People were not predisposed to attend John Kline's first-ever town hall meeting in their happy place. Which was probably the whole idea of what preceded it. Inflame the opposition. Republics are very good at that, witness Bush's session recess appointment of Mr. Swiftboater as ambassador to Belgium. But I digress.
The official word, prior to Tuesday night's John Kline gig, reportedly came from Kline's D.C. chief of staff, Stephen Sutton. Citizens were told that Kline did not trust the League of Women Voters to moderate the meeting (and, in fact, his own staffers took charge, as in total charge). Citizens were told that Kline viewed the 700 individuals who had petitioned for the meeting to be liberal operatives (most were, in fact, peace activists). Citizens were told that questions would be pre-screened. Suffice it to say that Dems were not predisposed to be in our happy place as we entered Lakeville South High School.
While a handful of peace activists handed out literature outside the school, the rest of us cooled our heels in the large entry area for nearly an hour before we were allowed to enter the auditorium. I'm bad at crowd estimates, and I'm not anal enough to actually count, but I'm guessing there were roughly 400 people in attendance.
We were mostly people of a certain age, but there were school-age kids there, too. Grade school through traditional college age. Among us were men wearing VFW, American Legion and military hats. One large man wore, shall we say, a conspicuous garment emblazoned with 9/11 memorial language.
Though some people had been pre-admitted and were seated in strategic clusters, the rest of us chose places to sit based more on view of the stage than political bias. Thus it was that Democrats and Republicans found ourselves seated near each other'"in some cases, actually elbow to elbow. In other words, the partisans were co-mingled.
We were told that Kline would listen to comments for the first hour. We were admonished to refrain from asking questions at that time. Then, in the second hour, Kline would answer questions. Peculiar, but better than what we'd originally been told would happen.
I think it's fair to say that the tension in that auditorium was palpable, as noted yesterday. There was a sense that something ugly could erupt at the least provocation. And even though we were physically near our partisan foes, the separateness was absolutely clear.
Kline strode onto the stage. I've never seen him live (long i) before. His white hair is striking. He stands tall as one might expect from a career military man. His dresser made a bad choice. He was well-groomed but wore a jacket and trousers that didn't seem to match. However, I didn't judge him harshly for that, since I've been known to appear in public with mismatched socks.
He has presence. He is relatively articulate (though in my view he had little to say and said it over and over again) and he has an edge that suggests barely-contained snarkiness. Several times, it appeared his storied temper was about to erupt, but he managed to keep it in check. His constant pacing back and forth (which reminded me of Como Park Zoo's caged polar bear that paced and shook its head in a decidedly trapped wild animal way) was -- oh, let us just say odd.
For the most part, commenters were relatively respectful. They spoke about No Child Left Behind. Funding special education and supports for vulnerable citizens. Union concerns. Spending controls and national debt. Immigration. And above all else, the war.
Kline plants included a Gold Star Mom. Another woman gushed at length of her adoration of Kline and proclaimed that her principal news source is FOX (whose van was parked outside the school, BTW) because the rest of the media is just too liberal (big applause from the 40% who were Kline supporters).
Kline was praised by his close personal friend, a military dude who is positioning himself for state GOP chair and possibly as Kline's successor when Kline decides one town hall meeting in seven years is just too darn many. One young man read from a Strib newspaper column by an Iraqi serviceman who says the military wants to stay the course and asked for an appeal to Congress for a redress to halt removal of troops from Iraq.
Another man, visibly shaking with nervousness, passion or both, spoke to the absolute treachery of Islam, describing it as a total and unrepentant sect of violence against the infidels (us) across the board, rooted in lying and half-truths and abrogation. His radical comments were countered by a soft-spoken Christian clergyman who reminded us of the violent history of Christianity and urged that we not demonize Islam.
By now, the division of the house was visible. Not unlike the State of the Union address, the game that was afoot was to see who drew the loudest and most sustained applause. There was no aisle to neatly separate us into opposing factions (something Congress and wedding planners need to consider, BTW). So folks popped up in relatively random clusters throughout the auditorium. As noted earlier, the breakdown was roughly 60% Dems to 40% Reps.
Reps had some of the louder, ruder shouters, however. And their premier blogger--a thoroughly vicious man--was permitted to live blog amongst them. I will need therapy and meds to stomach reading what he wrote. (Tomorrow, Scarlett.)
Next post: The question and answer portion. Don't see it alone!