It was Monday night, and Jimmy Kimmel was talking about healthcare again. But the latest Republican effort to repeal President Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, was all but dead, and the late-night talk show host knew as much. And so, after devoting nearly seven minutes of his Jimmy Kimmel Live monologue to the politics of medicine, Kimmel allowed himself a measure of relief.
"And the best news is, now I can go back to talking about the Kardashians. Guys, Kylie is pregnant!" Kimmel said of the Jenner-Kardashian offspring, with what appeared to be near-teenage enthusiasm.
Kimmel alone was not responsible for the all-but-certain death of the healthcare reform bill introduced by Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana earlier this month. But in confronting congressional Republicans, and Cassidy in particular, over the last several days, Kimmel became the national voice of the resistance to repeal-and-replace. He acknowledged that reality on Monday, after Sen. Susan Collins of Maine indicated her decision not to support this latest anti-ACA effort, thus making the bill's prospects roughly equal to that of professional basketball's hopeless New York Knicks.
"I still can't believe we pulled it off," Kimmel said. "But we did. It's amazing, isn't it?"
Kimmel pulled off something else, too, perhaps even more remarkable than his successful campaign against Graham-Cassidy, as the Republican bill is commonly known.
Kimmel began his opposition to Republican repeal-replace efforts last spring, with the story of his son Billy, who was born with a heart defect that required extensive interventions, including two forthcoming surgeries. Kimmel's story was immensely compelling, but his arguments against Graham-Cassidy were so powerful because they combined an intimate narrative of personal struggle with: 1) a vision of national aspiration (universal healthcare, in this instance, or some derivation thereof); 2) specific policy critiques (measures in Graham-Cassidy that seemed to limit coverage instead of expanding it).
Every great politician—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, take your pick—has been able to make precisely such fluid transitions between the specific and the general, the personal and the universal, anger and hope. And while I don't think Kimmel is running for office (he has a pretty good contract with ABC, from what I hear), his victorious war on Graham-Cassidy offered plenty of lessons to Republicans and Democrats alike on how to talk to ordinary Americans.
It was a lesson in politics, from a guy who used to shy away from the political. That, paradoxically, seemed to serve Kimmel well as he became the most articulate critic of Graham-Cassidy in the nation, far surpassing any congressional Democrat in that regard. Kimmel does not have the high-toned sanctimony of John Oliver, nor the arch viciousness of Stephen Colbert. Even when he is upset, as he has frequently been during the healthcare debate, he retains a basic optimism, to which his mischievous smile seems to testify. Which isn't to say he is artificially cheery. Rather, this son of Mill Basin, Brooklyn, seems to have a belief in the fundamental decency of his fellow Americans. You would too, if your commute into Manhattan was that long.
On Monday, for example, Kimmel took care to point out that while most Republican politicians supported Graham-Cassidy, many Republican voters did not. Sure, you can take the cynical view that ABC's corporate masters ordered Kimmel to play nice with conservatives, lest Fox News launched an anti-Kimmel boycott the next morning. But if the c-suite suits were worried about that, they would have likely ordered Kimmel to stop talking about politics and get back to making jokes long ago. It was clear, at least to me, that his reference to Republican voters was a genuine attempt to hit a note of accord in our far-too-discordant public square.
I have no idea what Kimmel's politics are beyond healthcare. I don't know if he's a Republican or Democrat, and though I could probably find the answer on the internet easily enough, I am not going to look. The whole point is that it doesn't really matter. At a time when the president is actively attempting to divide the nation, it took a late-night comedian to offer passionate arguments on behalf of voiceless Americans who, if Graham-Cassidy passed, could be left without medical attention. Despite what critics said, there wasn't a trace of elitism in Kimmel's monologues. I don't want to belabor the point, but he's a guy named Jimmy from Brooklyn. He has a beard and is kind of doughy (sorry, man). There are snobs on television, but he ain't one of them.
By turns clever and compassionate, hopeful and outraged, Kimmel persuaded Americans with a simple message, a message that I am convinced will be the rallying cry of our next great political figure, for it has been the message of every greater leader in our national past: We can do better than this.