The health-care town-hall meeting yesterday at UMKC's Swinney Rec Center was classic Claire "Bear" McCaskill.
The senator from Missouri, having already stood through enough angry town-hall meetings to witness a white hillbilly tear up a black woman's Rosa Parks poster, knew how to handle the crowd.
Signs weren't allowed inside the gym, so at first glance it was a little hard to tell who was on what side. ("This looks like an Obama rally," griped one guy dressed in all black in front of me, though I wasn't seeing all the Obama T-shirts he was seeing.) Tension built a bit before McCaskill arrived, when some partisans started chanting, "Health care now!" and were met with, "Just say no!" This petered out after a few rounds.
Walking into the gymnasium, which had been set up with chairs and bleachers to accommodate 1,300 people, McCaskill was greeted with a standing ovation. She stood onstage and tapped her chest in one of the universal signs for "Oh, I love you guys, too."
Then came the prayer.
Those of us who believe in the separation of church and state don't understand how politicians get away with this sort of thing at public universities -- but, constitution aside, it was a brilliant move on McCaskill's part. No one on the right could argue with a prayer, after all. But the prayer itself, by the Rev. Bob Atkinson, the interim pastor at Zion United Church of Christ in Mayview, Missouri, was a call to more civilized behavior than opponents have been wont to display this summer:
As we gather here to listen and discuss things important to us all, we ask for the presence of your Spirit, the Spirit of peace, that we may discern what is best for all your people. In the midst of many voices, may we hear your voice, and your desire for us all.Just in case that didn't sink in, McCaskill then led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
In all that we do, may we respect and listen to each other, even as you listen to each of us. In doing so, may we honor you, and your divine essence that is with each of us.
complaints about how controlled the environment was, but the crowd got
rowdy anyway -- not rowdy enough for CNN, but enough for McCaskill
to admonish everyone that this wasn't a sporting event, and
she wasn't keeping score based on the applause for one side or the
other. After that, applause for one side or the other only got louder, and opponents in the back started taking advantage of the noise they could make by stomping on the bleachers. At least one guy, pictured standing, at right, was there for the sole purpose of yelling belligerent things anytime he saw an opening.
crowd was when she called Medicare Part D "a huge bill of goods" passed
by the Bush administration. "Where were all of you people when they put Medicare Part D on the charge card in the last administration?"
The angriest the bleacher-crowd got was when McCaskill pointed out that, while consumers' health-care costs have gone up 200 percent in the past two decades, the CEOs of the country's 10 publicly traded insurance companies have seen their annual salaries increase to an average of $10 million. When the rumblings grew, so did McCaskill's voice. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with making a profit," she said -- guy pictured at right: "YES YOU ARE!" -- "I'm saying the private sector has the ability to bring costs down, and they're failing."
And because the bleacher crowd had been yelling, "What about tort reform?" McCaskill finally said a few words about that, even though she'd promised not to take questions yelled from the crowd. Short answer: Tort reform can be enacted at the state level; and where it has been, even though medical malpractice claims have gone down, health insurance costs have still gone up.
The hourlong session wrapped with an unfriendly question -- another one that Claire Bear handled in classic form: "Are you here to defend your preconceived positions or to listen to your constituents?"
McCaskill said she was "open," maybe moreso than a lot of other elected officials. "It's my job to be accountable to you," she said, pointing out that by month's end, she'll have held 20 or 30 of these meetings across the state. "This is about you, not about me. I need to be reminded that you are my bosses." But, she noted, "a lot of people here had preconceived ideas, too. I guarantee you a lot of people came here with their minds made up. My hope is that they might be open."
And with that, she thanked everyone deeply and proclaimed that "Missouri manners showed well."
Even that was debatable. Outside, partisans picked back up the signs that had been confiscated at the door and hung around for a while. Few, however, offered the sort of real solution proposed by this guy, in his "Yes We Cannabis" shirt: