Armey Encourages Good Manners At Town Halls

In the 1990s, Dick Armey was a leading Republican congressman who opposed changes to health care proposed by the Clinton administration. He is now chairman of the private conservative group FreedomWorks, and explains to Steve Inskeep what he's doing to influence the current debate on overhauling health care.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the people channeling what he calls public anxiety is former Congressman Dick Armey of Texas. He was a leading figure in the 1990s when Republicans won control of Congress and defeated President Clinton's health care plan. Today, he's chairman of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group. His group has organized opposition to Democrats at those town hall meetings this summer.

Mr. DICK ARMEY (Chairman, FreedomWorks): When members of Congress called town hall meetings, we encourage our residents in that congressional district to attend the meetings. We also helped them to clarify what are the precise focus of the question you might want to zero in on. And we have always consistently, as a matter of good manners and good strategy, encouraged our folks to always go there, make a good presentation of themselves, well-mannered and courteous. Because, in fact, if you go to a town hall meeting and you make a display of yourself, you're likely to not get called upon. We don't encourage any display of bad manners.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting. What do you think of some of the more dramatic town hall meetings, the rambunctious town hall meetings that there have been this summer?

Mr. ARMEY: Well, they've been pretty dang colorful and I've - a couple of things: one, people have gone to the town hall meeting with an enormous sense of anxiety. And I think one of the initial aggravations that I think I heard expressed consistently in town hall after town hall as I looked at the news coverage was I've come here as a serious adult worried about what is the substance of this bill, and you're talking down to me like I'm a child and I resent it. So I think that the source of the anger was that the congressional members did not take their constituency serious as well-informed and seriously concerned persons.

INSKEEP: Although, let's be frank. I mean, there were people who showed up after receiving emails instructing them to interrupt the town hall meeting at the first opportunity. There were a few instances where people have been around town hall meetings with firearms. I mean, they weren't talked down to by their members.

Mr. ARMEY: No.

INSKEEP: They showed up with firearms.

Mr. ARMEY: I don't know of anybody that is instructing their members to go and be disruptive. If there's an organization out there that does that, it's an organization that is not very competent, in my estimation. I mean, it doesn't make sense to tell you - tell your members and associates go to the town hall meeting and make a spectacle of yourself. That's just plain poor strategy.

INSKEEP: I don't want to make you predict the future - well, actually I suppose I do, because you've seen a lot in your long career, and as you look at this health care debate, you've got a president who's committed to a certain kind of change. Although he's said he's willing to do some negotiating, you've got folks on your side who are passionately against it. You've got corporate interests all over the place. How do you think all this ends?

Mr. ARMEY: Well, first of all, I find very few corporate interests that aren't already in bed with Obama. But it's pretty much gotten to be a direct contest between the real voters in the real world and the real office holders who are privileged to represent them. And…

INSKEEP: I'm sorry. Are you saying that supporters of the president are not real voters?

Mr. ARMEY: No, no, no. No, no. They've got real voters on their side. They've got real voters, too. But the fact of the matter is pollsters will tell you there's something about the intensity level. Half of the Democrat voters that voted for Obama are half-embarrassed and apologetic about this big government imposition. They don't have a great deal of intensity in the support for their program by real voters out there, and the intensity of the opposition is extremely intense.

So the long and the short of it is any member of Congress who votes for this program as we see it now in the bills reported out of committee has to give serious consideration to whether or not that vote, and that vote in and of itself, will be the vote that prevents me from being reelected.

INSKEEP: Mr. Armey, pleasure talking with you again.

Mr. ARMEY: Well, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Dick Armey is a former Republican Congressman who now leads the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. And you can follow all the twists in the overhaul debate - twists and turns I should say - in our Prescriptions for Change series at npr.org/health.

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