This Angry Moment And The Political Divide

GUESTS:
Joseph Ellis, history professor at Mount Holyoke College
George Nethercutt, former Republican congressman from WA
Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune columnist

Protestors at town hall meetings on health care continue to express their frustration and fear, but the roots are hard to identify. Some say the unrest stems from mistrust of the government, others argue it's about the recession. Still others see racial undertones.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We've all heard the shouting and seen the images of angry protestors, inside and outside town hall meetings on health care, but where is all this anger coming from?

Some decry these protests as manufactured, even racist scare tactics aimed at derailing President Obama's health care strategy and perhaps his overall agenda. But others say, hold on a second. This is not all AstroTurf-versus-grassroots campaigns. There are legitimate concerns and fears about where the country's going and how fast it's heading there.

What's behind this angry moment is today's TALK OF THE NATION. What are you seeing and hearing where you live? What's the conversation in your neighborhood, at your dinner table? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Earlier this week, we heard historian Joseph Ellis talk about the historical roots of some of the political issues that still divide us, the attitudes towards government that have been in place since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Today, Professor Ellis returns to talk about what may be playing out in these health care debates. Joseph Ellis a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and author most recently of "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic," and he joins us from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Good to have you with us again, Professor Ellis.

Mr. JOSEPH ELLIS (Professor of History, Mount Holyoke College; Author, "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic"): Hi, Lynn, good to be back.

NEARY: Now, as you explained earlier this week, we'll just go over a little bit of what you told us earlier this week. There are those in this country who think of the government as one of us, that is that it has an important role to play in making our lives better. And there are those who think of the government as them, that it's a force kind of outside the body politic, should be kept at arm's length, sometimes does more harm than good.

In this current political climate, do you see that underlying mistrust of government as being at least part of the reason for the anger that we're seeing?

Mr. ELLIS: Yes, I do, and well, I do think that some of the people at these open meeting are orchestrated. I mean, especially when they're reading from note cards, but the outrage that many Americans were expressing and the anger is a really long-standing American tradition.

I mean, it's built into the political DNA of the United States, almost like no other country in the world. We're one of the few countries where patriotism is often expressed as a love for country and a hatred for government, and presidents from Jefferson to Ronald Reagan have campaigned for the presidency on the principle that they will dismantle the government once they get in office - although they seldom do that.

It's, as I say, built into the political DNA, all the way back to the American revolution. That's the wellspring. That's where it starts, which you'll recall was an attempt to leave the British empire - successful attempt - based on the principle that parliament and the king represented an arbitrary form of government that imposed itself without the consent of the American colonists.

And so the notion of a distant government, far away, not under your eyes, as a leviathan that devours your liberties and that you can't let it in just an inch because once it's in, it expands and takes away all freedoms. This - and if you read the Declaration of Independence, it has absolutely nothing good to say about government and everything good to say about the sovereign individual, not the collective, but the individual, and the government only exists at the consent of the citizenry.

So these are long-standing values imprinted on us for a very long time that have been drawn upon both by left and by right. I mean, Thoreau retreating to Walden and refusing to pay his taxes because of the Mexican War. And if you will, the biggest movement of the 19th century, the South's secession because it fails to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government.

NEARY: Right. And what is happening historically - well, what is happening at this moment in history, that has unleashed so much fury at…? We're seeing it as these health care town halls, but is it just about health care?

Mr. ELLIS: I think the fact that it's about a life-and-death issue ups the ante, but I think it's because we've got a health care system that is clearly bloated and very expensive and needs to be fixed. And so you're beginning to tamper with an institution that affects every American, regardless of age, gender, race - and it begins to touch upon the fear of some kind of socialistic alternative in which the government, they say, stands between them and their doctor.

Well, the truth is that, you know, insurance companies currently stand between them and their doctor, and many of the people who are so terrified are receiving a Social Security check and are on Medicare.

So there's something kind of irrational here. But nevertheless, the chord it's touching is an authentic one, and I don't think that the bulk of the people at these meetings are disingenuous. They might be misguided, but they're speaking from the heart.

NEARY: And I think you said earlier, that perhaps some of the anger is being orchestrated. Do you think it's being manipulated?

