At the tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy Friday night at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Mr. Kennedy's closest friend in the Senate, told a story of how he recently underwent prostate cancer surgery and when he came out of recovery his first phone call was from Mr. Kennedy, who said, "Given the choice between prostate cancer surgery and going to town hall meetings, you made the right choice."
I thought of that story Saturday when I was driving to a middle school in the Spring Valley area of San Diego to moderate a "town hall" meeting on health care. Congresswoman Susan Davis, a Democrat from California's 53rd District, had asked me to do that, and since my regard for Ms. Davis is very high, I readily accepted her invitation.
I knew from reports that more than 1,000 people were expected, and, given the demographics, it would most likely be an unfriendly crowd. In fact at breakfast that morning some friends told me to either "bag the meeting" or wear a "bulletproof vest." But, wisely or otherwise, I went, confident of my ability to handle even the most hostile of audiences.
On a boiling hot day the audience in the school's gym easily topped 1,000, an amazing turnout compared to the 40 or 50 who normally attend such meetings. In addition, the 40 San Diego County Sheriff deputies assigned to the event turned several hundred more away.
Congresswoman Davis welcomed the crowd and invited the veterans present to come forward and lead the Pledge of Allegiance. More than 20 did. So far so good, I thought.
I was introduced and began by reading the rules that would govern our "dialogue." From memory I quoted Saint Thomas Aquinas and Alan Simpson, the great Republican senator from Wyoming (who would be a Saint if he were a Catholic). Aquinas said, "We must love them both. Those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and helped us in the finding of it." Senator Simpson said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts."
One might think by quoting Aquinas and Simpson at the outset of a meeting, the crowd, being appreciative of the obviously high standards being set, would act correspondingly. Fat chance.
The congresswoman proceeded to then outline her views on the health care legislation pending before Congress. As she did so the two-inch high, 1,000-page House bill was visible on the table beside her. Almost certainly, she was the only person present who had read the bill -- page by daunting page.
Shouldn't that have given her an advantage, having actually read the bill? Yes. Did it? No.
Davis then proceeded to take questions (by lottery) for 90 minutes from a crowd that was 100 percent Caucasian -- and overwhelmingly hostile.
Repeatedly they shouted, "We don't want Communism!" "We don't want Socialism!" "We don't want socialized medicine!" "We want our own private health plans!" They said, "Our country is being taken from us." Some wore T-shirts that read, "Obey." Meaning, we are to "obey" Obama (that's hardly what they had in mind). The crowd was often on its feet yelling and shouting. Some seemed in danger of losing it.
One lady, decked out in red, white and blue, with a star spangled hat and dark glasses, who sat right in front of the congresswoman, when she wasn't jumping up and down, was as vocal as anyone in the gym, and kept raising a hand-lettered sign that read, "Liar, Liar, Lair!" (Her graphics left something to be desired.) Her husband, wearing a cowboy hat and the requisite dark glasses, often yelled, and at one point jumped up and approached Davis in a menacing fashion.
In the middle of all this a big guy, at least 6 feet 8 in height and all muscles, wearing a black T-shirt, knee length pants, and military style black boots, walked ominously across the front of the gym. I looked for a gun, but didn't see one. Whew! (I hadn't worn my bulletproof vest.)
Finally, after 90 minutes, the last question went to a young man in his 30s. He had driven down from Carlsbad with his wife (an attractive couple). He said he wasn't from Ms. Davis' district, and he appreciated her holding the forum. He said they had two children and he was worried about what the government was going to do, the kind of America his children would inherit? Justifiable concerns. But surprisingly at that point he became greatly agitated and began shouting at the congresswoman. I had not expected that -- or his obvious ignorance of the pending legislation.
But in that he was hardly alone.
Indeed, while I greatly admired the willingness of so many to come to a town hall meeting, to give up a good part of their Saturday, it saddened me their seeming knowledge of health care appeared so Russ Limbaugh-, Glenn Beck-driven.
There was fear in the middle school gym Saturday, palpable fear; fear of what the government might do to impose by fiat health care on the nation -- but it was driven by lies and distortions.
To Susan Davis' credit she did not back down to the rants and shouts, which I'm afraid too many Democrats have done -- and because of their cowardice the president may have lost the health care debate.
When the last question was asked and Congresswoman Davis had responded, people began filing out of the gym. It was over. Ninety minutes of high energy. Ninety minutes of loud and angry accusations. But no one died. There was no riot. No one had been assaulted. No one was injured. All good.
Except for this:
The angry white people who attended, who came believing "their" America was being taken from them, that a government "of The People, by The People, for The People" was being lost, left with their minds unchanged, neither moved nor persuaded by "their" representative, Congresswoman Susan Davis.
They came, these 1,000 souls, to the Town Hall meeting, with their minds made up, with their right wing, Limbaugh/Beck paranoid agenda in place -- and they left in a similar state. No minds had been changed; whatever persuasion they came with, they left with.
So what was accomplished?
Well, all things considered, it wasn't a bad day for democracy; if, that is, you accept Mr. Churchill famous definition of democracy, "the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."
George Mitrovich is president of The City Club of San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.