If you listen closely to the two-minute radio address that 12-year-old Graeme Frost delivered last week for the Democrats, you can hear the lingering effects of the 2004 car crash that put him into a coma for a week and left one of his vocal cords paralyzed. "Most kids my age probably haven't heard of CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program," he says in a voice that sounds weak and stressed. "But I know all about it, because if it weren't for CHIP, I might not be here today."
Graeme, whose sister suffered worse brain injuries when their family SUV hit a patch of black ice, was making an appeal for President Bush to reconsider his veto of legislation that would have expanded the program designed to provide health coverage to children of the working poor those who are too rich to qualify for Medicaid but unable to afford private insurance.
Since then, Frost and his family have been introduced firsthand to something else that most kids his age haven't: the reality of how brutal partisan politics can be in the Internet age. It started over the weekend, when a blogger calling himself Icwhatudo put up a post on the conservative website Freerepublic.com noting what he had found by scavenging around the Internet: that Graeme attends a private school, lives in a remodeled house near one that had sold for $485,000 in March and is the child of parents whose wedding was announced in the New York Times. The post also noted that his father purchased a $160,000 commercial space in 1999.
"One has to wonder that if time and money can be found to remodel a home, send kids to exclusive private schools, purchase commercial property and run your own business... maybe money can be found for other things," the blogger wrote. "Maybe Dad should drop his woodworking hobby and get a real job that offers health insurance rather than making people like me (also with 4 kids in a 600sf smaller house and tuition $16,000 less per kid and no commercial property ownership) pay for it in my taxes."
That was just the beginning of what turned into a Category 5 hurricane on the blogosphere. Typical of the tone was what Mark Steyn wrote on National Review Online: "Bad things happen to good people, and they cause financial problems and tough choices. But, if this is the face of the 'needy' in America, then no one is not needy." Nameless commenters to conservative blogs were even harsher. "Let 'em twist in the wind and be eaten by ravens," wrote one one on Redstate.com, who was quoted in the Baltimore Sun. "Then maybe the bunch of socialist patsies will think twice."
It turns out, however, that not everything about the Frosts' life pops up on a Google search. While Graeme does attend a private school, he does so on scholarship. Halsey Frost is a self-employed woodworker; he and his wife say they earn between $45,000 and $50,000 a year to provide for their family of six. Their 1936 rowhouse was purchased in 1990 for $55,000. It was vacant and in a run-down neighborhood that has improved since then, in part because of people like themselves who took a chance. It is now assessed at $263,140, though under state law the value of that asset is not taken into account in determining their eligibility for SCHIP. And while they are still uninsured, they claim it is most certainly not by choice. Bonnie Frost says the last time she priced health coverage, she learned it would cost them $1,200 a month.
In short, just as the radio spot claimed, the Frosts are precisely the kind of people that the SCHIP program was intended to help.
While the family continues to support the vetoed bill that would expand the program to 4 million more children, they are hoping to remove themselves from the middle of the storm. After giving a few interviews, Halsey and Bonnie Frost now say they don't want to say anything more, though network camera crews have planted themselves in front of their house.
Halsey did have this to say in an e-mail to me:
"My son Graeme has helped put on a human face, that of a young boy, representing the needs of children and families across this nation. We are a hard working family that has stepped forward to support SCHIP. Mudslinging from the fringe has now been directed at the messenger. To be smeared all over the Internet and receive nasty e-mail my family does not deserve this retribution. It is both shameful and pathetic.
"Driven by a most dubious agenda, shortsighted cut-and-paste bloggers, lacking all the facts, have made a feeble attempt at being crack reporters. This is an aberrant attempt to distract the American people from what the real issues are. Hard working American families need affordable health insurance.
"I find it morally reprehensible, and the act of a true coward, to publicly (world wide) smear a man and his family and not sign one's own real name to what they have written. I sign my name to what I write.
He also passed along a letter from a friend, Andrew Gray, who wrote: "Chances are, Bonnie, Halsey and their kids will survive this. The sad reality is that they've already been through much worse. But what does it say about us as a nation that we seek to destroy the reputations of those we should honor? Have we become so cynical and nasty that we no longer can recognize simple courage and decency?"
Politics has never been a gentle game. As far back as 1895, satirist Finley Peter Dunne's fictional saloonkeeper Martin Dooley observed that women, children and prohibitionists would do well to stay out of it, because "politics ain't beanbag." But surely, even Mr. Dooley could never have imagined a day would come when a mere seventh grader could be swift-boated.