I went to a town hall meeting last Thursday — and democracy broke out.
I fully expected to see members of the lunatic fringe attempting to shout down our congressman or monopolize the microphones. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to note that our local law enforcement was out in force and, while being studiously polite, they enforced ground rules which allowed everybody who walked up to a microphone over the 3½-hour session (it was scheduled to run 4 to 6 p.m., but the last speaker finished around 7:30) to have their say.
Our congressman, Sanford Bishop Jr., has represented Georgia’s Second Congressional District — all of Southwest Georgia — for 16 years. Amazingly, he looked and sounded as fresh at the end of the session — his fourth in two days — as he did at the beginning. He was unflappable yet in control, numerous times shushing the crowd when some members became unruly or rude in response to remarks from a citizen. Nattily attired in a brown suit, yellow tie, and matching pocket patch, he appeared far younger than his 62 years, and he was indefatigable in his presentation of the thousand page bill to a standing room audience in Albany State University’s Academics building.
Belying the media stereotypes, the audience appeared to be made up primarily of local citizens with a genuine interest in having a conversation — or making a point — with or to their representative in Congress. There were no signs permitted in the auditorium. My two-minute effort with a Sharpie on posterboard went to naught, as I turned over my poster to a polite policewoman in the lobby who gave me a choice between keeping my sign and picketing outside the building, or leaving it in her care and attending the meeting. The officer wasn’t around when I got out hours later, so the world will never see my brightly lettered sign: “TELL CONGRE$$ NOT TO $UCCOMB TO IN$URANCE DOLLAR$”
In what I had correctly anticipated was a brilliant stroke of political strategy, the venue at Albany State ensured that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-regurgitating, white Republicans (most of whom hailed from outside of Albany — each speaker had to identify himself or herself by name and location), were outnumbered by African American fans of both President Obama and Congressman Bishop.
I roughly calculated the breakdown as approximately 30 percent white, middle class, immigrant-bashing opponents of any reform, any government spending, any hint of Socialism. And 70 percent who supported reforming the current mess. At times the meeting seemed more like a television talent contest with fans of each side cheering, applauding speakers who vocalized their positions.
The biggest cheer of the night went to a minister who recited phrases from the New Testament which were echoed by Congressman Bishop — verses about Jesus healing the sick — and suddenly it seemed that a political town hall meeting had turned into a religious revival, as the more than half of the crowd rose to their feet in noisy appreciation. The self-professed right-wing Christians who oppose any help to the less fortunate, including Samaritans, excuse me, Mexican immigrants, never appreciated the irony of their position.
I made a point of introducing myself to those sitting around me — to my left was a slightly OCD white middle-aged opponent of health reform who was fiercely against socialism in any form. He felt that the government could not possibly run a health care system. He had health insurance on his job and seemed satisfied with his current lot. When he railed against socialism in the medical field, I asked him if he thought that most senior citizens were dissatisfied with Medicare and would prefer to opt out and purchase private insurance.
His response — reasonably enough — was that they wouldn’t because they didn’t have to pay anything for Medicare. At no point did he seem to understand that once we reach 65, we’re all socialists. Nor did he seem aware of the undisputed fact that somehow the government provides Medicare benefits to seniors without totally screwing up the program. In fact the overhead for Medicare is a fraction of what private insurers and HMOs expend for their high priced executives and other administrative costs.
One woman’s story was particularly telling. She mentioned her husband, a Vietnam veteran, who had been exposed to Agent Orange during his tour there in the early 1970s. Three decades later, they had good jobs and were living the American dream — beautiful house, several cars, money saved for retirement. Then, in 2002, he became sick. The Veterans Administration denied benefits and he was ineligible for care at the VA hospital.
Although they had insurance, the incredible expense of his illness cost them their house, their cars, their life savings. Five years later, they were so destitute that she had to choose between paying for the medicine to keep him alive a bit longer and the medicine she needed to treat her high blood pressure that might cost her own life. She chose to buy the medicine her husband needed, but in the end, he died.
The question she posed — the challenge she posed — to the congressman and to the anti-reformers in the audience, was: why did she have to choose? Why did anyone have to lose everything and then have to make a life or death choice like that because the money had run out? None of the socialism-hating, immigrant-bashing, Fox News misinformation-swallowing, white Republicans had an answer.
Written by Jim Finkelstein.
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