Washington, a city famous for its monuments, has just lost one of its finest.
Michael D. Bromberg, though little known to the outside world, was a monumental figure in the world of Washington insiders. For almost a half century, he was the health industry representative who was viewed by Democrats as well as Republicans as the iconic go-to lobbyist for everyone who sought to shape national healthcare policy.
Mike, 78, died on Friday, Aug. 12, in New York City, after a long and valiant battle against leukemia. From 1969-1994, he was the Washington face of the Federation of American Hospitals, the trade association of for-profit (also called investor-owned) hospitals. He then founded the Capitol Health Group, the lobbying firm he headed until his death.
Washington insiders called him “Mr. Health Care.” Mike and I called each other best friends. Our families vacationed together, we shared a love of jazz (Mike was a terrific pianist; I kept up on a sax or clarinet), and in general made each other’s lives fun. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some may have seen us as something of a Washington Odd Couple. After all, we maintained our friendship while performing our decidedly different professional roles: a Washington lobbyist and a Washington correspondent/columnist. Yet as politics changed and eras ended, our friendship stayed the course, kept life special, and forever fun. We agreed on that the last day we spent together, the day before he died.
When I met Mike, he was the top assistant to a liberal Democratic congressman from Long Island, Herbert Tenzer; I was covering Tenzer’s re-election campaign for Newsday newspaper. I was Mike’s best man when he married his wife of 48 years, Marlys; and in a sense I was also at their idyllic honeymoon at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. I was in Chicago’s streets, covering violence, bloodshed and tear-gassing as police clashed with Vietnam War protesters; Mike and Marlys were upstairs in their hotel room as teargas wafted through the air vents.
Mike became respected as a masterful political insider — in part because he’d been schooled one day by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It began when Mike called Johnson’s White House to follow up on his congressman’s effort to with the president’s approval for a new federal courthouse in Mineola, Long Island. Mike was told LBJ approved it; so Mike asked if Tenzer could issue a press release to get credit for it in their district. No, came the reply, the president had a better plan.
Here’s what LBJ instructed: Tenzer should issue a press release saying Johnson was opposing the courthouse. Next, Tenzer should announce he was going meet with Johnson to try to personally change his mind. There would be a quick Oval Office photo op. Then Tenzer should hold a press conference in the White House driveway and announce he’d convinced stubborn old LBJ to switch — and Long Island will get its new courthouse, all thanks to Tenzer!
After Mike became a lobbyist in 1969, he impressed insiders of all political persuasions with his skill at orchestrating compromises in ways that allowed both sides to celebrate victories.
In 1993, when then-First Lady Hillary Clinton began her sweeping healthcare reform effort, the powerful Democratic House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski repeatedly counseled her to first talk at length with Mike — because he was trusted by Democrats and Republicans as a straight-shooter and problem-solver. In the 1980s, Mike had impressed Ronald Reagan’s advisors (and he would later be a senior advisor to Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and Mitt Romney). Yet, Mike also maintained friendships with liberal Democrats such as Rep. Charlie Rangel of Harlem.
But Ms. Clinton only saw Mike as the enemy. And she wasn’t about to take an enemy’s advice. When they eventually met, she rejected Mike’s guidance that Congress would never approve her controversial items including universal coverage and healthcare cost caps. She spurned his compromise plan that gave the Clintons most of what they wanted and all the glory of being the president who reformed healthcare. Mike said they could get the rest later, in stages. Ms. Clinton insisted she would ram her version through Congress. Clintoncare was soundly defeated. She hadn’t appreciated what Washington knew — that Mike was never her enemy.
Mike Bromberg was, until the end, the enemy of Washington gridlock. And especially he was no ally of today’s minority of gamers and schemers who boast about making gridlock their goal. Mike never put political winning ahead of patriotic problem-solving.
Our next president will miss him. And so will I, every day.
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Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected]