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Know the West

Obama does Montana … and vice versa


Preparing to be in a Montana town hall with the president of the United States on August 14, 2009: First think about what to wear. Faded jeans? That would be Montana-ish. But notice a hole worn right though the old denim. So not the faded jeans. Maybe the dark blue jeans that haven't faded yet -- that would be dressier and kind of Montana-ish. But technically the blue doesn't go with my best blazer, which is somewhat the color of a spruce tree. So the black jeans, faded to a unique dark gray that goes either with everything or nothing.

Then walk around the house grabbing what I need to bring. Pads for taking notes, and three or four pens, and the snapshot camera because a snapshot is better than nothing. Get on the road, feeling hurried, checking my watch for how I'm doing on the time. Spend minutes in Bozeman city traffic, get on the frontage road beside the interstate, get up to 60 m.p.h. -- hoping the tinny old Nissan pickup will hold together, same thought any time I drive it anywhere.

Raindrops begin tapping the windshield. A surprise. Riding my get-to-town-hall rails, I hadn't noticed the various clouds swirling overhead -- and that magical scene of some clouds strung low along the mountain fronts, clouds sneaking into canyons below the peaks. A smile -- nothing I ordered up -- comes over my face. Even at my age (59) it's possible to feel a touch of enthusiasm without reservation.

President Barack Obama! Here in my town!

Two sheriff's cars zoom past, like mechanical wolves with flashing light bars ...

Traffic ahead slows. Then stops. The two-lane turns into Montana's worst traffic jam. Not because of any wreck. Just the crowds headed to the town hall, and the crowds of protesters, and the hapless people who were just driving the road trying to get to somewhere else.

It takes me a half-hour to drive the last mile or so. I'm thinking, Obama is losing hundreds of votes in this traffic jam.

The town hall is going to be a dialog about Obama's effort to reform health care and health insurance in this country. Most of us would've come no matter what the topic. It's being held on the fringe of the Gallatin Field airport, in a hangar -- basically a big room where the entrances can be secured.

There are hundreds of protesters. They've been awarded stubbly fields of mowed tallgrass, along the roads near -- but not too near -- the hangar. Some of the protesters against reform have been delivered in a cross-country bus that's emblazoned with a big orange hand and lettering that says HANDS OFF MY HEALTH CARE. Part of a national campaign run by a group calling itself Americans for Prosperity -- any title like that makes me think, yeah right. Americans for Prosperity also advocates for tax cuts and the tobacco industry, with financial support from ExxonMobil and rightwing foundations. Other protesters against reform are local. Wherever they're from, they hold many kinds of signs warning that Obama's reform will destroy health care. And signs -- such as the handmade one that says TEA PARTY and another saying HELL NO TO GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER -- trying to rally people generally against the government. All those are the rightwing.

Other protesters back Obama with signs like I TRUST THIS PRESIDENT. Others want Obama to be more assertive, holding signs that call for SINGLE PAYER, imagining the creation of U.S. government-run health insurance covering all people.

This being Montana, the traffic jam includes big gravel-hauling trucks. Gravel pits operate on several borders of the airport because the geology is right. When I creep my little truck up to the key intersection, if I turn left I would go to the pit run by the Knife River company, where I could pay about $25 to get myself a Nissan load of what's called "road mix." I make that run once a year to maintain the gravel driveway at my house. I turn right instead, where a deputy standing in the intersection directs the town-hall traffic, creep past more protesters that line this side road, follow another cop's directions and pull off on another mowed field loosely organized for parking.

As I walk from the grass to the hangar, the security gets tighter and tighter -- not only the deputies, but also state troopers, airport guards, private security guards, and the advance parties of elite Secret Service presidential guards uniformed in their black suits and communication earbuds. Marine Corps helicopters are parked on the tarmac and flying overhead. Up on the roof of the hangar itself, snipers.

All that is necessary too. But it puts Montana's legendary informality and low-hassle lifestyle through the grinder.

Even the admission tickets are controlled. Obama's town hall organizers provided about 850 general-admission tickets to the public for free, while distributing several hundred more tickets through private channels to Democratic Party loyalists and wealthy donors. People who sought the general-admission tickets stood in line for hours at local government offices where the tickets were handed out. Hundreds of people in those lines didn't get tickets because the supply ran out. And people whose wait in line bore fruit were limited to two tickets each. Those limits were probably intended to make it difficult for the angry protesters to pack the town hall.

