Barack Obama’s physician of 22 years, who in the new anti-Obama book, The Amateur, described his former patient as “distant” and “lacking passion and feeling,” is sorry he agreed to talk to the author, Ed Klein.
In an interview Thursday at his Hyde Park office, 73-year-old Chicago physician David Scheiner told me that he feels “betrayed” by Klein, who uses the doc as the only source in a chapter titled “Hollow at the Core.” Scheiner admits that when he and the New York-based writer dined at Valois, a Hyde Park cafeteria once favored by Obama, Scheiner didn’t ask Klein what he was writing. He figured it was an article, reassured by the writer presenting himself as the former editor of the New York Times Magazine. “If you had asked me right after the interview, did I think he was pro-Obama," Scheiner says, "I would have said yes. He was putting on a very good show for me.”
Scheiner, who also tended to Carol Moseley Braun, Leon Despres, and Studs Terkel, told me time and again that he loves to talk—I can attest to this—and described his many cable news appearances in which he expressed his disappointment that the president’s Affordable Care Act is not single-payer or, as Scheiner puts it, “Medicare for all.”
Here’s an edited transcript of my conversation with the Princeton and Columbia grad (he was trained at the University of Chicago), who does not take issue with Klein’s description of him as an “unreconstructed old lefty.”
CF: Do you take exception to Klein’s interpretation of your remarks about Obama?
DS: Klein makes Obama sound aloof; he wasn’t that. “He would come in here, he would sit with patients, he would chat, even when he was a U.S. senator. He would never say, “I’m Senator Obama; I don’t want to wait.” He would wait patiently. He was so kind to the staff, the junior staff, but he was not somebody I could get to know.”
CF: Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein, who interviewed you nearly three years ago, is claiming that a paragraph-long quote from you in the Klein book is almost identical to one from Stein’s interview with you.
DS: Sam Stein called me [a couple of weeks ago] to tell me that and ask me, “Did you actually interview with Ed Klein?” Stein told me, “Some of the things you said were exactly word for word what you said to me three years ago.”
CF: Did Klein record you?
DS: He didn’t have a recorder; he was just taking notes. I can’t remember [if Klein asked a question that would have elicited that response]…. I did give Klein a line which he put in the book, which was true: “Obama is a great speaker but a lousy communicator. I ask patients all the time about the health care mandate; even the most educated…don’t understand it.”
CF: Because of Klein’s book, Reverend Jeremiah Wright is back in the news. What do you make of attempts by Obama’s opponents to club him with this relationship?
DS: [Wright’s] not all off. A black man being angry at the United States is not unreasonable. The United States has done terrible things, and you’re not allowed to admit it. And the whole issue of immigration—I think about the Mexicans sneaking into California and New Mexico. They’re coming home. That was their home, and we stole it in another trumped-up war. I’m ashamed of the things we’ve done. I’m ashamed that we’re 37th in the world in health care.
CF: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof quoted you advocating “Medicare for all” in a June 2009 column, and of course that column was printed in papers all over the country. Did you ever receive a call from the president or any of his people beseeching you to stop talking?
DS: No, but I did have an invitation to the White House [in June 2009] that was reversed. ABC had a town hall meeting to discuss health care. Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson [anchoring] from the White House. I had a call from a producer six days before inviting me. It would be a surprise, wouldn’t tell the president that his doctor would be in the audience. I said, “Great, great fun.” I canceled two days of appointments. About a day and a half before [the event] I got a call from a producer saying, “We have too many people; we don’t need you.” I think they had read some of the pieces [in which Scheiner criticized the president’s health care plan from the left]. They were afraid I would ask questions and embarrass the president. I was going to ask him why not give everybody Medicare. I don’t know if it came from the White House or if ABC got nervous and wanted to stay on the good side of the president.
CF: You became a regular on Fox News and Fox Business and CNN, and even appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher. Which was the best, and which the worst?
DS: I was thrown off Lou Dobbs’s show. He kept saying how good our health system was. I said, “We’re 37th in the world.” I kept repeating that statistic and he said, “There’s nothing more to say,” and abruptly ended my appearance. For Bill Maher, they flew me out to Beverly Hills—first time I ever flew first-class in my life. At one point Bill Maher asked me a question which was in extraordinary bad taste—something about holding the president’s balls in my hand. I just scooted away from the question.
CF: Did Obama ever talk to you during one of your appointments about wanting to run for president?
DS: I knew that he was running a day before he made the announcement. I had seen him the office and he told me and asked me to keep it quiet. The funny thing is that the first time [he came to me as a patient], I asked him if he was going into politics. I told a friend of mine in Florida, “[He] is going to be president of the United States someday.” He had a presence. He walked into a room, and the room changed. He has tremendous charisma.
CF: Did you ever tell him your reasons for believing so strongly in the single payer system?
DS: We never talked about it.
CF: You are proud of the fact that you’re an old-fashioned doctor who gives your patients your home number and still makes house calls. Did you ever make a house call to Obama?
POSTCRIPT: Scheiner called me today to tell me he had just found two signed paperback copies of Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father. Obama, then in the U.S. Senate, had given them to Scheiner, with the following notes: “Happy Hanukkah, Dr. Scheiner, best doctor in the world. Take some time for yourself and read a good book. Love, Obama.” “To David. Thanks for looking after me all these years.”