Freedom of speech, Vermont style (Bennington Banner)

By:  Jo Procter

Letter to the Editor


Getting into my car after Senator Bernie Sander’s two and a half hour town hall meeting Saturday, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly were singing on the radio, "For you and I have a guardian angel ... ."

The event had begun at 12:30 p.m. with a guitar/violin and voices belting out the Old Crow Medicine Show’s "Rock Me, Momma." From momma to guardian angels, with Senator Sanders between has a reassuring ring to it, which is not what I expected.

The event took place in Arlington. They like to hunt in Arlington. First day of hunting season begins with a pre-dawn hunters’ breakfast in East Arlington. It’s a big draw, and one could believe that there are more gun permits per capita in Arlington than any other town in Vermont. A number of years ago a waitress at the now defunct East Arlington Grill told me, "You wouldn’t want to let your dog or cat out of the house during huntin’ season."

From Fox, to MSNBC, to NPR, the media have shown and reported that town hall meetings on health care draw hecklers. And, in Vermont’s next-door neighbor, New Hampshire, at least one was toting a gun.

I went to Senator Sanders’ meeting with a bit of trepidation. The event was held in Arlington’s recreational park pavilion (operated by the local Lions Club) and featured a free barbecue. Picnic tables were spread with paper cloths decorated in a patriotic look. Strewn on the tables were pocket-size copies of the Constitution, Sanders brochures titled, "What Can I Do to Help?" and cards for questions in case members of the audience didn’t get a chance to ask his or hers.

Two large copies of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post drawing, "Freedom of Speech," were displayed on either side of the covered picnic site. The painting was inspired by a town hall meeting in Arlington, where Rockwell lived at the time (from 1939 to 1953). "He remembered how his neighbor, Arlington resident Jim Edgerton, had stood up during the meeting and aired an unpopular opinion. Instead of objecting to his remarks, his fellow citizens honored Edgerton’s right to speak his piece." (art.com)

I took a seat on a folding chair at the side of the pavilion. A woman holding a sign reading, "Respect," stood near the table near me. Another said to her on seeing the sign, "And, if your sign doesn’t do it, I’m going to remind hecklers, ‘Remember what your mother told you: mind your manners.’"

No one needed worry.

The senator, who was to spend the next 96 minutes taking questions from a crowd, estimated by the senator at 500 and the man on my left at 1,000, began by reminding everyone that a copy of the same Rockwell picture hung in his Senate offices, and that we were there to talk to each other and to listen, with respect.

And, that’s the way it worked. No hecklers. Those who wanted to ask questions were told to stand on one side if they supported health care reform with a government option, on the other side if they were opposed to it. The senator took questions from one side and then the other -- 96 minutes of questions back and forth.

Here’s what some of the questions brought out:

* People without health insurance are forced to make fearful choices.

* 18,000 people die in the United States every year because they do not get health care when needed.

* 60 million Americans do not have access to a primary care physician.

* Concern that the health care proposals support abortion is ill founded; the Hyde Amendment forbids use of federal funds for abortions.

* Prescriptions are too expensive in the U.S. and the so-called doughnut hole in prescription funding now kicks in after $2,300 of expense.

* No health care system is perfect, but the U.S. health care is costing twice as much as any other in an industrialized country, and all other industrialized countries have some form of universal health care.

* The cost of health care in the U.S. is predicted to double in the next eight years.

* As yet, there is no health care bill to discuss; there are three proposals in the House and two in the Senate (only one of which has come out of committee).

* The idea for a public option is to "keep private insurers" honest.

* Employers could drop private plans and put their employees into a public option if they’re now paying $12,000 an employee for private health care and the penalty for not insuring their employees is only $750 per employee.

* People don’t understand how reforming health care insurance will bring down the deficit.

An equal number of citizens on either side of the health care issue aired their questions and suggestions. As did Senator Sanders give voice to his opinions. No heckling.

Afterward, in the farm store down the road, one customer said loudly enough so the others of us who had just come from Senator Sander’s town hall meeting could agree: "Speech was civil; we spoke our minds, he answered the questions -- we’re proud of Bernie; we’re proud to live in Vermont."


Jo Procter lives in Bennington.