In 1836 P.T. Barnum, renowned promoter and circus impresario, bought an elderly slave woman named Joice Heth, whom he then exhibited as the 160-year-old childhood nursemaid to George Washington.

Barnum stirred up controversy by writing fake letters, both positive and critical, to New York newspapers. Heth became an object of interest in news reports and editorial columns, and soon Barnum was earning as much as $1500 a week from the scores of New Yorkers who rushed to see Washington’s “mammy.”

After Heth died, an autopsy set her age at around 80. Barnum then insisted that the wrong woman had been autopsied. The master showman knew how to manipulate “news” for profit.

In 1929, another skilled propagandist working for the American Tobacco Company staged a publicity stunt to persuade women that smoking in public was socially acceptable. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, assembled a group of attractive debutantes to march in a New York City parade. He informed the press that women's rights marchers would light "Torches of Freedom." On his signal, the women began puffing their Lucky Strike cigarettes. Bernays distributed photos of these smoking “feminists” worldwide. Cigarette sales to women soared.

Bernays, whom some call the father of Public Relations, applied his uncle’s psychological research in this and many other PR campaigns. (Watch the fascinating video clip on YouTube, “The Torches of Freedom.”)

Fast-forward to 1993 and the Clinton health care plan. The Health Insurance Association of America funded a front-group, the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices, to spearhead the effort to kill health care reform. Using opinion polling, opponents developed a list of potential weaknesses and then organized over 20 separate coalitions to attack each point.

Who can forget that troubled all-American couple Harry and Louise huddled around the kitchen table bemoaning “complexity” and the threat of a new “billion-dollar bureaucracy”? The ad was the brainchild of the PR firm of Goddard Claussen.

Despite a groundswell of support for health care reform, the tide was turned by this coordinated effort employing repetition and misinformation, while playing on people’s fears.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal convened a panel of citizens to review the details of various health plans. The panel chose the Clinton plan but when they were told it was the “Clinton plan,” they changed their minds, saying that it could never work.

Harry and Louise is just a taste of what’s coming. For a preview, watch (or read) the July 10 Bill Moyers Journal interview of Wendell Potter, a former executive of health giant CIGNA and eyewitness to health insurance company practices. (

Potter explains how the industry makes their money by denying coverage, cutting unprofitable enrollees, discrediting their critics (such as sabotaging Michael Moore’s movie Sicko), and fighting to maintain the status quo (and their enormous profits) without competition from a public option. Potter also talks about the strategy to defeat any reform bill, one that includes the wordsmith skills of Frank Luntz.

Luntz, in #4 of his 10 rules to convince Americans to oppose the public option, urges collaborators to emphasize “government takeover” of health care. (Never mind the truth that the public option is about government insurance, not control!)

Opponents are proving to be dutiful followers of Luntz’s playbook as they robotically parrot “government takeover” again and again on the floor of Congress and on television talk shows.

Barnum and Bernays would be proud!