When my buddy from Alabama called me yesterday to tell me that he was in front of Congressman David Scott's office at a health care rally, I was still in my pajamas, on hold with my ISP, trying to set up the cranky email software on my new laptop. Twenty minutes later I was in my car, heading across Atlanta on I-285.
I haven't watched the news in a couple of weeks, because the lazy cable news producers have begun to remix the healthcare reform headlines the way P. Diddy remixes old hit songs. I have avoided the claptrap coming from the Sunday morning political talk shows, because at this point they are all talking to each other in soundbite shorthand, as if they are filming a sit-com and have been practicing their lines all week.
This was not a townhall meeting. Congressman Scott, (D) Georgia, representing Georgia's 13th District, had planned no press conference or any other public event for Saturday. Scott has become infamous to healthcare reform opponents for giving s spirited response to one of his own constituents during a recent town hall meeting. Since then, Scott's office has been vandalized with swastika graffiti spray painted over signage bearing his name, and the video of his town hall encounter with a local urologist has been spreading across the blogosphere.
When I got to Scott's office about midday, the protesters seemed to be quieter than the ruckus I'd heard coming through my buddy's cell phone. There were maybe fifty protestors left straggled along the curb in front of Scott's district office, many of them in garnet colored shirts that looked like they could have been University of Georgia paraphernalia, waving signs and banners, yelling a few spirited catcalls from time to time.
I didn't hear the guy my buddy had held his phone up for me to listen to earlier over his cell phone - the guy who had been yelling "if you want healthcare, get a job" at the top of his lungs - but there were plenty of people yelling derogatory comments about "Obamacare" and "socialism".
Directly across the street from Scott's office, a smaller group of people, most of them in blue shirts, some of which read "Obama '08", were waving their "honk if you support healthcare reform" signs and occasionally shouting back at the healthcare protestors.
When I raised my camera to take a picture, the two police officers who had gone over to remind the healthcare supporters to stay within the right of way seemed to scurry away a little faster.
My buddy appeared in a blue t-shirt, with his two year old son on his shoulders and his scientist wife at his side. "You need to go over there," my buddy said, his finger pointing across the street, "and talk to 'em. I was over there earlier, just asking them why they hate the idea of healthcare reform so much."
A few minutes later, the four of us were across the street, and I was taking close ups of the protestors.
One of them, an older man in a red golf shirt and khaki shorts, asked me why I was there, since I had on one of my beloved "Magnum P.I." Hawaiian themed shirts, a red one that was covered in white tropical flowers. So I told him I wrote a political blog called Brown Man Thinking Hard.
"Thinking hard, eh?" he said. "Then you must be on our side."
"I think that's one of the problems with this whole thing, for starters," I said, "this partisan 'which side is right' stuff."
Another man, about the same age and in similar attire, sidled up to us. And just like that, while the camera crews were putting their gear away, and the photographers were walking around looking for a few final shots of the event, we got into a conversation about why all of us were standing on the side of the street in downtown Smyrna on a Saturday afternoon.
It took a few minutes for us to get past the obligatory position statements and traditional rhetoric and into a discussion that was a little more intimate. The man who had originally asked me why I was there, after sensing that I wasn't there to counter the anti-healthcare reform slogans he had been yelling, started in on why HE was out there.
He was retired. He had served in the military, where his healthcare was free. I countered that it wasn't really free, but a part of his compensation. He had seen then, he said, what the government did when it had to serve large numbers of people as their primary provider. The long lines, indifferent doctors who were merely marking time until their student loans were worked off, the soldiers who had abused the system - all of this, he asserted, was what he feared if the government ran the nation's healthcare system.
More people began to drift over as we talked. The man shifted gears a little then, segueing from why he didn't believe we needed to have healthcare benefits for everyone to what he thought of Obama. "Obama is nothing more than a pimp. A Detroit pimp is what he is. I lived in Detroit for awhile, and in certain areas of town, they had these guys - pimps - there they called them 'murphy men'. They would wait for a guy who looked like he was out for some action to start eyeing the girls walking up and down the street, and then they would start talking to the guy, real smooth-like, the way Obama does, to try to figure out what kind of girl the guy wanted."
"I don't think he's a pimp," I said. "What he is is a politician, and in this country, we aren't really interested in politicians telling us things we don't want to hear. So the politics of the situation has kind of got him in a spot. Look, I voted for him myself, but now, what I want him to do, instead of worrying about who is vulnerable at the midterm elections, or what kind of legacy he's going to have, is to stick it to these weak Democrats in Congress who aren't willing to staand up for anything and get them to stand up for something. To get them to stand up for us.
This is a complicated issue. It's got a lot of moving parts. And right now, it looks like the president is pushing a bunch of ideas that sound like they are going to cost a lot. The other thing I wish he would do is simply say to all of us that what he is proposing isn't just a few changes in how we do things. What I want him to do is say what needs to be said - that he is proposing a fundamental change in the way we see healthcare in this country. That we are going to go from a 'how much profit can you make' healthcare system to a "this much profit is fair' healthcare system. Because all of these things they are proposing - limiting this fee, capping that cost - all point to a public utility model."
"But that's not right," the man said. "He's trying to get rid of free enterprise."
A black guy who had wandered over with his "Obamacare = Slavery" poster grunted in affirmation.
