Last Saturday I spent a rainy afternoon attending a Health Care Town Hall, here in Portsmouth, NH. This was my chance to make my voice heard, and to participate in the great debate of our day. In the finest tradition of our republic, I and about 150 of my fellow citizens, gathered to address our Congresswoman and to grapple with the thorny question of how best to insure the future health and well-being of the people of this great nation.
Despite dire warnings, the time spent waiting to get into the event went pleasantly. There was a remarkable lack of screaming, and most of the signs seemed to be of the pre-fab, pro-reform variety. I was tapping my toes to the tunes of the local Leftist Marching Band. Everyone was on their best behavior, and my line-neighbors where in good spirits despite waiting in the rain.
After being searched and wanded and passing through several layers of security I was into the main event. Clearly Congresswoman Shea-Porter was preparing for any contingency. If things to too rowdy we would be subjected a power-point presentation consisting of the artistic works for Norman Rockwell. Fortunately, it never came to that.
As I grabbed an empty chair in the middle section, signs of division began to show. Along the sides of the room there were several photographers. The baseball-cap-equipped man seated in front of me singled out the only one with a dark complexion and demanded to know why he was taking pictures of us. A murmur of approval went up around me. I began to realize that the group I was seated in the midst of, were, perhaps, not Obama voters.
Making the most of my situation, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me and asked for his thoughts on Obama's health care reforms. He was opposed. We agreed that the bill itself did not constitute a government takeover, and came to a rough consensus on the contours of the slippery slope. Still, my neighbor wasn't going to get behind the Obama plan.
"I'm a long-term strategic thinker. Always have been. Maybe this bill won't lead to a government takeover. Maybe it won't happen for another 20 or 30 years. But I won't let them take that first step."
My conversation with the long-term thinker (henceforth to be dubbed L.T.) , would turn out to be very fortuitous. He would be my Virgil, my guide throughout the madness, the key to my understanding the events that followed.
At last, Representative Shea-Porter arrived, and the event could begin. The Congresswoman had been swept into office from relative obscurity in what was probably the biggest upset in the 2006 congressional elections. She had survived a reelection rematch in 2008, but was still relatively new to the job. This was the first time I had really seen her in action.
Shea-Porter welcomed us and established some ground rules. The chance to ask questions would be established by lottery. This upset some people who seemed to think priority should come by order or appearance or ranked by belligerence. Shea-Porter had an actual uniformed boy scout draw the numbers --establishing unassailable fairness of the system.
Before the audience Q&A kicked off, the Congresswoman had some invited guests provide their testimonials. One of her guests was a local woman named Laurie McCray. Laurie told the story of trying to buy insurance for her family, which was a kind of nightmare version of my own. Laurie's family members have some "pre-existing conditions" so their insurance policy, which has an obscene deductible and so covers nothing, costs them $2400 a month. And it still doesn't include their son, who has downs syndrome.
Although we came from all sides the political spectrum, naturally, Laurie's story had a profound effect on all of us. There was a shared sense that if it was impossible for a hard-working middle-class family to even buy insurance, then the system was truly broken. Our humanity united us, and there was collective acknowledgement that something had to be done.
Naw, I'm just kidding. That crowd wasn't going to agree on anything. As Laurie's allotted 2 minutes expired there were outbursts. "Time's up!" "Next!". As the next question would indicate, the extent of our differences extended to the very purpose and nature of the event we were attending.
"I've called your office every day for weeks to find out when you were going to face your constituents, who pay your salary, at a health care town-hall meeting." he announced. "I've been waiting since 8AM" (to get into this health care town-hall meeting). "I've been waiting for my number to be called, so I can ask my question, and now my number has been called, and I'm going to ask my question!" His question... "Why are you afraid to have a health care town hall meeting?!?"
The next questioner took things further down the rabbit hole, jumping right to "This is a Nazi plan." He then stepped back, gave a little smile, looking around the room. Clearly, he was impressed with his own courage and creativity and felt it would lead to YouTube stardom. To the audience's credit, there were more groans than gasps. I watched to see if Shea-Porter would go all Barney Frank on him. She went with "I may detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." But her heart wasn't in it. "Nazi" has been done to death.
Judging by the boos and clapping, the room was evenly divided between reform advocates and opponents. The opponents were far more boisterous, better prepared with little speeches, and far more memorable. Advocates tended to just thank the Congresswoman, or ask a real question. I was thinking my question would be something really penetrating like: "Since the current system of ever-escalating costs is bankrupting so many citizens, businesses, states, and our federal government, and we have a vast and ever-growing number of uninsured people falling through the cracks in this failing system, do you support President Obama's modest effort to move to more rational, more competitive system, where everyone might be able to get some health insurance?" Shea-Porter indicated in her opening statement that she did support the current plan. So, I was kind of scrambling to come up with a new question.
Since incisive interlocutor didn't seem to be my role in this little drama, my major contribution was that of anti-heckler heckler. I often found myself shouting at someone who was trying to shout down someone else. My moment of triumph came when a grumpy guy jumped in, for the fourth time, with "I waited in the rain for two hours!" and was met with a chorus of "We all did!". I totally started that.
One woman said this was a socialist plan that was taking away our freedoms. She didn't specify which ones. The next speech came from someone who was going on about how there where 35 czars in the Obama administration, and why did he need so many czars? Shea-Porter actually argued with the guy about the precise number of czars there really were. This seemed a little beside the point. My seat-neighbor, L.T., seemed to find the czar argument compelling. I asked if he was aware that they weren't, actually, real czars. The czar nickname is kind of a joke. L.T. informed me that it was "the media" that called them czars. I was envisioning Glen Beck deciding to dub various bureaucrats as czars and then freaking out because there are so many government czars. It's a perfect, paranoid-delusion, feedback loop.
Apparently, one of the czars is even a communist czar. A guy named Van Jones declared himself a communist in 1992. The speaker was going on about his evil communist ideology. I wasn't familiar with the work of comrade Jones myself. Once again, I turned to L.T. for guidance. I did kind of snort in his face when L.T. informed me Van Jones is a "green jobs advisor", but L.T. took it well. I guess we were supposed to be scared that he's a communist. It seems more a comment on the sorry state of communist infiltration these days. Joseph McCarthy had a list of 200 card-carrying communists in the State Department alone. Obama just has one communist? Does he even carry his card? I think those cards are only good for 10 years.
Congresswoman Shea-Porter stayed pretty calm and patient throughout. She was asked if she had read the bill. Clearly she had. She was on a committee that helped draft it, and she was able to quote specific sections, or point out what had been removed or amended. She seemed committed to real reform without being overly dogmatic. When things got rowdy she was able to calm the room with a school-marmy "I can wait." And then she waited. It worked surprisingly well.
In the end there had been a lot of sound and fury of unclear significance. As we filed out, no doubt most of us left with the same opinion of health care reform we had come in with. We had said our bit, shouted at our congressional representative, or shouted at people shouting at our congressional representative, and participated in the democratic process.
Will we, as a country, overcome what divides us, come together and pass some real health care reform? Apparently the democrats, socialists, fascists, Nazis, czarists, and communists all support reform. If they can agree, there's hope for all of us.