Lawmakers Face Hostile Groups At Town Halls

As lawmakers begin their August recess, small groups of protesters are taking over town hall meetings on health care and other issues. The resulting scenes are showing up on YouTube.

At a recent appearance by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas, protesters chanted "just say no" outside a grocery store in Austin. The congressman was shouted at, heckled and followed to his car.

"We're not going to have a shouting match," he said to the crowd.

"You're supposed to be representing us," came one answer.

"And I'm doing just that," Doggett insisted.

"No, you're not!" a voice responded, as the scene disintegrated into more yelling.

Similar incidents are happening all over the country. At first glance, they might imply a massive outcry against Democrats' health care plans.

In downtown Philadelphia this week, Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvanian who recently switched to the Democratic fold, joined Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in an attempt to hold a town hall meeting on health care.

"I'm pleased to be here," Sebelius said, amid boos. "I think the senator has some opening comments. We'll try to take some questions, if we can have a number of you participate. If not, we can just keep shouting at one another."

"It gives the impression of such a firestorm of opposition that if you don't view it in context, you get a completely misleading idea of what goes on here," says journalism professor Alan Schroeder.

Schroeder teaches at Northeastern University and has written several books on the history of televised debates. He says the town hall format — for presidents and for members of Congress — has always been vulnerable to this kind of takeover.

Many of the events this week appear to have been organized by conservative groups. A new Web site is called "Operation Embarrass Your Congressman." A widely circulated memo tells right-wing protesters how to treat their representative: "Make him uneasy ... stand up and shout out, and sit right back down ... rattle him."

The memo concludes, "Just imagine what we can achieve if we see to it that every representative in the nation who has supported the socialist agenda has a similar experience!"

I reached the man who wrote this memo by phone. His name is Bob MacGuffie. He lives in Fairfield, Conn., and belongs to the conservative group Tea Party Patriots. He told me he is sick of writing letters to Congress and getting form letters in return, and that he just wants to be heard.

He would not do a recorded interview for the story.

But the memo makes clear what the protesters are aiming for — press coverage of voter outrage, even as polls continue to show that a majority of Americans support overhauling the health care system.

Schroeder says viewers should not take these angry scenes at face value.

"The spotlight has to shift from the fact that there ARE these protests, onto the makeup of these audiences," he says. "Where they come from, why they're motivated and what their game plan is."

For now, several lawmakers have switched to phone conferences or what they call tele-town halls to try to connect with their constituents in a more controlled environment.

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