Mr. ELLIS: I think that certain right-wing groups and certain mostly Republican groups on a state level have lists of their conservative activists that they've called. They've given them texts and scripts and asked them to show up -although many of the people share - I mean, they don't have to be persuaded. They share those convictions. But in that sense, at some of these meetings are places in which what you see before you is not an accurate reflection of general American public opinion.

NEARY: Does it de-legitimize the concerns of some of the people who are there, though, if they are…?

Mr. ELLIS: No, no. I mean, I think that democracy is a messy business, and when you see it in operation, it's like watching sausage get made. It's not a pretty sight, but I think that - I don't want to - I don't think you can dismiss the concern and the fear that exists out there in the country because - just because, there is some partisan politics being played with this.

I mean, I do think on the right wing of the Republican Party, this represents an issue in which they feel that because Obama has invested his presidency in the passage of this legislation, if they can defeat it, that's a major blow against Obama, and that's something they very much wish to do, and that's their priority. But I do think that there's an abiding fear out there about the health care system of the United States and what it's going to look like.

NEARY: And joining us is George Nethercutt. He is a former Republican congressman from Spokane, Washington. He joins us from member station KPBX in Spokane, Washington. Welcome to the program, Mr. Nethercutt.

Representative GEORGE NETHERCUTT (Republican, Washington): Thank you, Lynn, nice to be with you.

NEARY: Now in an op-ed in politico.com this week, you wrote that something has unsettled the national psyche. What did you mean by that? What's unsettled the national psyche?

Rep. NETHERCUTT: Well, I think there's a boiling point that the nation has undergone with - as I indicated in the piece, you know, you've got car-company takeovers, you've got bank takeovers, you've got stimulus packages that really haven't been too stimulative. You've got unemployment that hasn't gone down very much. It's better than it was, but it's still bad for an awful lot of people in the country.

And so my point was that I think all these other issues are boiling up, and they're testing the patience of the electorate - of Republicans, Democrats, independents - and that's why I think you're seeing these major turnouts at these town hall meetings to confront their elected representatives and ask and expect some answers.

And my other points in that piece were that, you know, come on, Mr. or Mrs. Congressman or Congresswoman or Senator, your job is to meet with the public, answer their questions, explain why you haven't read the bills that some members of Congress are saying they're not going to read and don't need to read, and some of the - you know, with the communications being what it is today, a lot of citizens, just ordinary people, are getting online. They're looking at these bills that are being considered. They're listening to hearings. They're watching C-SPAN. And they come armed with knowledge to these various town hall meetings, and they expect answers.

They haven't been getting them, I don't think, and so, you know, you have thousand-page bills that people don't read. That upsets the public, and then you compound that with the whole personal nature of the health-care debate and the fear that what they have is not going to be what they have later, they get with a new government-run program that is proposed by those in power. And it just boils up in people's psyche, and they say enough, and they're expressing their outrage.

As Professor Ellis said, this is genetic in our history. People - the citizens have the right to stand up and be heard. And you know, you have a post office that's having financial problems. You have Medicare that's struggling. You've got Social Security that's struggling. And so there's a lack of faith in the institutions of government that's compounded when a congressman or senator gets up and says I haven't read the bill, I can't answer your questions, and by the way, quit shouting at me, and I don't like to be confronted like this. That's wrong.

NEARY: Also, in terms of the number of programs that have been approved within the first six months of this administration and the size of debt that's been accrued, is it the size of the debt, the amount of money we're spending, or is it the pace at which the money is being spent that you think people are worried about?

Rep. NETHERCUTT: I think it's a bit of both, Lynn, but I think it's the cumulative debt that is driving people crazy, and I think - you know, I remember running for office back in 1994, and you know, my opponent was the speaker of the House, a fine person, but I disagreed with him, and I said, you know, Mr. Speaker, you know, the debt for every man, woman and child in the United States today is $18,000, and that's outrageous, and we - you know, you've been in charge for 40 years in the House.

You know, now the debt is, I think, approaching $50,000 per man, woman and child in the country. So that gets on people's nerves. And you know, I have a foundation that brings young people back to Washington, let them learn about government. And we just finished a session of civics education with our students for two weeks back East, and to a person these students were concerned about responses from the members of Congress who would say, yes, we're spending this money, and they'd say who's going to pay for it, and they'd say you're going to pay for it.

And so you have these college students who are saying, wait a minute, this is a whole lot of debt and you want me to pay for it, and I'm not even out of college yet. So it's felt at young people's level, it's felt at seniors' levels, it's felt all across the spectrum of Americans. And I think people are fed up, and that's why they go to these town hall meetings and ask their questions.

NEARY: We're talking about the anger that's pouring out of many of the town hall meetings on health care and what's driving it. What are you seeing and hearing where you live? Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. We'll be taking calls after a short break, and of course you can always send us an email. It's talk@npr.org, is the email address. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Clearly, many people are angry. On the surface, the debate is all about health care, but what's the anger in some of the recent town hall meetings? And many argue that the frustration and the fear runs deeper.

Today we're talking about what's driving the anger and what it means. What are you seeing and hearing where you live? What's the conversation in your neighborhood, at your dinner table? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, or join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Joseph Ellis. He wrote the - most recently - "American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic." And George Nethercutt; he served the House of Representatives, a Republican from Washington State, and he wrote about the anger and people's reaction to it in an op-ed on politico.com.

We're going to take calls now. We're going to go to Kaylee(ph), and she's calling from Madison, Wisconsin. Hi, Kaylee.

KAYLEE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I am representing sort of the young American dreamers. I'm getting married in six weeks. And getting together with our other friends, we are concerned, as we're trying to start our lives, and we're trying to capture our part of the American dream, that our government may not be stable enough to really support us in that.

And furthermore, from a global perspective, I think that just the appalling, childish nature of these rallies and some of the shenanigans that are going on, I am concerned that that's making look, as the U.S. as a whole, very childish and insecure, and that will have repercussions.

NEARY: Let me just ask you, Kaylee, why you think that the government may not be stable enough. Why do you have that sense?

KAYLEE: Well, I think that, you know, as the guest was saying, there is a lot of turmoil within our country, you know, the economy and all the other things going on, and it just seems that at this moment there's a lack of a cohesive leadership to really get us all back on the same page and that things are not being handled in a rational, democratic fashion.

NEARY: All right, let me get our guests to respond. Thanks so much for your call, Kaylee. Joseph Ellis?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, I think that maybe the comment - the caller is reflecting the fact that the evolution of American society over time has reached a point where we're facing major problems that are only soluble at the federal government level, and we've been creeping that way for most of the 20th, into the 21st, century, but the fiscal crisis we face, the environmental crisis we face, especially global warming and the health care crisis we face require a collective response best represented by government. We're not as good at that, we're not as used to that.

I also think that we're different from most other countries that have a single-payer system because we're much more ethnically and racially diverse. So when people in England and Canada think of us, they think of people pretty much like themselves. In America, there's tremendous ethnic diversity and racial diversity, and I think that makes it more difficult for us to think of government as representing all of us at once.

NEARY: I wonder, George Nethercutt, if you were at all surprised to hear this young woman say that she thinks there's concern among people her age, younger people, that the government's not stable.

Rep. NETHERCUTT: Not too surprised, because I think that's what happens when the public loses faith in the leaders of the country. I mean, I know Mr. Ellis has written about our founders, and I've done a lot of study about our founders too, and my sense was that as the founders created this country and made decisions for it, they were less focused on themselves and more focused on the good of the people and the happiness of the people of our nation.

I sense today that, without being critical of either party or any president, that the public service is more about the servant than it is about what might be best for the people. And so I think that Kaylee is asking and wanting the - asking for and wanting the leaders of our nation to be good listeners, number one, and it's not about getting re-elected, it's not about, you know, this constituency or that or this special interest or that, it should be about how do we give Kaylee and her family the greatest opportunity in a free enterprise, you know, system that has a rich history of independence and self - I guess self-interest by hard work?

And so I think she's seeing, as other see, this massive government that is untouchable and leaders who are somewhat, at some times, too often oblivious to the needs of the people.

NEARY: All right, let's take another call from Brian. Brian's calling from Smithfield. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN (Caller): Hey there, how are you?

NEARY: Good, thanks. Go ahead.

BRIAN: Yes, sir, ma'am, wanted to thank you for your guests. They've really hit on it well. I talked to farmers in eastern North Carolina every day, all day long, about this particular issue for the past six months.

NEARY: Health care, you're saying.

