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Scenes from a town hall

From NBC's Domenico Montanaro
HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- Sen. Ben Cardin's town hall here had it all -- shouting, shoving, at least one threat of pressing charges, two confrontations on race, people walking around with Obama-as-Hitler signs, and even a birther.

And get this: the Cardin staff says it wasn't even as tough as Monday's town hall at Towson University. 

Misinformation, anger and frustration -- bordering on desperation for many -- were rampant, from accusations that health-care reform would kill off senior citizens; suicide would be legal; reform would lead to socialism, rationing, free health care for illegal immigrants, management of doctors' salaries; reform would dictate where doctors would do their residencies; and so on.

It's the kind of thing heard across the country this August in Congressional town halls. Even though these town halls have been focused on health care, the frustrations are clearly about more than that for these conservatives who didn't vote for Obama and would never vote for Obama. They are irritated with the direction of the country after the 2008 election, with a man as president they didn't vote for and a Congress ruled by Democrats. They are angry about being out of power and having -- because of being in the minority -- what they feel is no say. And they get their information from limited sources -- Fox News and their friends.

"I do not like the way our country is going," said Lucille Shaw, who said she is a registered nurse from Hagerstown and a registered Democrat, who did not vote for Barack Obama. She voted for John McCain, but said she "probably" would have supported Hillary Clinton. "I think we're going totally toward socialism. I do not want to be under socialism."

During the campaign, Clinton, of course, proposed a more liberal health-care plan than Obama had.


"I'm here to fight for the country that we need to have," said Republican Vicky Sims, of Knoxville, Md. "We need to take socialism out of this country."


"You know, my parents and I emigrated from Russia many years ago," said Frank, a Republican from Olney, Md. "They lived through all this socialism. They don't want any more of it and neither do I -- and neither do most of these people."

Yesterday, those hoping to get into the town hall lined up around the building stretching about the length of six or seven city blocks; 450 or so got in, hundreds remained outside. The large crowd was much more reminiscent of a presidential candidate's town hall than a middle-of-the-afternoon, middle-of-the-week event with a senator not running for anything. 

This crowd, which at one point broke into an impromptu singing of the Star Spangled Banner while lined up outside, held signs protesting Obama. One of which, the AP reports, read "Death to Obama" and "Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids." That man was taken into custody and turned over to the Secret Service.

Signs weren't allowed inside the town hall. And police used handheld security wands to check for weapons. Local police said it was the first time they had ever used the devices.

Inside and outside, misinformation abounded at the town hall.

One man called on Cardin and his colleagues in Congress to "cease and desist." He charged that they were bypassing the Constitution. Cardin reminded the man that the Constitution provides that Congress makes law.

Pulling the plug on grandma?
Plenty of people named end-of-life counseling in the bill as a major objection and took the (il)logical leap to be convinced that seniors would be killed.  That Obama wants to pull the plug on grandma was a widely held view here.
An 11-year-old boy from Hagerstown, reading from notes, stood and asked Cardin, "Say my dad and my grandfather both came down with cancer. Would my dad get priority care because he's younger and could contribute longer to society?"
There were wild cheers and even a shout of, "There you go, young man."
Cardin responded that his grandparents would maintain their benefits and health reform would try and eliminate some of the hefty co-payments for seniors. That drew guffaws from the crowd.
As PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and the AP have written, there is nothing in any piece of legislation that has a say in end-of-life decisions. The provision that has caused the uproar authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes."
Shaw also said she was frustrated with the end-of-life counseling provision, though she wouldn't go as far as Sarah Palin and call them death panels -- not yet anyway.
"I'm not gonna say they'll be that radical NOW," she said. "But I don't know what they'll be doing 20, 25 years from now if this gets through. If this gets through, we're finished, as far as what we have to say about health care. We're finished. We will have no say. It will be the government telling us what we need and when we need it and telling us what we can afford and what we can't afford and rationing. I think there will be rationing, as to what kind of procedures we will be able to have. I totally feel that."
Others didn't mince their words.
Jerry Rosenwinkle, who's not from Maryland -- he's from Orlando, Fla. -- and works with LaRouche PAC, was handing out pamphlets that read, "Act Now To Stop Obama's Nazi Health Plan," featuring a black-and-white photo of Obama chatting with Hitler.
He called Obama's health-care plan "genocide."
"I'm handing out Hitler pamphlets that depicts what Obama plans to do with the old people like me," said Rosenwinkle, 74. He added, "It's called genocide. .. Yeah, they're gonna kill us. All right? If I got sick now, they're gonna withhold medical care or prolong it so long that I would succumb to whatever was wrong with me."
For the record, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide "defines genocide as any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
When told that Arlen Specter, for one, debunked this notion at his town hall earlier this week, Rosenwinkle said, "Well, he's a liar. And so is Obama."

Barbara Bolger, a Republican of Libertytown, Md., said, "President Obama has already suggested that grandmothers who need an operation might be just as well to give them some pills and let grandma have the last few years peaceful in her bed."
"He suggested let grandma die? this reporter asked.
"Yes, that's what he said," she replied, "naturally and on some good heavy meds as opposed to an operation."

