CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It was billed as a roundtable conversation with plain folks at Jason's Deli in Charleston. Barack Obama joined four women at a table for a conversation – the same kind of thing he's done countless times in his campaign.
Obama spoke to the women of his plans to change the tax code, to provide tax breaks to low-income wage earners and home owners, to improve a tax credit for the same folks, to reform the family and medical leave act and generally to make health care more affordable.
Christina Stewart, a dance teacher, cancer survivor, and volunteer instructor of underprivileged children brought her daughter, Camille.
Camille is eight years old. She has cerebral palsy and is profoundly disabled. She cannot walk. She cannot speak.
"We live a life that is unbelievable," Mrs. Stewart told Obama. Unbelievable because her daughter has been uninsurable, save for very basic Medicaid coverage that doesn't come close to addressing her needs.
Mrs. Stewart currently pays $200-a-month out of her own pocket for various medications such as Prilosec because her daughter suffers from "excruciating" acid reflux. Medicaid won't pay for it. Indeed, Medicaid will pay only for one hour of physical therapy for Camille, according to her mother.
"It is horrible to watch my child suffer," she said as she recounted the long waits she endures for the Medicaid care, the lack of schooling for a child with special needs and her consuming dread of what will happen to Camille if she is forced to institutionalize her.
"It makes no sense for this to happen in the United States," she told Obama. "Why does this happen in the United States?"
Obama was riveted by her story. He told her of his plan to reform Medicaid, to do away with wasteful spending that would free up better care for her daughter.
But here's the thing: when Obama and Mrs. Stewart had this conversation, Camille was no longer between them. because after initially placing her at the senator's side, after the photographers captured both in the same frame, and after mouthing some faint sounds that had the very slight potential of being disruptive, Camille was wheeled away. First to the edge of the deli, then outside altogether.
I don't doubt Obama's concern for the child and children like her. His policies are designed to address such incredible misfortune. But Camille today was basically a political prop. Someone to be seen but not heard – even if she could speak.
Though politics is full of sentimentality and syrup, it is also a very brusque, impersonal kind of undertaking. This was such an occasion.
"Where's my beautiful daughter?" Mrs. Stewart asked after the conversation ended. "She's outside in a van," was the response.
As we were leaving i asked her if she was satisfied by what she'd heard.
"It was very good," she said, "But I need more time to hear more."
Meanwhile, she said, she thinks John Edwards has a better plan to deal with Camille's needs.
Then she headed out to the parking lot to resume her life with Camille.