August 2009: A Retrospective

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It's August, and in the world of politics that means something else besides terrible heat, bad movies, and the inexplicable mental slowness that descends on everyone. It means a month-long congressional recess, lawmakers returned home from Washington, and the subsequent facing of music. This year it also means campaigns.


August 2009 was something else: as Congress broke for recess, the conservative vitriol that had been building since President Obama's stimulus and housing measures boiled over with disgruntled, angry Republicans and Tea Partiers riled up and shouting at Democratic members of Congress as they helplessly tried to hold town-hall meetings in their districts. It was a month that concretized our present political climate: the anti-Obama movement had shown its prowess at Tax Day protests, but many were uncertain of how strong the Tea Party movement was, what it really was, and how strong anti-Obama sentiments really were. August 2009 proved it, with all its bitter, hateful shouting and shoving, and the already voiced concerns over hyperpartisanship and tone were borne out in that dreadful, insane month.

Months later, the health care bill passed, more death threats were leveled, and the Capitol Police had to meet with the party caucuses to advise them on security, and bitterness reached another level yet. But August 2009 was when it all came together.

It's doubtful that things will get as crazy this time around, if for no other reason than so much of that anti-Obama sentiment was already vented a year ago. A national Tea Party organizer told me this summer that the Tea Party movement is looking for new things to do besides protest, partly because the movement can't be a one-trick pony of sign-waving and chants, but also (I inferred), because people are a bit tired of that routine and want to find a new outlet.

Then again, health care was passed and signed since then, so new vitriol may be afoot.

We followed this anger and insanity closely throughout last August, and, with an eye toward how things will (hopefully) be different this year, here's a retrospective glance at some of the notable events of this time last year:

  • July 28: A health care protester poses for a photo while hanging Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-MD) in effigy at a protest on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

  • August 3: Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius are booed loudly and shouted down at a town-hall event in Philadelphia. Pleading with the crowd for civil debate, they are unsuccessful.

  • August 3: Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) is shouted down at a town-hall event in Austin, Texas. Protesters follow him to his car in the parking lot, berating him and chanting in opposition to health care. One sign depicts Doggett with devil horns.

  • August 5: Rep. Brad Miller's (D-NC) communications director tells TPMDC that his office has received death threats and that the congressman won't be holding any town-halls, just one-on-one meetings about health care.

  • August 6: On the same day, two town-hall meetings boil over into violence. Outside an event in Mehlville, MO (an exurb of St. Louis), members of SEIU clash with a street vendor. Punches appear to be thrown, and two men are on the ground. Six people, including a reporter, were arrested. And at a town-hall meeting held by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) in Tampa, local media reports on at least two scuffles. A video shows shoving and angry shouting. At least one attendee had his shirt torn.

  • August 7: Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), 83 years old and the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives, holds a town-hall meeting in his district. The father of a man with cerebral paulsy shouts in Dingells face, claiming his son will be denied health care if Democratic reforms are enacted.

  • August 10: Sen. Arlen Specter gets it again: an angry constituent confronts him at another town-hall meeting and shouts at him, claiming Specter's office lied to him and that he had been denied the opportunity to speak at the event. Specter prevents the man from being hauled out by security. After a diatribe, the man leaves.

  • In the most bizarre twist of all, which fittingly happened as it concluded, a supporter of health care reform leaves a pro-reform rally and, walking through an anti-reform protest across the street, gets in an altercation with a 65-year-old who opposes health reform. The reform supporter bites off the reform opponent's pinky finger.

It's hard to recall just how angry, bitter, raw, and at times hateful August 2009 was. Let's hope everyone can get along a bit better in 2010.

If you're attending a town-hall meeting this month and health care comes up, just remember: only you can prevent forest fires.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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