She had apparently formulated this conclusion from the ABC town hall, when Obama was told about a woman who had gotten a pacemaker at 100, despite a specialist initially telling her she might be too old for one to work. The woman is still living at 105.
But Obama never advocated for giving this woman "some pills" or "some good heavy meds as opposed to an operation." Obama did say that these decisions would "be between physicians and patients." Here's more of what Obama actually said at the ABC forum:

OBAMA: The first thing for all of us to understand is that we actually have some -- some choices to make about how we want to deal with our own end-of-life care. And that's one of the things I think that we can all promote, and this is not a big government program. This is something that each of us individually can do, is to draft and sign a living will so that we're very clear with our doctors about how we want to approach the end of life. I don't think that we can make judgments based on peoples' spirit. That would be a pretty subjective decision to be making. I think we have to have rules that say that we are going to provide good, quality care for all people. 

GIBSON: But the money may not have been there for her pacemaker or for your grandmother's hip replacement. 

OBAMA: Well, and -- and that's absolutely true. And end-of-life care is one of the most difficult sets of decisions that we're going to have to make. I don't want bureaucracies making those decisions, but understand that those decisions are already being made in one way or another. If they're not being made under Medicare and Medicaid, they're being made by private insurers. We don't always make those decisions explicitly. We often make those decisions by just letting people run out of money or making the deductibles so high or the out-of-pocket expenses so onerous that they just can't afford the care. And all we're suggesting -- and we're not going to solve every difficult problem in terms of end-of-life care. A lot of that is going to have to be, we as a culture and as a society starting to make better decisions within our own families and for ourselves. 

But what we can do is make sure that at least some of the waste that exists in the system that's not making anybody's mom better, that is loading up on additional tests or additional drugs that the evidence shows is not necessarily going to improve care, that at least we can let doctors know and your mom know that, you know what? Maybe this isn't going to help. Maybe you're better off not having the surgery, but taking the painkiller. And those kinds of decisions between doctors and patients, and making sure that our incentives are not preventing those good decision, and that -- that doctors and hospitals all are aligned for patient care, that's something we can achieve. We're not going to solve every single one of these very difficult decisions at end of life, and ultimately that's going to be between physicians and patients. But we can make real progress on this front if we work a little bit harder. ... if we've got experts who are looking at this, and they are advising doctors across the board that the pacemaker may ultimately save money, then we potentially could have done that faster. I mean, this can cut both ways. The point is, we want to use science, we want doctors and -- and medical experts to be making decisions that all too often right now are driven by skewed policies, by out-dated means of reimbursement, or by insurance companies. And everybody's families, I think, have had to experience this in one way or another. That's -- that's the reason we need reform right now.

Some Obama supporters on hand
Obama supporters who attended said they did so because they were frustrated at what they'd seen on TV and were encouraged to come out by either MoveOn, Organizing for America or health reform advocacy group Health Care for America Now.

"I hope there's a healthy debate about the issue," said 83-year-old Obama supporter Albert Salter, of Hagerstown. "I have questions as everyone has questions I imagine. I think some of the mob scenes we've seen on television don't represent real democracy. And I want to hear what both sides say."

Another supporter, Constance Toomer of Hagerstown, was there early. But she left after observing the scene.

"People are holding onto old ideas," she said of those opposing health-care reform. She added, "I'm very disappointed with the American people, because they are so against what's good for America as a whole." 

Toomer, who said this was the first town hall she'd tried to attend and was encouraged by another MoveOn member, said those adamantly opposed are really "just a few people" out of the whole of the country, "but just a few can make it look very bad for the many."

What's spurring this?
Democratic operatives have tried to argue that this is so-called "Astroturf," that these individuals are organized by moneyed K Street lobbyists. But that was not evident yesterday. Clearly, there are some people who have showed up to these events who are not "grassroots," like the LaRouche people, who freely admit they were there to "cause some trouble." There have been reports of the insurance industry organizing for these events. And many have acknowledged being affiliated with Tea Parties. 

Most here were local and appeared to be genuinely frustrated and upset at being out of power and having what they felt was so little say. That's why many argued for referenda. (Democrats would argue there was a referendum -- it was the election in November 2008. And that's how change happens in a democracy, at the ballot box.)

Above all, the one common thread was Fox News. There were plenty of Glenn Beck disciples to go around. 

"Go Glenn go," one man said into a camera. He was the same man shouting out, "Question" as loudly as he could in some attempt to rile up the crowd and get a questioner to move on. 

"I listen to Glenn Beck," another woman said. 

Some proudly, and unprompted, couldn't hide their enthusiasm for getting their information from just one source. 


"That's all we listen to," said a smiling Karen Zepp of Hagerstown. "Fox is the greatest. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity--"

"--Bill O'Reilly Greta," said Zepp's daughter Tambilyn Haynes, 32, finishing her mother's sentence. Haynes, and several others, was wearing a T-shirt that read, "Proud Member of the Angry Mob and I vote!"

Why Fox? "Because they give you fair-and-balanced coverage," Haynes said. "They give you both sides of the story. They don't give you just one side. They like to give you both, so you can make informed decisions."

Haynes, who rattled off a chronic injury from a car accident and concern for her aging mother and a 9-year-old daughter, then went on to say, "We hear all this stuff that they're talking about with end-of-life care with your doctors things like that. I thought in this country, that they said that you're not allowed to kill yourself, but that's basically what they're telling us we're going to have to do." 

Obama is now advocating for legalizing suicide? 

Asked if she thinks Obama is advocating for euthanasia, she said, "That's kind of what it sounds like from what we're hearing. It would be legal instead of the illegal kind."


More: Here's an interview with a so-called birther, someone who doesn't believe President Obama was born in the United States: