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In the last week we had all seen the network newsclips of turmoil and shouting and the close-ups of confused and cowed legislators in this city or that who were prevented from conducting public dialogues on pending national-health measures in Congress.
Judged by those precedents, 9th district congressman Steve Cohen did well indeed when it was his turn to take on the issue at a Town Hall meeting, held Saturday in the huge, barn-like confines of the Bridges Center downtown.
The structure was, as they say, filled to the rafters, with several hundred, maybe a thousand or two attendees, the great majority of whom seemed to be worked up to a frenzy, one way or another. Undeniably, naysayers — organized and otherwise — predominated, with high-decibel noise of all kinds, including groans, cheers, and persistent chants of “term limits!,” “tort reform!” and “read the bill!”
Cohen, assisted by a full-out effort on the part of his overloaded staff, was able, despite the din, to maintain order and get statements made from the podium that reflected both, or rather all, sides to the current health-care debate. There were physicians — like Drs. James J. Klemis and Frank McGrew — who made reasoned and steadfast objections to a developing bill that may or may not end up with a “public” (i.e., government-managed) option for the medical-insurance seeker. There were also physicians — like Drs. Joe Weinberg and Jeff Warren — who delivered reasoned and passionate defenses of the brewing legislation, or of something like it.
There was also a drumfire of more rabid and demagogic statements made, from the podium and elsewhere, and there’s nothing much to be gained from apportioning it out as to pro and con. The point was that a dialogue was created and maintained, despite all odds. Cohen was able to establish the fact that he had indeed “read the bill,” as had most of the others who were able to address the throng.
One speaker, with a nod to known sports nut Cohen, likened the bedlam in the audience to someone’s trying to hold a pep rally before a University of Memphis-Louisville grudge match and filling the auditorium with both student bodies at once.
At one point, as if to challenge the very fates, Cohen strode down the center aisle amid this cacophony of contending partisans, delivered his response to a question, and, after doing so, returned unscathed to the podium. (That feat, like the relative order of the proceedings, may of course have been enabled by the conspicuous presence of uniformed city and county security officers — yet another credit due to local district chief Randy Wade and the rest of the farsighted Cohen staff, especially since there were unconfirmed reports that guns may have been confiscated from some of those entering.)
At the end of the proceedings, Stuart Ellard, an opponent of the bill now pending in Congress and a self-professed foe of “liberals” in general, made his way to the head table, penetrated the crowd collected around Cohen to hold out his hand to the congressman and thank him for holding the meeting and doing so fairly.
Not that everybody was so happy. Jane Pierotti, a professional consultant and local Republican activist, complained to a newsman that the questions presented to the congressman for reply had been “screened” by his staff to be one-sided. “We couldn’t ask everything we wanted to,” she said.
To this a Cohen staffer would note common-sensically that attempting the usual mode of having a mike line and accepting questions at random would very likely have degenerated into chaos. “We made every effort to group the questions by subject matter, and no other criteria. We made no effort to judge their point of view,” she said.
And, indeed, there was a fair amount of redundancy to the questions. Usually that’s anathema to the success of a “town hall” assembly. In this case, given the volume and persistence of shouts, applause, and interruptions, the repetitiousness was an aide to framing both the basic questions and the range of answers.
Certain themes recurred. Various speakers and shouters condemned the concept of “government” medicine, giving Cohen the opportunity at several occasions of underscoring the irony of that complaint by noting the general acceptance of such venerable institutions as V.A. hospitals, military medical corps, and Medicare. Indeed, when he asked those audience members to stand who approved the achievements of Medicare, undeniably a form of “government” medicine, a majority of the audience seemed to rise, even many (and not all of them elderly) who had been hurling verbal abuse at the proposed bill.
Cohen was able, too, to point out that the bill did nothing, despite suspicions to the contrary, to alter the current state of physicians’ freedom of action regarding abortion, nor to legitimize euthanasia or unpopular or illegal forms of sexual practice. He noted, to what sounded through the hubbub like audience approval, that the bill would extend insurance coverage to patients with pre-existing meedical conditions.
Though he took an equivocal stand in favor of the final congressional bill’s containing a public option (for which he received as many cheers as boos), Cohen refused to say in advance whether he would vote for it, contending that to make such a declaration would be irresponsible without knowing what the bill ultimately would involve.
As the meeting wore toward its close, there were even moments of general agreement, as when one questioner wondered about the prospect of converting The Pyramid, a nearby structure which continues to be unused, into a facility to be administered by the Smithsonian. The crowd murmured its approval, no one seeming to mind the suggestion of “government” administration.
As noted above, Cohen and other participants were swarmed over by attendees when the meeting broke up, but this was no hostile melee — rather a continuation of a conversation on national health care which, miraculously enough, had actually gotten under way.
There were those, generally proponents of the congressional bill, who would argue later on that the rowdiness of the meeting had been an “embarrassment” to the city. At least one journalist complained of being manhandled by someone in the crowd. A photographer got into a shoving match with a heckler. And the sound system, which sometimes dissolved into unintelligible electronic mud, left much to be desired.
But again, given the recent precedents of disrupted meetings and frustrated dialogues in other cities, Saturday’s “Town Hall” was a model of decorum and light. Cohen and his staff have reason to be proud.
UPDATE: Given the fact that so many Tea Partiers slammed away at my innocent if ignorant original usage of the term “TeaBaggers” to describe them in a previous post, this note from an authentic Shelby County conservative and patriot sheds some light on the recent history of that term as applied to health-care protesters.