MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: heckling, yelling, hanging people in effigy - demonstrators have disrupted town hall meetings on health care around the country. Is this partisan bullying or a healthy expression of dissent? We will talk more about that with people who have engaged in, shall we say, direct action, in just a few minutes. But first, perspective about the push to overhaul the country's health care system from one of the leaders who is trying to make it happen. As House Majority Whip, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn is one of House speaker Nancy Pelosi's top lieutenants, and he will be working to line up support for health care overhaul when Congress returns from its recess in the fall. And Congressman Clyburn joins us now from his offices in South Carolina. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): My pleasure. Thanks you so much for having me.
MARTIN: The House has been in recess for what almost two weeks now. What are you hearing from constituents about how they think the health care debate is going?
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I'm hearing from some of my constituents that they really want to get this done. In fact, I was in Charlotte, North Carolina and person after person came up to me. These are small business people, who really feel that their businesses will go under if they cannot get relief on health care. And one particular gentleman, I said, I say, well, I'm going to do my best. He said, no-no-no, that's not good enough, you got to get this done. Your best may not be good enough. And that's the way people feel, they're very passionate about this.
Now if you look in on the staged events that have been disrupted by folks who seemed to be hell bent on making a scene, who don't want to hear what the plans are and don't want anybody else to hear what the plans are; you might get a different notion about what's going on. But, I think that those of us who have been following this closely, who have people out monitoring this, I think it's best said in what one of the teabaggers said over the telephone: is our own plan is to stop this in its tracks. Anything, no matter what it is, it must be stopped. Nothing should pass. That's what they did in 1994. I don't think that's what they will do this time. I think President Obama is committed to this. And I know, when you drill down into these numbers, that the vast majority of the American people want to get this done.
MARTIN: You mentioned President Obama. He participated in a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Let's just play a short clip of some of what he had to say.
(Soundbite of clip from President Obama's speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: Let me just start by setting the record straight on a few things I've been hearing out here about reform. Under the reform we're proposing, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. You will not be waiting in any lines. This is not about putting the government in charge of your health insurance. I don't believe anyone should be in charge of your health insurance decisions but you and your doctor.
MARTIN: Now, he has been very clear about this, you have been very clear about this. Other Democrats say that this is crystal clear, that they are not proposing any of these kinds of changes, and yet you see people across the country at these forums - they don't believe it. What do you think is going on here?
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I have often heard that if you tell any lie often enough, and tell it loud enough, you get people to buy into it. And now how often have we heard it said, throughout the whole campaign, that Barack Obama is Muslim. Where is the evidence for that? Yet they are still saying it, and especially in my home state of South Carolina, big numbers still believe it. No matter how many times you tell people that there is no single payer plan in this. When I watch TV, there are people saying that is Barack Obama's plan. It has never been his plan. It is not his plan. It is not in this bill. No one is even discussing it on the floor of the United States Congress. Every single payer person I know has conceded that Congress will not pass a single payer plan, but they are still saying it. So, no matter what you say, they have decided that this is my line and I'm sticking to it.
MARTIN: You know South Carolina Senator, Jim DeMint, has ranked among the most vocal critics of the health care overhaul efforts. He has called the health care fight a showdown between socialism and freedom. He has called this Obama's Waterloo. I mean, do you think he is lying?
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, no he is not lying. He is just letting us know what his plan is. The plan is for this to be Barack Obama's Waterloo, as he said. If we stop him on this, it will be his Waterloo. So, it is not about reform and health care, it is about dealing what they consider to be a defeat to Barack Obama. And they feel, that as it happened with Bill Clinton, that will start to have a cascading effect that will result in victories for them at the polls next November. So, this is not a health care debate, no matter what they may call it. This is the fight for the heart and soul of the United States of America. And those of us who believe that the heart carries with it a certain degree of compassion are committed to this effort to get this done - those who think differently will try to stop it.
MARTIN: Are you saying that, Senator Jim DeMint from your state, prefers the status quo or do you think he just has a different vision of how this should proceed?
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, he says he has a different vision. And I will take him at his word. But, you know, if you looked at the fact, that for eight years, while Bush was in office as President of the United States, six of those eight years Republicans were in the majority in both Houses of the Congress. So, I would say to him, why didn't you and your Republican colleagues push your plan when you had both House and Senate, as well as the presidency? So, all of a sudden, now, you've got the best plan and you had six years.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is House Majority Whip, James Clyburn. We are talking about the health care debate and how it's proceeding across the country. Have you had any of these town hall meetings that we keep hearing so much about? I know you had one in July - how did that go?
Rep. CLYBURN: Yes I had two. I had one in Columbia. It was well attended. I had one down in Charleston, South Carolina. It was very well attended. I have also had a teleconference town hall with about six thousand people in with AARP. They were all very well participated in and we had none of this.
MARTIN: And why do you think that is? I mean, yours was not among those that was disrupted by people yelling and so forth, why do you think that is?
Rep. CLYBURN: I think I anticipated that August was going to be the way it has turned out to be. And I'm at (unintelligible) my town hall meetings when there could be a civil discussion. And I want you to know there were discussions. There weren't all agreements. There were people who even since the time of all meetings have written letters to the editor taking me to task for the positions I hold on this. But it was, once again, civil - not always in agreement, but always respectful of each other.
MARTIN: And speaking of civil, you are a veteran of the civil rights movement, and some of the people who are opposing the health care plans that are now being debated in the Congress say they are just following the playbook of that era. They are saying that, you know, that was confronting people in power. Civil rights activists sometimes disrupted public meetings to call attention to their cause. Do you see their point? Do you think that it's the same thing or do you think it's different?
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, you know, it's kind of interesting. There were some disruptions. I remember being on the scene of the so called burn baby burn, the Stokely Carmichael era, but there always the practice of turning the other cheek. It was drilled in us to turn the other cheek. It was drilled in us to be respectful of other people. We campaigned and we politicked, we protest, we did all of those things but we never ever attempted to talk over people, attempted to threaten people. We never hung anybody in effigy. We were respectful of the process. We just decided to challenge the laws, not to trample upon the rights of others.
MARTIN: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been quoted as saying some of these protests are un-American. Do you think that's fair?
Rep. CLYBURN: Look if anybody is getting up with a face of Barack Obama drawn to look like Hitler. If anybody's waving a Swastika, would you call that American? I don't think so.
MARTIN: Well, some say it's just free speech. It's political speech and therefore it is American.
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, no. Free speech is, as one Supreme Court justice said, will not give you the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. So no matter how free you may be of speech, you don't have unfettered speech. So, I think what this is, this is going beyond the notion of free speech, but going into those areas where you are in fact trampling upon the rights of others.
MARTIN: Is the issue, for you, that some of these people are making it hard for other people to be heard, or is it you think that the tenor of their conversation is hostile and rude.
Rep. CLYBURN: Well, I think it's hostile and rude. No question about that. But remember we started having some of this during the presidential campaign last fall, where people were very, very hostile in some of these McCain rallies. And they were saying things about Barack Obama which were absolutely not true. I still visualize this elderly woman, who was just trembling, talked about Barack Obama's faith and lack of being a Christian. These kinds of things started out in that campaign. I really believe that's what gave the idea, because it riled up their base during the campaign.
MARTIN: Opponents of the health care overhaul plans that are being debated in the Congress, the Democratic led Congress, said they would use the recess period to try to drum opposition to the plan, to try to kill it. Do you think in retrospect that it was a mistake to go home for recess, rather than stay in Washington and finish it off.
Rep. CLYBURN: I don't think it's ever a mistake to go home and talk to your constituents. I was one of those that says we should stay here until we get this done. Because I thought that was the best way to do it. I still believe you should have taken another week and stay there and gotten this done. And I think it would be a different climate today if we had. That's not the only way, but to me that would have been the best way.
MARTIN: How do you like the prospects for a bill passing when you return?
Rep. CLYBURN: I have a gut feeling, that by the time we get back the day after Labor Day, there is going to be a different climate in this country. And people are going to be settling in for a real good reform program that will serve our country well.
MARTIN: Congressman James Clyburn - he is the majority whip of the House of Representatives. He is a Democrat of course. He represents South Carolina's Sixth District. And he was kind enough to join us from Columbia, South Carolina. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Rep. CLYBURN: Thank you so much for having me.
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