I could feel the presence of my buddy from Alabama just behind my right shoulder. His wife and child were in the shade of the congressman's office. Many of those who had worn blue shirts to show their support for healthcare reform were gone. I could sense the frustration in my buddy at the black guy's sign, could practically feel the tension rising in his body. My buddy had spent many, many weekends and week nights campaigning for Obama in this very same area.
"Can I ask you guys something," I said. "I've been thinking about this for weeks, and from what I can see, the public utility idea is one that has worked before. My grandmother lives in the middle of nowhere. Do you think the power company wanted to run powerlines out to her house? Do you know how much it cost for them to put electricity in rural America? It was the government, with the Rural Eletrification Act who made them do it. And she pays the same for electricity as everybody else, even though it cost waay more to get power to her house."
The man I was talking to looked perturbed, but the man holding the yellow "Don't Tread On Me" banner, the one with the mini ZZ Top looking beard that touched his chest, who had been half turned while we were talking, turned around and joined the outer ring of our growing group.
"I don't think it's the same," Mr. Perturbed said. "I don't think everybody needs healthcare coverage."
While I was searching for something to say, something other than the many inflammatory retorts floating through my mind, because I was really interested in seeing where this conversation could lead, the man with the ZZ Top beard spoke up. "I'm a veteran. And I think the VA system is horrible. I got sick last year, and it took me over a month to get in to see a doctor. Weeks and weeks before I could get a colonscopy the doctor ordered. I don't think the government has any business running healthcare."
I turned back to the original protester. "I've heard the same things about the VA. But the government doesn't want to take over healthcare. What they have is a problem. A big one. Half off all the money in this country spent on healthcare is spent by the government already." The black guy with the "Obamacare = Slavery" sign grunted again, then interjected "on what? What are they spending it on?" I reeled off an incomplete list of programs and subsidies, but he wasn't interested in hearing any of it. My buddy from Alabama was restless now, his feet shuffling, his breathing getting heavier. I could imagine his eyes glaring fiercely at the black guy.
"The thing is," I continued to the larger group, "the biggest bulge in our history - the baby boomers - are going to start hitting the system by the thousands. Something has to be done about this."
"The Democrats ain't never done nothing for the people," said the black guy holding the "Obamacare = Slavery" sign. "Not a damn thing. That's why I'm a Republican."
My buddy from Alabama had had enough. "Do you know your history?" he said to the black guy.
The two of them got into a verbal tit for tat, exchanging heated barbs about slavery, Martin Luther King, and the history of African American involvement with the Republican Party that ended when my buddy, exasperated, finally yelled "how much are they paying, brother? Huh? How much are they paying you?"
Some of the people still on the curb turned around, wondering what was going on. More onlookers crowded in to our growing group.
But the guys I had been having the most productive conversation with, the ones who had begun to tell their own stories, and reveal their own feelings and fears, had started to look more and more like my cigar buddies. Maybe I looked more and more like somebody they knew as well. In any case, we continued talking a little while longer after my buddy and Mr. "Obamacare = Slavery" reached an uneasy truce.
"When I moved to North Fulton almost fifteen years ago," I said, "my new neighbors were protesting the expansion of a major corridor between Fulton and Forsyth Counties. They didn't want a four lane highway so close to their subdivisions, they said. It would hurt property values. It would be a route for big tractor trailers thaat would rumble through all night long. On and on they went with why we shouldn't do this.
So the major corridor remained a two lane road. Traffic backed up. Forsyth County grew by leaps and bounds. And now, fifteen years later, they are building the road anyway, for more than it would have originally cost, and at a greater inconvenience to the residents. It was inevitable that the road was going to be widened.
Its inevitable that healthcare in America is going to change. So why not do something about it now?"
There was less rancor now as we went about the small circle in round robin fashion, with everybody throwing in their own real life scenarios to explain why they believed what they believed.
After awhile, I peered at my watch and then looked at the guys I had been talking with. "Let me ask you guys something. If we could take the politics out of this - if we could just look at this as a human issue instead of a partisan one - would you be willing to at least listen to some different ideas on how to address the problems we have in our healthcare system?"
They all said yes.
A few minutes later, my buddy and I had rejoined his wife and child on the sidewalk in front of Congressman Scott's office, where we began talking about what had just happened. The two year old, a veteran of many political events, was nonetheless tired of standing still. Now that his father, his number one playmate, was near, he was ready to do the things two year old boys do.
As I talked to my buddy's wife and another healthcare supporter about his recent travails with his insurance company over the limitations of his coverage, the two year old dragged his father across the parking lot towards a large motorcycle. The man with the ZZ Top beard was rolling up his nylon "Don't Tread On Me" banner to put in a compartment on his bike when he saw my buddy and his son approaching.
The bearded man was rummaging around in another compartment by the time my buddy's son had dragged him all the way to the bike. The bearded man's hand emerged from the compartment with a brightly colored coin. He bent down and said something to my buddy's son as he handed the coin to him.
Behind all of the hysteria, bombast, misinformation, fear and denial swirling about the Obama healthcare reform effort, I am firmly convinced that if everybody on both sides of the issue would recast their positions in more human terms - whether or not all Americans deserve to have access to regularly scheduled doctor visits and preventative medical care - we might get a better understanding of why, as imperfect as this initial effort is, that it is the right thing to do, and why the time to begin doing it is now.