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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 8.27.2009

Do You Trust Your Government?

Springfield town hall brings out reformers and skeptics

Observations by Rick Levin

Americans are pro-life and Barack Obama is pro-death and “you’re next.” Socialism is bad, insurance companies are evil and the Democrats want to off your grandmamma. Money equals power. The government can’t be trusted to tie its own shoelaces. Neglecting the uninsured is tantamount to ignoring the Holocaust; Peter DeFazio won’t answer the question and the Boy Scouts of America, God bless them, are still helping old ladies into their seats.

These are but a few of the tidbits heard and seen and gleaned by concerned citizens attending Congressman DeFazio’s traveling road show on health care reform, which rolled into Eugene and then Springfield Aug. 17. 

It was a hot night, in more ways than one. Because, when it comes to something as seemingly benign and get-behind-able as universal health coverage, opinions run the gamut from the shockingly inane to the wonkishly complex to the wholly confounding.

Right — benign, like a tumor you can’t get treated. Just ask Bill Clinton how easy it is to pass health care reform. No, go back: ask Roosevelt, Franklin Delano or even Teddy. But you can’t ask them. They’re both dead as doornails. As will you be, according to some of the more vocal pundits out there — dead, that is — if the public option gets shucked and shimmied through Congress.

For anyone who waited in line that Tuesday to witness the combined success/frustration/debacle of a public Q&A with a well-meaning, well-informed, clear-speaking and almost preternaturally level-headed politician about the hottest topic in the U.S. since the King of Pop croaked — namely, the political maneuvering for and concomitant outrage over health care reform, in the form of HR 3200 (which, by the way, DeFazio told both audiences he’s read in toto) — you had to have been at least a wee bit impressed with the level of interest this thing is generating. The line for the Springfield event stretched and then bent around the sidewalk outside Springfield High School. The auditorium was packed to its capacity of 700.

Makes one proud of our functioning democracy. Gives one warm fuzzies about the health of the republic.

And, then again, nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. After weeks of nationally televised shouting matches and images of dudes packin’ heat at political rallies and all that Fox-y McCarthyite Red-baiting about the country being taken away and the ship of state going down, there was a sense among those in line that something important was happening, or at least being enacted — perhaps mirrored is the better word — in this little corner of the country.

In an admirable experiment in lottery-style egalitarianism, those people who got to pitch questions at DeFazio were selected, raffle-style and drawn three at a time, from among a hatful of matching tickets handed to folks just outside the entrance to the school. Like most everything else, this was ideal in theory but a bit dicey in practice, especially toward the end when — with fewer and fewer people claiming to hold the winning tickets — it seemed some rather voluble and/or windy individuals stepped into the vacuum to air out their agendas.

The crowd — comprised largely of what appeared to be middle-aged, working-class people, with a sizable contingent of seniors and a clutch of student-types sporting pro-immigrant rights banners — was for the most part attentive, polite and engaged. Many questions and comments tended toward interest, if not outright support, for some species of universalized health care, though just how such a thing might pan out remained in the end pretty vague.

DeFazio, for his part, evinced an admirable ability to simplify and clarify what has become a tangled skein of information and misinformation regarding HR 3200. Still, there were moments when the monster of the modern Red scare reared its belligerent head.

“Answer the question!” This was a shout that came from the peanut gallery about midway through DeFazio’s answer to a pointed and open-ended question posed by a young woman. She wanted to know if the representative wasn’t worried that giving the government more control of our money wouldn’t give that same government more power (read: government-controlled health care equals socialism).

“Socialized medicine” was a term created by a PR firm to combat health care reform during Truman’s presidency. It was a way of shouting “Boo!” and goading irrational fears about commies taking over the U.S. Funny how nobody gets all up in arms about socialized gambling (state lottery), socialized education (public schools), socialized road maintenance or socialized public safety (cops and firemen).

DeFazio was booed and laughed at when he told the grumbling crowd that the legislation isn’t seeking to nationalize health care, but regulate it.

And then there’s good old Canada — the straw man and whipping post of canny corporate types. One guy told DeFazio that when he follows his feelings he thinks everyone should have health care, but when it comes to legislation, logic should prevail. To this end, he cited the failure of socialized medicine “in Canada and other countries.” Other countries — like the rest of the industrialized world, where most citizens believe the only thing worse than any hitch in the works would be switching to an Americanized, for-profit health care system.

Perhaps the most salient and moving moment of the whole evening came during the testimony of a woman who spoke directly after an older gentleman who asked why he should be asked to pay for people who don’t contribute to society. (To which DeFazio, in turn, challenged anyone to try to buy an individual health plan on minimum wage.) After this working mom shared with the audience her ongoing struggles — all the while working and otherwise “contributing to society” —to insure both herself and her child, she said she had finally achieved a level of financial security that allowed her the insurance plan she needed.

And then the woman said that, once she started hearing about a public option that might offer insurance to everyone, her first thought was: Why should I give up everything I fought for? But, she added, on further thought, she asked herself if, by giving up just a little, she might just save another mother from the hell she experienced.

That, she said, would make any sacrifice worth it.