civil debate in the preceding six weeks.
It’s part and parcel of being the champ that you have to brush off the cheap heat and stick to what happens in the (Congressional, private, committee-driven) ring where, hopefully, cooler heads prevail. In a post-factual world, wing-nuts and nut-jobs can assimilate into everyday society. They often look just like real people, oblivious to constraints of accountability, merely repeating a phrase until it invites, for some, the suggestion of truth.
A diversity of opinion is a great thing. It invites debate, speculation, argument. Opinions that withstand the scrutiny of counter-argument tend to be nuanced and subtle, rather than blunt and categorical.
Andre the Giant was a very, very large man. The man who played him, André René Roussimoff, was renowned by fellow wrestlers and fans for his incredible generosity, alternately mugging with admirers around the world and selling the moves of faces half his size (including Hulk Hogan, who was reportedly terrified that Andre would refuse to go down at Wrestlemania III). To confuse the man for the caricature diminishes both.
It’s fun to make shit up. It’s even more fun to take an idea and run with it, especially entertaining trivia that sounds good. Few online accounts agree on Andre The Giant’s true height, though most fall well-short or well-long of his officially listed 7’4″. Similarly, “Death panel,” has a nice authority to it, as does, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.”
Tomorrow night, Americans should scrutinize the arguments and counterarguments that rush into the nanosecond vacuum after the President’s address. But they should not mistake the rhetorical posturing–however insistent, widespread, and cartoonish–for the substance of the issue, and where possible, they should consider the source.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes