"She had spent her lifetime in the town, and it was easy to know who everyone was and where everyone lived."
-- John O'Hara in Ten North Frederick, a novel about life in small town Pennsylvania
I am not a Nazi
I am not a Mob
I am not a Wacko
How dare you…
Underneath the pink hat shielding her from a hot August sun, the woman was furious.
Standing in the heat outside Senator Arlen Specter's town meeting in the small bucolic Central Pennsylvania town of Lebanon, along with a crowd estimated at over 1,000 by an astonished local policeman, she wanted to make certain something else was known. She held aloft her handmade sign, its message written as above, her fury directed at the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives. "I'm a wife, mother and a homemaker. I don't even know anybody in the insurance business." Pause, the obvious sense of indignant wrath searching for expression. Finally: "I really resent the fact that Nancy Pelosi has deemed me a mob and a Nazi!"
Another sign bobbed in the crowd, yet another homemade reference to a Pelosi comment questioning the authenticity of the opposition to ObamaCare. "If it's Astroturf why are you trying to mow it?" Which raised the obvious question.
Was she sent here by someone? "No!" came the emphatic answer tinged with disgust at the sheer stupidity of the notion. No. She listened to Glenn Beck and "all of 580" --local jargon for the WHP radio affiliate that carries Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Someone else mentioned Mark Levin. But she wasn't out here to please a voice on the radio. She was here because she was mad. This was about her country, her health care, not about Fox News.
Who, exactly, were these people who had converged in the middle of Lebanon to protest ObamaCare? Walking through the crowd, finding them waving signs as they chatted with each other, they were happy to talk. These were in fact the flesh-and-blood of John O'Hara's Pennsylvania world. There was the registered nurse who was so incensed about the President's plans she went on the Internet to find Senator Specter's list of town meetings -- and drove two hours from her home in Chambersburg only to find the meeting already filled. She chose to stay, her own sign held high with a scrawled message on free speech, her feet firmly planted on the street corner. There was the local small businessman, the woman who had lost a beloved sister to cancer -- teary but deeply gratified that her sister had health care choices every step along the way. Her friend, a child of immigrants who arrived in 1924 -- "legally" she added with a smile -- shyly gave a name but preferred to think of herself as just "an American patriot."
Art was there, the self-described "working stiff" who had taken time off from his job to come and protest the idea that he would be forced into a health care plan the "elites" (as he heatedly referred to the President and Members of Congress) refused to sign up for themselves.
Said the small businessman: "If this is such a great program….then Mr. Obama, Congress, Senate and all other federal employees should test drive -- should test drive -- this program. If it is so fantastic they should do it first, and then build a consensus and if it's that great? Guess what? I'd be glad enough to pay…"
Who sent him?
"No one sent me," he replied in the common sense tone of voice for which the area is famous.
"I took comp time just like everybody else," said Art the working stiff, angry at the question again. "No one asked me to come." What was he so concerned about? "With this elitist government pushing things on us…"
"And ignoring us," came a new voice, this belonging to a woman who worked with Lebanon's disabled. The thought of disabled children left to the mercies of a government bureaucrat intent on rationing care caused the woman to shudder.
Inside, Arlen Specter was taking 30 questions, most, as befits the general well-mannered nature of Central Pennsylvanians, polite if forceful. Only one man invited an invitation to leave, instantly making himself cable fodder. "You have awakened a sleeping giant," said a 35-year old woman captured on camera who confessed she had not heretofore paid much attention to things political.
Specter, who is nothing if not a familiar face in Pennsylvania politics, surely knew this. He has routinely scheduled August town meetings throughout his record-five terms in the Senate, frequently lining them up in multiples. This day he was scheduled to push on north to Lewisburg and Bucknell University for a repeat performance. The difference this time was that there was no scurrying of staff to round up attendees. This time, Pennsylvanians wanted -- demanded -- to talk. The sleeping giant was indeed awake.
Outside, the giant was damn angry. Complaints raged about local Democratic Congressman Tim Holden and the state's junior Senator, Bob Casey Jr. Specter, at least, had the "guts" to show up. Where were Holden and Casey? Their offices, it was said angrily, had declined to hold town meetings, the implication clear: the two men were hiding from their own constituents.
Yet it wasn't just Holden and Casey who seemed oddly silent. Not everyone protesting on the streets of Lebanon wanted to talk.
"Organizing for America," referred to by one sarcastic local as the "rent-a-mob," had a cluster of people busy digging out pre-printed signs that were to be carried into the crowd and the lenses of TV cameras.
Holding up printed signs literally pulled out of a cardboard box was one thing. Talking about health care was another. "I don't want to talk to you," said the woman pointed to by the others as the leader of the "Organizing for America" group. I tried again. If she couldn't say who sent her, how about a location. Where was she from? Pause. Tersely. "Harrisburg." End of conversation.
Further into the crowd another woman holding a pro-ObamaCare sign and vigorously arguing with a thirtyish man suddenly fell silent when asked who she was with. "She's not allowed to say" sniped the disgusted young man. Her sign went up, hiding her face at the sight of a video camera. Why? "It's not the union," she said, although no one had asked about "the union."
With some coaxing, a retired state employee wearing the purple T-shirt of the SEIU acknowledged that, well, now that the subject was out there, "Oh no…" he wasn't sent by the union. Pause. Or at least not paid by the union. But he was asked to come by the union? "Yes, I was told to come, some of our people are inside…but I'm here on my own time." A nice man who was satisfied with his own health care, he attributes the controversy to a "misunderstanding." He believes that everyone should have good health care because the United States has "the biggest economy in the world and certainly can afford to make available affordable health care." In saying this he was immediately challenged by a white-haired man who began reeling off statistics about the financial status of the Lebanon area hospital. The union man declined, politely, to get into a debate.
So where is Pennsylvania in all of this? Nicknamed the "Keystone State" in 1802 in part because of its centrality to the original thirteen colonies, the term has often enough correctly been used with reference to its similar importance in everything from the economy to agriculture to politics. Within the state, the recognition that Specter is having a tough sell of ObamaCare in his own Philadelphia, the city he adopted and made his own after migrating from Russell, Kansas, and the state's liberal bastion, is nothing if not a warning bell both to Specter and team Obama.
Outside his town hall meeting were signs that mentioned the "E" word -- euthanasia. But more tellingly was the question inside by a woman who wanted to know about the survival prospects for a 74-year old man with cancer. Angrily, the 79-year-old Specter, who has survived a brain tumor and two bouts with cancer, dismissed the idea of the government sitting in judgment on the worth of the lives of individual Americans as "a vicious, malicious rumor."
But the fact that the question was raised at all -- inside the hall or outside -- speaks directly to something not written about in John O'Hara novels.
That something is a genuine anger -- touched by a flash of terror -- that the men and women who have temporary custody of the government of the United States, a government so carefully crafted in Philadelphia -- a city affectionately still known as The City of Brotherly Love -- are poised to enact health care policies that are both distinctly un-brotherly and absent of love. Policies that however well-intended, will ultimately wind up judging the worth of an American life in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, as found wanting in the balance, a needed sacrifice to the God of government- rationed care.
The life of the woman in the pink hat. The woman who lost her sister to cancer. The child of 1924 immigrants. The small businessman, the woman who fears for the disabled and, not least of all, Art the working stiff.
O'Hara's old novel of life in small town Pennsylvania ends with this sentence, spoken of the book's hero.
"And then, when that time was reached when he was placed in the great past, he went out of the lives of all of the rest of us, who are awaiting our turn."
Awaiting our turn we all are.
But if the men and women of Lebanon, Pennsylvania have anything to say about it, it damn well won't be the government's way.
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