BRIAN: Yeah, health care. I sit down with them and ask them what they think about this idea of changing our health care system, and almost to a man they are against it, though they do see the need for reform of some type because they see their premiums going up, you know, 10, 15 percent a year.

They're paying, you know, more for health care than they are for their house, but they are A) fearful of government, basically just fearful of government intervention. You know, they are very independent-minded people who have, you know, been on their own, worked the land generation after generation and generally just afraid of government getting more, getting bigger and more involved in their lives.

And they're also, the other flip side of that is responsibility. They see the Americans who are getting this free health care per se as not taking responsibility for their lives, and these guys are very big into responsibility.

NEARY: So they're making the assumption that the health care, whatever the health care reform is, will be somehow free for some and not for everyone. Let me ask Joseph Ellis to respond to that, because what I heard our listener say here is that there's a fear of government out there, and that seems to go to what you've been talking about, I think, Professor Ellis.

Mr. ELLIS: Right. You know, I won't repeat. This is a long-standing tradition that's not one political party or one political persuasion. It spreads across the spectrum. But I do think that for white males in rural areas, that's where a lot of the militia groups come from - and I'm not suggesting that the majority of rural white males are militia people - but there's a fear.

The population of the United States within 50 years is - whites are going to be a minority. The face of the government is that of an African-American. People aren't used to that, and it plays at very deep racial fears which are often quite powerful but quite unconscious, and I think it provokes mistrust in a way that is difficult for them to comprehend.

NEARY: So we've got a lot of problems, there's a lot of proposed changes going on, it's all happening very quickly, and our leader is our first African-American president. George Nethercutt, to what degree do you think racism plays into this?

Rep. NETHERCUTT: I don't think it's as much as some may think. I really think it's more policy-oriented. I think that the nation was proud to have the first black American, African-American president in the history of this country. It speaks volumes about this nation being an equal-opportunity nation, and I mean that. But I also think that, you know, that doesn't give license to change the government in a way that is uncomfortable for the nation as a whole.

We are an independent people. We do respect, you know, hard work and self-sufficiency. To have this sort of massive, apparently a massive government takeover, as I said, indicated by banks - you know, bank control. You've got 35 different czars making decisions about pay for corporations, and corporations are people with jobs. And it's not so much the racial background of our president. I think it's his policies that is unsettling to people across the nation.

NEARY: Well, let me ask you this. Are you at all concerned about some of the rhetoric you're seeing out there? I mean, because I've seen even, you know, conservative columnists like David Frum expressing concern about the level of anger that's out there, that it could be a prelude to violence, that maybe some of the conservative media, for example, should be pulling back somewhat. What's your take on that?

Rep. NETHERCUTT: Well, I think there's an element of that in our country, and I think it's the job of a president and congressional leaders to not say that because someone comes to a town hall meeting and raises the dickens that they're un-American or that, you know, we've had enough talk about the health care issue; let's not talk about it anymore, let's just do it.

And when you have leaders at the congressional level say, hey, we won the election, we're going to do what we want to do, essentially - that's the message. Americans - I don't think Americans like that. If it's a Republican that does it, we don't like it; if it's a Democrat that does it, we don't like it. If it's an African-American president who does it, people don't like it. I think the president's obligation is to quell those fears, to give calm to this country, to be reasoned in his approach - as opposed to saying, I got a plan, I'm going to run it through, and I don't care what you all say. And I think that backlash is starting to build. And heaven help us if turns into violence. I would deplore that.

But people are very independent in this country, and they care deeply about our essential values. And they don't want to see them eroded. And health care is so personal that I think, you know, 1,000-page bills, who knows what's in them. And, certainly, the elected officials going to that, then says to the public, you don't know what's in it. I don't know what's in it, but I fear what's going to be - how's it's going to affect my life.

NEARY: Let's go to Michael in Minneapolis. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good.

MICHAEL: I just want to call (unintelligible) the conversation, you know, I train business leaders. I do leadership work, and I'm hearing some really interesting stuff I haven't heard in years past. I'm hearing a whole lot more fear being expressed. People who are used to being in charge and used to being able to predict the world and so they can manage it are very confused. The things that they used to believe in are being uprooted, you know, banking and consumer behavior, et cetera. And they are very uncertain. They don't know about what's going to happen with capital markets, the ability to get loans. What consumer buying is going to do? Their employees are scared, which affects morale and productivity when they need it the most. You know, business right now is in a very difficult place.

NEARY: All right. We've heard - we just heard from somebody who is talking about the fact that the farmers are feeling fear. Now we're hearing business people feeling fear.

Joseph Ellis, what does that say about this moment in time? Professor Ellis? Are you still there, Professor Ellis? Okay.

Mr. Nethercutt, are you - would you do it - respond?

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Yes, I'm here. I think what it means is that leaders have an extraordinary obligation - from the president, the vice president and the members of Congress - to be wise, statesman-like leaders. I think that's what our country expects. I think that's what our country will respond to. And, you know, business - I mean, if you don't have a job and your 55 years old, and you've got wife and children or a husband and children, you're worried.

And then, someone - and, you know, you just try to change a reservation in an airline these days and you get put from pillar to post on, you know, this number versus that. And it's a disconnection that I think Americans feel, that chose itself certainly and the personal nature of health care. But, also, when you don't have a job and you can't get a job, you're really frustrated and that's not good for our nation. So, leaders need to have an extraordinary, I guess, a reservoir of caution and care as they deal with the American public.

NEARY: We're talking about what's behind some of the anger we've been seeing at some of the town hall meetings across the country, on health care. If you'd like to join us, the number is 800-989-8255.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And joining us now is Dawn Turner Trice. She writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune. And she joins us from time to time to talk about issues of race. She's joining us today from her home in Chicago.

Welcome to the program, Dawn.

Ms. DAWN TURNER TRICE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Dawn, to what degree do you think that there is an element of racism in the anger we're seeing in the tone of the discussions around health care and concern about some of the other issues we've been talking about here?

Ms. TURNER TRICE: Well, let me just say that there are legitimate concerns and questions that have to be dealt with regarding whether we should have universal health care, and how we're going to pay for it and whether it will work. But we're not talking about people who are angry because of their legitimate concerns. We're talking about the people who have been overcome with rage for months now because the person at the helm is a man of color. We're no longer in a country where people can express their anger by standing before a schoolhouse door and saying things like segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

But now people use different types of words and euphemistic language, and they talk about, and we go immigration such disparaging ways; or they talk about the president; can't be the president because he wasn't born in America. And there are people who have been very angry about this presidency, him being a man of color, since the election. And they just haven't had the opportunity to vent it in a very public forum until now. And…

NEARY: So, you see this as that kind of - what has been a kind of hidden anger or an unstated anger is spilling out in these town hall meetings? Is that what it's all about? Or just…

Ms. TURNER TRICE: No. It's not. That's not what it's all about. But I do think that there are people - I mean, you can almost call them interrupters who are there - and whether it is on a very conscious level or subconscious level, but they are there because they're there to kind of feed into that frenzy or they're feeling this kind of unease about the direction that the country is going in. And whether they say, let's take back America - I mean, they use language like that. Or they just - you know, they're holding the placards with swastikas and the pictures of the president with a little Hitler mustache, there is that element of race that I don't think can be denied.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Dan in Charlesville, Virginia. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi. I was glad to hear the previous commentator. I think that - I just went to my congressman's town hall meeting two days ago. And I think that a lot of the angry people there were confused. They thought that the town hall meeting is a referendum like last November's referendum. But, in fact, they lost the last referendum and they're trying to sway an argument that I think has already been decided. I - for the first time in my life - I'm 51 - and I'm now represented by a president, two senators and a congressman that I voted for and support. And I feel like now it's time for them to do what I want them to do. And I have confidence in them and in Tom Perriello so, yeah.

NEARY: You see this is anger over the lost election, you're saying.

DAN: Yeah, I think, you know, I think a lot of these people were the people who went to Sarah Palin's campaign rallies and yelled nasty things and scary things.

And I was disappointed with the - or dismayed by Mr. Nethercutt's comments when you asked him about the threat of violence. And instead of saying simply, yes, that's wrong and that's un-American, he sort of tiptoed around and said, well, you know…

NEARY: All right.

DAN: …what did he say? If it happens, then heaven help us. But what can we do about it? The president should do something about it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Dan. We're going to have to take a short break now.

And I want to thank Professor Joseph Ellis for joining us today. Professor Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.

We're going to continue this conversation in a moment. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Right now, we're talking about what's behind people's anger and frustration in the health care debate. For some, it's about government; for others, big expending; and some worry, it boils down to race.

What are you seeing and hearing where you live? Our number here in Washington: 800-989-8255. And the email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Dawn Turner Trice, she writes the "Exploring Race" column for the Chicago Tribune; and George Nethercutt, he served in the House of Representatives as a Republican from Washington State. And he wrote about the anger and people's reaction to it in an op-ed on politico.com.

I want to read an email from Mary. She's writing from Oriental, North Carolina. And she says the anger and political divide is absolutely racial. And I'm appalled that the people in our country are so backward and bigoted as to Hitlerize(ph) our legitimately elected president.

George Nethercutt, we just heard another listener say that he feels that the people at these town halls are trying to have a referendum on our presidential election and there's concern that people in this - as we've heard, about race here. You've already addressed the race issue, but what about this idea that people are trying to Hitlerize our legitimately elected president.

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Well, I guess I'd - there's going to be extremes on both sides of the political spectrum. You're going find nutty people in the right; you're going to find nutty people in the left. But to categorize everybody who disagrees with the president's health care policies or other policies in government, I think, just misses the point.

You know, Mary makes the strong point about race. You know, you have to remember, this country elected Mr. Obama as president, and after the election, he had something, like, close to seven out of 10 Americans thinking he was doing a good job. Then they learned about his policies, whether it's the banking or the stimulus package or unemployment representations and other things, and now, health care, and his numbers are dropping like a rock. And I think that says less about race and more about policies, and that's my point.

I think we can find - seek to find racial divide in everything we do. You can always argue that, but that doesn't make it right. And I don't agree with it. I think it's less race and more the country's disagreement with this president's policies and the Democrats in charge in Congress. I don't say that politically. I just say that that's just an agenda that I think most Americans don't agree with, and they're expressing themselves. Some…

NEARY: Dawn, I'd like you to address that issue of the Congress because I have an e-mail here from Roger in Colorado. And he says it's my personal view that the anger expressed at town hall meetings reveals a basic distrust of Congress.

Congress, whatever administration is dominant, has consistently shortsightedly voted to increase entitlements for Social Security and Medicare, so that these programs are virtually bankrupt. Why should we trust Congress to create a viable plan to save the health care system? Their track record is abysmal.

Now, Dawn, you've already said that you do see race in this, but what are some of the other concern? Is this a legitimate concern? Or just…

Ms. TRICE: Well, let me just back up a little bit because I do agree that Congress - that there is this - often this odor surrounding Congress. And the track record has been abysmal.

But I do think that it's important to point out that Obama won in the election 44 percent of the white vote. And the reason why a large percent - he won an overwhelmingly large percent of the vote of people of color. And so, it's - I mean, to say that the country elected that - you know, that the country elected a black man, I mean, that, indeed, happened, but the vote was much more nuanced along racial lines. And I think that that's extremely important because there are still a lot of white voters who did not vote for Obama. And we can't say that that was the case because of his race, but that there was some evidence of that.

And back to the question of Congress. Yes. There is - there - when we talk about the TARP funding, how the money was spent months ago and, I mean, just the track record that we - excuse me - that we've seen, I mean, there is not this great record. And voters are - taxpayers are tired of not knowing exactly where their dollars are going. And I think that those are very legitimate concerns.

And when we talk about race in this health care discussion, I think that we have to be very clear to say that, you know, that just because you criticize the president, mean - it's not all race-based. But there are - there is this component - and this is what I was speaking to earlier - there is a component of this that has to do with race, that there will - whether it's the birthers or some of the rightwing commentators that the people for whom that there's nothing - no policy decision that this president will be able to put forth where they will not have something certainly, negative, to say.

NEARY: So it's charged with race to some degree…

Ms. TRICE: Absolutely.

NEARY: …you're saying. All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Doug in Indianapolis.

Hi, Doug.

DOUG (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

DOUG: What I was (unintelligible) getting around the feeling around the office that I work with. And I work with a technology-based company and we work - we have both older people that work there and a lot of younger people that work there. And what I'm getting from a lot of the younger people is that a real sense of frustration about - that, you know, we live in a global economy. We're more connected than ever. And we see other industrialized countries that have health care systems that work. And they are frustrated, saying, well, you know, we talk - the guest earlier talk about them getting shouldered with the costs -they're getting shouldered with the cost of an aging population now, with the health care system that, as now, does not work. How is this going to get better without some sort of reform? And talking about government takeover of, say, automotive companies, they failed because of health care cost, the legacy cost on their retirees?

So the big question is, if this solution is not - the current solutions that are being put on the table are not the solution for the younger people, what are?

NEARY: What's your response to that? Let's hear from you, Dawn Turner Trice, these concerns. Dawn, are you there?

Ms. TRICE: Yes, yes, I'm sorry. I can barely hear you.

NEARY: Okay.

Ms. TRICE: What was the…

NEARY: Well, George Nethercutt, did you want to respond to that?

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Sure. I mean, what Doug is voicing is a fair consideration of some of the issues that face the health care debate. But there are other alternatives, then that which is being pushed through Congress and that which Mr. Obama is advocating for. There's - you don't hear any discussion about tort reform in this country by those who were pushing the health care debate, nor the president. So that - why? That's politics.

I mean, it's - yeah, I'm a lawyer. I'm not afraid to say this is an issue that ought to be part of the solution to health care reform. There's health care provisions that are being presented by Republicans, and I'm not arguing (unintelligible) of Republicans, I'm just saying there's alternatives. But those aren't being given any consideration.

Hopefully, it would be a bipartisan solution that would be embraced by Republicans and Democrats, but it hasn't so far. And so therefore, you're going to have Republicans who would trust the free enterprise system and don't see that as the - see the Obama solution as a free enterprise solution, are going to be raising the dickens.

So, there's a way to do this, but wholesale overnight, pushing it through, you know, our way or no way is not the right way to do it. And that's why people are standing up and being critical in these town hall meetings, especially when you have thousand-page bills that members of Congress don't know what is contained in them. So that's a part of the problem.

NEARY: All right. Let me read this email. Let me read this email from Celeste(ph). The young lady who called stating that the government is unstable surprised me. For the first time ever, I feel that people are being encouraged to be proactive in the direction the country takes.

The chaos at town meetings shows how diverging our opinions are. Change can come, but small steps may have to be taken. Too forward thinking plans scare the conservatives. More reasonable people may have to accept that change will have to come in a small amount. I hope reasonable people do not let the bickering spoil the chance for good things to be done.

What's your take on that, Dawn Turner Trice? I think that this caller, Celeste, is suggesting, perhaps, a compromise has to be made here somewhere - that things are moving too quickly for some people and that if there's going to be change, perhaps, it's going to have to come in small doses. What do you think of that?

Ms. TRICE: Yeah. I think that - so far, we've had an overwhelming amount of things happened over the last several months. I mean, it looks like the economy is finally finding its footing and - but prior to that, there was so much unease about the - I mean, there are still a lot of people out of work and still people concerned about that. And the government's role in all of that has been a topic of discussions for months. And so, we - there has been a lot of criticism about whether the president has taken on so much - well, he - we all acknowledge that there was so much to be done in the beginning, but how everything is moving at such lightning speed. And it is, you know, it is overwhelming. I mean, add to that the unknowns of people kind of feeling like, you know, whether they're losing their power or their voice, or they're not being heard.

And I think another element of this is there is the component where you've got talk radio host who really - I mean, that people may not read what's in the 1,000-page documents, but they certainly listen to the host who are…

NEARY: Good point.

Ms. TRICE: …you know, spewing all kinds of information. And I think that there is that - so you have people who may not be as informed and they may not be reading from a number of different types of material, and they're just kind of - there's this feeling of things being so unsettled. So there - I do think that there is this need for maybe all of us to just kind of step back and try to look at - and try to become better informed on so many levels.

NEARY: Dawn Turner Trice is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. We're also talking with George Nethercutt. He is a former representative from Washington, a Republican. He served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2005.

And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATIONfrom NPR News.

We're going to take a call now from Tara(ph). And Tara is calling from Ann Arbor.

Hi, Tara.

TARA (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

TARA: I just wanted to say that, I think that you have, in the health care industry, fear on both sides of this debate. There's fear if the reform doesn't go through, because the system is broke and it's a patient in cardiac arrest. And there's fear, if it does go through, because nobody knows what's in it and what is that going to mean for us trying to care for our patient.

NEARY: It's interesting that so many people have called in. We've been doing a show on anger and what we're hearing is, people say, people are afraid. And that's the sense that you're getting, Tara?

TARA: Yes. That's the sense that I'm getting, because when I'm trying to get patients ready to go home, and I'm being told, cut your overtime, get out the door, and then patients can't get the things that they need so they can get out of the hospital and get back to a productive life. That's very fearful for me and it's fearful for my patient and it keeps my ability as a nurse to be able to do what I need to do for my patient.

NEARY: And you think it's going to get worse if there's reform?

TARA: Who knows? Who knows what it's got, what's going to happen? The only thing that we know is the current system is broken and it has to be fixed.

NEARY: All right.

TARA: And I think that while people are debating the two sides of the equation, what we're missing is - is what is the alternative? If these plans that Obama has is not it, somebody please, give me something else to work with, because we've got to do something.

NEARY: All right. Thanks very much. Thanks very much, Tara. I think we just heard a little bit of the passion there on one side. And, you know, one thing I'm thinking about is - George Nethercutt - how do we cut through the anger and really get back to having a productive conversation about health care? And given the fact that we're hearing that there is a lot of fear and a lot of confusion about it.

Mr. NETHERCUTT: I think Tara and Celeste raise a couple of very good points. And I think the remedy for their concerns is for the president, for the leaders in the Congress and the majority, to say, we hear this country, and we're a country that has every right in the world to have all points of view heard. This is a big issue. It's a big challenge for all of us. We're going to go slower. We're not going to push something through this fall.

Deadlines are not that critical for our country on health care given the fear level and that mistrust that exists around the country. So I think the president would be best advised to convene some Republicans and Democrats to say, we're going to take a second look at this, and we're going to sit down and we're going to try to solve this problem and present to you our best judgment on what's good for both sides. And we're really going to listen to both sides.

I think this racial business and the anger part of it - it will go away if the president takes the initiative with the leaders in Congress to calm the nation. And I think that's what he has to do on health care.

NEARY: Dawn Turner Trice, you think the racial business is going to go away?

Ms. TRICE: Well, I do think that it's - it would be prudent to slow things down - a bit. But I don't think that the racial business will ever go away. In the very beginning, the president tried to reach out - I'd say, several months ago - tried to reach out in a very bipartisan fashion. And that didn't really work. And that's not to say that it can't work, but I do think that it will take that.

But the race element, here, is - we're talking about this angry knot of people who for whom there is very little that can be done to really kind of calm things in that regard. And so I think that we, you know, he has to - the president and Congress have to find a way to get beyond the politics of it, the racial aspect of it - I mean, those are huge mountains - and really get to the business at hand. Because when we talk about slowing things down, I mean, there is a very real sense of urgency at the same time. People are, I mean, their lives are in jeopardy. I mean, their health is in jeopardy and something needs to be done quickly.

NEARY: And George Nethercutt, I'd like you to respond to something that Dawn said earlier and this here in an email as well. Stan(ph) in Berkeley, California.

Consider the talk show affect on civic manners. People have always felt strongly about issues. But we've gone from Walter Cronkite to Rush Limbaugh, moderation is out, intensity is in.

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Well, he's probably right. But there's intensity, and that's the beauty of America. I mean, why in the world will we ever want a squelch a point of view? That's against our historical background…

NEARY: But what if - what if some of the talk is fomenting anger to the degree that it does turn violent, which…

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Well, I would…

NEARY: …the potential is there.

Mr. NETHERCUTT: I think that's wrong and that's absolutely not the right way to go. But, you know, think back on the criticism of President Bush. I mean, it was vitriolic, it was mean, it was ugly. Do we like it? No. Do we like the criticism of the president that is over the edge? No.

But I tell you, this country is not going to stand for a conservative talk show host like Rush Limbaugh being silenced or any others similar to him. He's not pushing violence, and I'm not here to defend him by any means.

But the beauty of our system is that you can express a point of view. Our -what we've gotten away from is humility and the way we express our points of view. And that's what we have to get back to in this country and have some statesmanship at the highest levels, but also caution reason on the part of the public…

NEARY: Also at the town hall meeting level, I guess.

Mr. NETHERCUTT: Right.

NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us. George Nethercutt is a former representative from Washington State. He served in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2005. We were also joined by Chicago Tribune columnist, Dawn Turner Trice.

I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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