US Sen. Arlen Specter, left, listens to an unidentified man, center, voice his complaints during a town hall meeting open to the public Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 in Lebanon, Pa. At right is a security guard.

"It's a worried, angry country"

At his town halls, Sen. Arlen Specter faces tough crowds, filled with anti-healthcare reform protesters


Alex Koppelman
August 12, 2009 8:01AM (UTC)

AP Photo/Bradley C Bower

US Sen. Arlen Specter, left, listens to Craig Anthony Miller, center, voice his complaints during a town hall meeting open to the public Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 in Lebanon, Pa. At right is a security guard.

LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Tuesday was no walk in the park for Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa, and towards the end of his second town hall of the day, even some of his loudest detractors were acknowledging it, thanking him for holding the events and listening to them. "I can't believe you run for this office," one man who was more sympathetic to the senator told him. By then, even Specter seemed to agree.

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The day hadn't started off well. At his first town hall, held Tuesday morning in Lebanon, Pa., Specter was confronted by an audience member, Craig Anthony Miller, who told him, "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill -- and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill. And then you will get your just desserts."

Nothing after that was quite so exciting -- but Specter's afternoon wasn't much better. And things are now bad enough, especially after a previous event in Philadelphia that also got contentious, that the senator is traveling with a detail of Capitol Police officers who are providing security above and beyond that already offered by local law enforcement.

The additional physical protection wasn't necessary on Tuesday, but if the Capitol Police could have given him some more political cover, Specter probably wouldn't have turned it down. The Bucknell University auditorium where he held his afternoon event was full, and the vast majority of the roughly 360 person crowd was there to oppose Democratic healthcare proposals, and him. That meant a lot of accusatory questions, a lot of interruptions from angry audience members, a lot of the myths that have been flying around.

"I am very, very scared," one woman told Specter. "I think healthcare reform ... is a vehicle to take us down a path of socialism." The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Another woman talked of healthcare rationing, and about her concerns regarding a provision for end-of-life counseling, which has been twisted by opponents into a license to kill the elderly. When Specter mentioned various options that would be part of a final bill, one man shouted, "Will they be euthanasia?"

Those in the audience saved some of their anger for each other, especially anyone who deviated from the consensus position. One man stood to ask a question about ending the Iraq war, and was greeted with loud boos that turned into a chant of "support our troops" that drowned him out. That reaction made Specter snap at the crowd, "Your right to free speech ends with interrupting him."

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Another, Stanley Zuber -- still wearing the scrubs from his job as a registered nurse -- stood up to tell his fellow audience members about the good he believes government has done for medical care over the years; more than a few weren't pleased to hear about that, and shouted at him to ask his question. Afterwards, Zuber was  told Salon he understood the mindset in the crowd, but said, "the shouting and the yelling, it doesn't serve any purpose."

Specter himself has tried to remain calm about the whole thing, and to wave it off as, to some degree, the standard fare for town halls. "It's a common practice that the people who came out have something to complain about," he told reporters after the event. "People who object are very vocal, but that's America."

But he displayed a few flashes of impatience, even anger, during the meeting itself; when the loudest hecklers could not be ignored, he would become red-faced and chastise them. And, speaking to the press, he acknowledged that there's something different about this batch of town halls. "It's a worried, angry country," Specter said. "I think there's no doubt that the temper of the country is more angry than it's been going back 75 years."

Video: "I say no to healthcare"

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Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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Arlen Specter, D-pa. Healthcare Reform War Room

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