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Bob Wooten: Town halls prompting sympathy for senator

By Bob Wooten -- bwooten@nvdaily.com

A few times lately, I have clicked on the TV, turned to a cable news channel and actually felt sorry for a member of Congress.

Which means I must be going soft in my old age.

Congressmen and senators make $174,000 a year, command huge staffs, enjoy top-shelf health and retirement benefits and are routinely wined and dined by the rich and powerful. Once elected, most hold their seats as long as they want. Upon retiring, they have ample opportunities to enter the private sector and cash in on all the good will their votes bought over the years.

So while the words "poor baby" stick in the throat, I couldn't help feeling a pang of sympathy Tuesday when I looked at the TV mounted in the corner of my office and saw a gray-haired man getting in U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's face. The old fellow was trembling in anger and ranting at Specter during a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa.

"One day, God's gonna stand before you," he said. "And he's gonna judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill -- and then you will get your just desserts."

The fellow then stalked away from the microphone. The senator, to his credit, kept his cool.

"OK, we just had a demonstration of democracy," Specter said.

The next day, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin faced an angry crowd of more than 400 at Hagerstown (Md.) Community College. Hundreds more waited outside the building for a chance to weigh in.

Similar scenes have played out in town hall meetings across the nation this week as members of Congress used their August recess to sample the voting public's thinking on one of the most contentious issues on the nation's agenda, health care reform.

Many representatives, most of them Democrats, have been shouted down at these packed town hall meetings, which are normally more sedate. Usually, ordinary people get to pose some nervous questions, after which the elected folks exercise their considerable skills in sticking to pre-planned talking points.

The formula, however, isn't working so well right now. People are chanting, singing, gesticulating and carrying signs. Some think the government is preparing to institute "death panels" and others fear either a Nazi or socialist takeover of the nation.

Senators and congressman just aren't used to this kind of rough handling.

Is this just a particularly ugly mood for the electorate, brought on by two long wars, a vicious recession and fears that Congress and the Obama administration may wreck, rather than reform, health care in America? Or is it political theater, writ large?

Some Democrats have suggested these angry crowds are misinformed or are actually pawns of health industry lobbyists and Republican political opportunists. A few have gone so far as to describe the agitators as un-American.

Well, "poor babies."

True, some of these folks may be misinformed, some may have ulterior motives and some may just be mad at the world.

But for $174,000 a year, enduring a few hours of uncomfortable democracy -- Specter's word -- isn't too much to ask.

* Bob Wooten is the managing editor of the Daily. Contact him at 800-296-5137 or at bwooten@nvdaily.com.

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