Civility in public discussion these days is as rare as a bald-headed Kennedy -- the last of that mane now lionized by Ted's passing.
But damn if John McCain didn't have a bunch of citizens at his Arizona health care reform town hall meeting yesterday behaving like the Mormon Tabernacle choir: polite, orderly and in key. No Barney Frank verbal bitch-slapping or Arlen Specter constituency spittle here. Everyone in their seats; no signs, no riots.
This is a guy who's not only on (his) message, unlike the eloquent and seemingly unprepared-for-this-battle Obama administration, but keeps his audience there with him.
"We don't shout at my Town Hall meetings," Senator McCain said to the crowd. Whether that was an order or an observation, we should salute in any case after the orgy of squabble and protesting dust devils the last couple of weeks. Yes, sir! Booyah! No cable news conflict fodder here, highlighting the drama and not the substance.
His visual was a small and simple chart, not the high pyrotechnics or pig Latin knots of health care explication from President Obama on down where you need a slide rule and Stephen Hawking to figure out if you're still breathing. Must we have a public option or not? This has been policy straddling a teeter-totter. No wonder people are infuriated and frustrated.
But here's John McCain: "It's not a public option, (it's) really the government option. Because it's the government-run health care system." Simple, right? Agree or disagree, that's as clear as the Arizona desert sky. And it's not as though McCain, dismissed last election as old and unelectable, can't stir it up. "We have committed an act of generational theft!" he roared to the audience. Not bad. And he wasn't addressing health care in that moment but the financial system bailout, which a lot of people at all these meetings remain ticked off about because no one from Washington even pretended to ask their opinions on that one, though it also affected everyone.
True or not -- as a journalist once ironically began a story -- this is a little straight-talking. What a break. In fact, after the campaign potholes of the Palin controversies, the age insults and the injection of consultants that the long-time maverick senator wore on the stump about as uncomfortably as a bad 50s Soviet suit, we've forgotten how much we used to like this guy and what a status quo-disturber he was.
True, it was an older crowd that was actually in a church. And it's always easier to say "I told you so" than run the show. But maybe Mr. McCain is doing it right and these other pols, wading uncharacteristically and awkwardly into the melee, are doing it wrong.
He didn't even need to use a teleprompter.
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