It was a dilemma for them, you see, because the local tax collector, a gruff and smarmy old sot named Chappaquidduck, (he was called this in part because his waddling gait resembled that of a pregnant mallard) was about to make his rounds and demand more tribute from the impoverished citizens, and the town fathers hadn't spent all of the money he had raked in from his last foray.
They were in such a quandary. The townsfolk were going to be very upset. Chappaquidduck had, sometimes with the point of his lancet, confiscated the few gold pieces that the villagers had horded for the education of their children, and the mood in the village was one of discontent. For them to find out that more taxes were going to be collected when the town council hadn't spent the revenue taken from them in the last levy was not going to sit well.
The wrinkled old man approached the town elders and said, "Gentlemen, I bid you Good Morning. I come to you with an opportunity. With this bottle of elixir, I can cure every ailment known to man." The old man held out a tiny bottle for all the men to see.
The village senators all gathered round and stared at the small bottle that looked to contain swamp water. They looked down at the little man and were skeptical.
"We have a horrible problem with alzheimer's in this village," said Fristy Bill, the village's mayor. "You can cure alzheimer's with that elixir?"
"Never failed yet," said the old man.
A grossly overweight villager known for his raging temper and wayward lifestyle named Hillaireigh asked, "Parkinson's? You can cure Parkinson's?"
"It'll vanish within minutes. One dose of this potion and the afflicted person will never experience memory loss or have difficulty with bodily functions again."
"If he is far-sighted, it'll correct that as well."
"And make him sexually potent again."
Why, the town elders couldn't believe their luck. A nostrum that will cure every affliction known to man.
Then one councilmember, a particularly unctuous old geezer named Schumerchuck looked at the old man and asked, "So what do you want for that cure-all?" The men gathered around began to worry. They just knew that the price for this wondrous medicine was going to be beyond their means.
Hillaireigh cried out, "That's right. How can we afford this? We have only 60 pieces of gold in the town treasury!"
The old man looked at the pile of gold and then at Hillaireigh and said, "You're in luck. 60 pieces of gold is exactly the price I charge for my curative."
The townsmen were overjoyed. They were going to be able to cure all the ills in the village ... and they found a way to exhaust their treasury before the collector confiscated more of the villagers' few remaining pence.
Fristy Bill took the 60 coins and handed them to the old man.
"Now I shall set to work to make you a new batch of elixir." As it turned out, the bottle of potion that the old man carried with him was for his own use. Or some such.
"This will take some time. I will need a hut in which I can sleep and I'll require food to eat. I cannot work on an empty stomach."
"And I must tell you, my wardrobe is worn out. In order to set to the task, I'll need a suit of new clothes. You'll want to provide me with a pair of wool trousers and a vest. And a new shirt - silk - and a pair of leather shoes."
The town elders began to look at one another.
"How are we going to pay for this?," asked Slickwilleigh.
"We'll have to raise the tax," declared Schumerchuck, with a grin.
The others in the crowd began to smile. "Yes. The town is deep in debt but this is such a worthy cause. We cannot afford not to spend our villagers' worldly wealth on this cure-all."
Everyone in attendance agreed. All were rapturous.
"And if the secret potion works as well as the old man says it does, why, we will have to begin raising revenue for another batch."
All agreed and were happy. They began to cheer and slap each other on the back.
One elderly, graying villager in the back of the crowd, an uncomplicated old curmudgeon who had all his life been known as Bushy George, on account of his wildly untamed hair and strange knack for reversing the words in his sentences, looked at the exhibition before him and shouted, "But what if this gentleman's swamp water doesn't do what he claims it will do?"
The cheering stopped. A hush came over the crowd. The town's leadership hadn't considered that.
"That's a good question. How do you guarantee your secret potion will do what you claim it will do?," asked Fristy Bill.
"I give you my word," replied the old man, with an air of indignation.
"My tests have shown this nostrum to be very promising."
A shock, followed by a sense of astonishment, swept through the crowd.
"You mean you haven't actually brought about the marvelous results you claim you can?," asked Bushy George. He was quite taken aback.
"No. But my initial trials have shown the elixir to be very effective. I am at the point where I am prepared to declare to you that my medicine will not only cure every illness and disease known to man but it will even cure ailments that your villagers haven't even contracted yet."
"It will take some time. And money. But I guarantee wondrous results."
"We cannot let this opportunity pass us by," the mayor declared. "Old man, we will provide you with whatever you require in order for you to be able to produce your special potion. We must think of the village's children!"
With that, everyone in the gathering, especially Hillaireigh, rejoiced. "Yes! The children! The village! It is our duty to save them!"
All were exultant except the townspeople, who were in their hovels watching the spectacle in the town square from their windows and doorways. They couldn't comprehend what all the excitement was about but they had come to understand that whenever the village's politicians got worked up, trouble - costly, intrusive trouble - was soon to follow.
But the town elders paid them no mind. Fristy Bill and Hillaireigh and Schumerchuck and Slickwilleigh and the others had all come to the understanding long before that the villagers were idiots, were an impediment to progress, and were, therefore, to be kept out of the governing process.
The town's elders knew what was best for them.
"Old man, we will obtain whatever it is you need. It is yours for the asking."
They knew they were doing right for the people.
The mayor took the old man by the arm and, as they started making their way toward the finest dwelling in town that wasn't owned by a politician, turned to him and said, "Tell me, old man, from what source do you obtain your magic elixir?"
The old man looked up at Fristy Bill, hesitated for a moment as if he were about to reveal a secret, and whispered, "Why, from embryonic stem cells, Mr. Mayor."
"All right then," replied Fristy Bill, not at all sure what stem cells were. "It's high time we started recognizing the unique healing power of embryonic stem cells. The people will be forever grateful for what you are about to do for them."
The two men strolled on arm in arm.
A cure for all ills was just days ... or weeks ... or months ... at most, years away.
* "As a physician, Sen. [Bill] Frist has a moral calling to save lives and alleviate suffering. He honors his Hippocratic Oath today by recognizing the unique healing power of embryonic stem cells." [my emphasis]
Senator Ted Kennedy, Wall Street Journal, "Frist Backs Funding Of Stem-Cell Research," July 30, 2005