Writings and observations

A few more town hall words

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At the Wu town hall

The man directly behind us in line at yesterday’s McMinnville town hall meeting, held by Representative David Wu, was an 84-year-old retiree, attending with his wife. He was mad as hell (he’d surely agree with that description) and he knew what he planned to ask Wu if he got the chance. He told me, partly in rehearsal: “Is your federal death squad going to gas us, or shoot us in the head?”

He was totally serious. And deeply worried, which makes sense if you think that scenario is just around the bend. His wife, next to him, was using a walker: Would they be coming for her?

I told him that scenario was not true. It is a widely-disseminated lie based on a radical twisting of a relatively minor bill amendment proposed by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, having to do with payment for doctor consults. Death squads are not in the bill. No one is proposing them. And the Medicare he and his wife have been relying on would not change much at all.

Where he got his information originally was unclear, but as he absorbed some of the details, the tension and the anger drained away. Inside at the meeting, he turned out to be among those called on to ask a question. When he did, the basic subject was the same, but his question was calm and dispassionate: I’ve been hearing about seniors not getting care under this plan, or worse. What can you tell about that? Wu’s response, in different words, was about the same as much. The man nodded, and sat down. He looked as if he felt a lot better.

There’s an impulse to ask some of the people who talk about death squads and such: How is this even credible to you? Why is it even believable? But cable TV is powerful, and the widespread spread of lies is readily managed – is being managed. The path out from this morass comes not to isolation but from open conversation. The energy level of the relatively few un-civil people at the Wu meeting seemed to flag as the meeting went on and more people, and Wu, had their say.

In the context, the banner headline in today’s Oregonian, “Hostile questions fill Wu’s town hall,” seems a little off-point. Not that there weren’t hostile questions, statements, mumbles and grunts; there were. But by no means all the questions were hostile, many of the pro-Wu people didn’t pick up ticket numbers to ask questions (many of those were there to listen, or maybe deny a seat to an anti-), and most of the people in the room (you could tell from the timing of applause and other factors) were in the reform group. Outside, there was a protest of sorts, but the crowd there too was mixed. There was no violence, and no one was blocked out.

Jeff Mapes’ Oregonian story – keyed around the lead’s “mostly hostile questions at a packed town hall Monday evening that brought a political circus” – was accurate but feels incomplete.

Incomplete in part because the context of the meeting, and standards for assessing it, are a little unusual.

By the norms of most town hall meetings, yes, this was highly unusual, and the level of criticism and hostility far higher than most. We’ve attended a bunch of town halls by members of Congress over the years, and seldom seen anything like this.

But that’s not a realistic standard for comparison. Compare instead this one to the town hall explosions around the country, experienced by some legislators, who were shouted down, saw their meetings disrupted, people unable to talk other than in a yell – in other words, other recent town halls this year where the subject was health care and organizers got busy trying to raise the temperature. The McMinnville event, by comparison, was civil, and the points of view widely varied. (Did anyone make any note of the people inside and out carrying signs advocating for single-payer?)

Another comparison comes to mind: A Vancouver (WA) town hall meeting held a couple of years ago by Representative Brian Baird. That one was in a school auditorium, attended by more than 500 people, and the people there were almost entirely opposed to Baird’s revised stay-awhile Iraq policy. You could tell from applause and other indicators that no more than a handful of people there were supportive of Baird (or the Bush Administration); the anger in the room was almost visible. Baird was much more on the hot seat, hearing his constituents saying their piece for about three hours, taking far more consistently furious questions in that Vancouver auditorium, than Wu in McMinnville.

There’s an irony here. Baird, who has done more than 300 town halls in his district during his decade-plus in Congress, isn’t doing them now because (he’s quoted as saying) “there’s a lynch mob mentality out there.”

Maybe there is, to a degree. But Wu’s McMinnville event demonstrated, more significantly, that the extreme aspects of the atmosphere can be controlled to the point that civility can be had. And it also showed, in the face of an 84-year-old constituent and many others besides him, the real value and usefulness of trying.

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