The Magazine

The Town Halls of August

They're here, they're conservative, get used to it.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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It had been a rough month by the time 67-year-old Bert Stead of Redding, Calif., stepped to the microphone at an August 18 town hall meeting with Republican representative Wally Herger. It was about to get rougher.

Dissent, formerly the highest form of patriotism, had suffered a precipitous decline in repute since the beginning of the Obama administration, a decline that in August deepened into a nosedive.

Stead and the thousands of other Obamacare critics flooding town halls to make their dissent known had been called "extremist mobs" by the Democratic National Committee, pawns of the insurance industry by Senator Dick Durbin, "un-American" by Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, "brownshirts" by Representative Brian Baird of Washington, "manufactured" and "Astroturf" by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, "evilmongers" by Senator Harry Reid, accused of "fear-mongering" by the president, and been deemed "political terrorists" by Representative Baron Hill of Indiana.

So the Redding veteran decided to say something about it. "I have been known to say things fishy," he started, as the crowd cheered his sarcastic allusion to the infamous invitation by the Obama White House ("If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov."). Stead continued: "I have been known to even attend a Redding Tea Party. .  .  . I wanna say that I'm a proud right-wing terrorist."

It was clear to those who have followed the debate over town halls, including most of those at Herger's event, that Stead was mocking the rhetoric of Baron Hill and the other over-the-top Democrats. Herger got the joke: He replied to Stead's speech with a smile, "Amen, God bless you. There is a great American," before speaking to his health care concerns.

But MSNBC's Chris Matthews, a political pugilist turned punctilious scold, declared Stead's words so awful, he could not bring himself to finish the thought:

A guy who thinks it's okay, in this day and age, to call himself a right-wing terrorist. This is the dangerous edge, in which these people, including some elected officials, are now dancing. We've been here before. Words lead to actions, words create the national mood, the mood creates a license. People take that license and use it. I'm not spelling it out any further because I don't want to.

Fellow MSNBCer Keith Olbermann took an uncharacteristically hard line on the use of sarcasm in a public forum, saying "even if he was being allegorical or hyperbolic, this is not language to bandy about." He accused Herger, who refused to apologize for the exchange, of "contributing to this climate of paranoia and violence enveloping our political system."

Liberal blogger Greg Sargent, from his perch at the Washington Post, bemoaned a right-wing mainstream media that excuses the flagrant use of irony by elderly veterans: "Let's face it, if a Democrat did this, there would be days of media outrage about it. Not to state the obvious or anything, but right-wing terrorists have been known to kill American citizens."

Not to state the obvious or anything, but the climate of paranoia and violence that enveloped our political system this August was largely a creation of people like Matthews and Olbermann. The edge on which we're dancing is about as dangerous as the one Ren McCormack danced on at the Beaumont prom in Footloose. But the newly dour John Lithgows of the left won't stand for dancing, conveniently forgetting Camp Casey, Code Pink, papier-mâché Bush effigies, assassination fantasies, Bushitlerisms, profane signage, and the vandalism and violence that marked their own dissent earlier in this decade.

Their willful mischaracterization of Stead was a fitting end to a monthlong attack on town hall protesters by the left, which began with Think Progress bloggers, MSNBC, and the DNC distorting both the provenance and content of a memo they alleged directed a national movement of conservatives to disrupt town hall meetings. The memo by Bob MacGuffie, a small-time conservative activist in Fairfield County, Conn., was cited as proof of a national strategy in countless media accounts. But it was distributed only to a handful of local activists, who had no connection to national conservative organizations, as alleged. Ironically, it urged using "the Alinsky playbook of which the Left is so fond"--i.e., tactics that should be familiar to the onetime Alinskyite community organizer now sitting in the Oval Office. The memo read in part: