Whatever Their Tone, We Need Town Hall Meetings

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The strident rhetoric and heated tone of recent congressional town-hall meetings has some people wondering whether they're getting out of hand. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says this is nothing new, and that "Whatever Their Tone, We Need Town Hall Meetings."

Years ago, when I was still in Congress, I pulled up one day to address a public meeting in a remote and very rural part of Indiana. The sheriff, a friend of mine, met me outside the small volunteer fire house where I was to speak. "The Ku Klux Klan is here in full regalia," he told me. "If you'd like, I'll keep them out of your meeting. 

For just a second, I'll confess, I weighed his offer. But I was not in the business of trying to keep constituents out of public gatherings — even if they were in the KKK. No, I told my friend, the Klansmen could come in, as long as they removed their hoods. There's no place for anonymity in a public meeting, I said. 

And so about twenty-five of them — hoodless — marched down the aisle made by the rickety folding chairs set up in the tiny firehouse and took their places in the front. Was this or was this not a Christian nation, they demanded. And what did I think about Jewish influence in Hollywood and on the media? I responded calmly, but their persistent overtones of anti-Semitism wore out the audience's patience. Eventually they left, and the meeting continued. 

I've been thinking recently about that long-ago event as the temperature of congressional town meetings heats up. Media coverage of stormy public gatherings may give the impression that we've entered an especially fraught time for public discourse, but I can tell you that anyone who's been in public life for a while has seen plenty of fierce town-hall meetings. The challenge is not to avoid controversy; it's to make it productive. Here are some things I've learned over the years about how to do that: 

First, you have to recognize that public meetings are crucial for members of Congress and other elected officials. They're where they can best gauge the intensity of public feeling, hear from ordinary citizens, and give people a chance to get to know firsthand their representative. Sometimes you have to square your shoulders before you head into a room where you know tempers are going to flare, but this is democracy at the retail level, and it's vital. 

Often, raw emotions surface — a particular policy can affect people deeply, and they ought to hold strong views about it. The first rule if you're the official presiding over the meeting is to be unfailingly polite and let everyone speak—don't cut anyone off. The crowd will always start out sympathizing with friends and neighbors, even vociferous ones, but I've noticed that angry or long-winded speakers inevitably wear out their welcome, as the Klan members in Indiana did. In the end, most people come to meetings like these to listen and discuss, not hear someone else harangue them. 

In some ways, the bigger challenge that a member of Congress faces is to draw out the people who don't speak easily, but who often have insightful things to say. Every meeting will have speakers seeking the limelight; the trick is to create a space where the more hesitant can feel comfortable saying what's on their minds, too. 

Sometimes, it's hard to understand a question or comment; people don't always express themselves clearly. But it's important to try hard, and not simply brush someone off because he or she is inarticulate. Because when you do finally understand, you'll often be impressed by the common sense and pragmatism that often underlie people's concerns, no matter how angry or tongue-tied they appear to be. 

Finally, meetings like these are a chance not only to educate the public, but also to be educated by it. Once, at an especially lively meeting over the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s, I found myself — a supporter of the treaties — overwhelmed by the opposition in the room and not quite sure I would emerge from the meeting in one piece. A constituent I'd never met stood up and gave the most cogent argument for ratification I'd ever heard. Not only did the room quiet down, but I took those debating points back to Washington with me, duly reminded that there is great wisdom even in the most obscure corners of our country. 

Over my years in Congress, I conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of town-hall meetings. Almost every time I came away with the feeling that this was precisely what I was meant to be doing — engaging with my constituents in a small part of the dialogue of democracy. Just as often, these meetings reinforced my confidence in the fairness, decency and judgment of the American people. 

So as we look ahead to the next congressional recess, and no doubt to the next round of heated town-hall meetings, let's remember that they, too, help ensure that our representative democracy remains vibrant. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)