The Richmond Register

Viewpoints

November 14, 2009

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 firehouse 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 25 of them — hoodless — marched down the aisle made by the rickety folding chairs set up in the tiny firehouse and took 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:

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