Town Hall Outrage: Populist Fury or Political Theater?

Amb. James K. Glassman

Amb. James K. Glassman

Executive Director of The George W. Bush Institute and Expert on Issues Involving Economics, Technology and Financial Markets

On his blog, James K. Glassman has offered his take on the recent town hall fiasco. Is the dustup sincere outrage or simply political theater?

"Town halls have become town hells," says Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President Bush who supported Barack Obama in the November election. He was referring, of course, to contentious meetings between members of Congress and constituents on the subject of changes to America’s healthcare system. McKinnon, who used to serve with me on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, knows how to turn a phrase. But deep concern about the government’s healthcare activity is nothing new, and politicians who believe that the opposition to the Democrats' plan is a put-up job are deceiving themselves and imperiling their own careers.

Such self-deception abounds. Paul Krugman, a cheerleader for the House healthcare reform package, recently wrote in the New York Times: "I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds." The responses, he wrote, are "something new and ugly."

Actually, they aren’t new at all, and, in ugliness, it is hard to match an incident that occurred almost precisely 20 years ago.

The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was accosted by constituents angry about the passage of the Catastrophic Coverage Act, which expanded Medicare benefits and funded the change with a supplemental tax.

The Chicago Tribune reported on Aug. 19, 1989:

"Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, one of the most powerful politicians in the United States, was booed and chased down a Chicago street Thursday morning by a group of senior citizens after he refused to talk with them about federal health insurance. Shouting 'Coward,' 'Recall' and 'Impeach,' about 50 people followed the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee up Milwaukee Avenue after he left a meeting in the auditorium of the Copernicus Center, 3106 N. Milwaukee Ave., in the heart of his 8th Congressional District on the city’s Northwest Side.

"Eventually, the 6-foot-4-inch Rostenkowski cut through a gas station, broke into a sprint and escaped into his car, which minutes earlier had one of the elderly protesters, Leona Kozien, draped over the hood. Kozien, one of more than 100 senior citizens who attended the gathering, said she had hoped to talk to Rostenkowski, her congressman, at the meeting.

"But Rostenkowski clearly did not want to talk with her, or any of the others who had come to tell their complaints about the high cost of federal catastrophic health insurance. 'These people don’t understand what the government is trying to do for them,' the 61-year-old congressman complained as he tried to outpace his pursuers."

In fact, writes Stephen Bainbridge, "I think they understood too well." I am indebted to Bainbridge, the UCLA law professor who writes the ProfessorBainbridge.com blog, for digging up the Tribune clipping (by the way, Krugman should also note that the story was covered by the New York Times in 1989 as well)  and reminding people today of the anger directed against Rostenkowski and his colleagues at the time.

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Town Hall Outrage: Populist Fury or Political Theater?
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