At the door to the hangar, more guards use metal detectors to screen everyone for weapons. Inside, the floor is concrete and there are huge American flags draped on the metal walls, strategically positioned to be backdrops for Obama when the news cameras begin shooting. The room fills with people -- maybe 1,300 in all, sitting on folding chairs or standing. The whole room's dress code tends toward jeans, and some wear T-shirts or sweatshirts, cowboy hats or baseball caps.

A couple of leading Montana Democrats -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester -- give brief speeches to warm up the audience. The governor in his bolo tie and the senator in his retro flattop haircut and traumatized left hand, missing three fingers thanks to a family farm meatgrinder accident. The governor gets lots of applause by telling the audience, "It's a great day for Montana!" and says he hopes that Obama will see "the majesty of God at work" in Montana -- especially the famous Old Faithful geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park, stretching geography a bit, since the geyser is actually located a few miles into Wyoming.

Outside, Air Force One, the presidential jet, appears in the sky about 12:30 p.m.. Swiftly it comes in for a landing, no screwing around. It stops right beside the hangar, blocking the view of the mountains. It's Moby Dick grand -- and impressively patriotic with a beautiful red-white-and-blue paint job and big lettering that says UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

The jet's door pops open and Obama appears -- with his signature self-illuminated grin and howdy wave. The cameras can send that Obama-touching-down-in-Montana image around the world.

Family values: With his wife, Michelle, and their young daughters, Malia and Sasha, Obama walks down the jet ramp onto Montana ground -- or Montana concrete anyway. He's returning to this remote very unblack Western state partly because he and some of his staffers like it here. He made several Montana appearances while campaigning for the presidency. Only now everything is changed -- he's become the world's most important person, so there's at least a chance that he can accomplish some kind of reform of our health-care system.

Almost immediately, Michelle and the kids peel off to try their chosen Montana thing -- some whitewater rafting.

The president gathers himself somewhere out of sight while inside the hangar, Montana's most controversial Democrat -- Sen. Max Baucus -- takes the podium. Baucus has served 31 years in the Senate, so long that he looks more like a product of Washington, D.C. in his sophisticated gray suit, color-coordinated necktie and sculpted gray hair. He's chairman of a key power center, the Senate Finance Committee, which is hashing out the Senate's positions on reform -- and he's refusing to create a SINGLE PAYER health insurance. Many Montana Democrats have been grumbling about that, saying he's sold out regular Montanans to the interests of the health-care corporations that donate millions to his election campaigns.

Baucus tries to continue the warm-up by giving his brief speech. He spices it with fiery downhome rhetoric aimed at the opponents of reform -- they're "just plain wrong ... (spreading) outrageous myths ... (that are) just plain baloney." Between the fiery phrases, he mentions only modest reforms -- mostly just to make it harder for insurance companies to deny people coverage. He gets some applause anyway, kind of just for showing up.

Then a regular Montanan takes the podium: Katie Gibson talks of how she's battled cancer and related medical problems for years -- along with battling her insurance company over whether it would cover her bills. She's a living example carefully highlighted to support Baucus' position. But as she tries to explain, Montana weather intrudes -- a strong rainstorm breaks against the metal roof, drumming so loudly that she has to pause. I spot a grin on the other senator -- Tester still runs his family's farm and enjoys a rude storm. The storm recedes in a minute or two, enough that Gibson can complete her speech. Then she introduces the person we've all come to see.

Revved-up standing ovation as Obama strides onto the stage and takes the podium. Everyone is hanging on him. He delivers his brief speech fluidly as usual. Then he strips off his suit jacket and -- in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up on his forearms, a picture of urban informality -- he takes a handheld microphone and begins answering questions posed by people in the audience. How he runs that, people raise their hands like they're in a classroom and he points to select which one gets a crack at him. He's good at that too.

In the dialog, Obama talks about the "scare tactics" used by his most cynical opponents and cable-TV talk shows. Such as the claim that he would create "death panels" to choke off medical care for elderly people -- a claim so crazy that denying it also sounds crazy. "Because we're getting close (to some reforms)," Obama says, "the fight is getting fierce."

Obama makes like he's also here to prop up Baucus -- doing Democratic Party politics as well as health-care reform. He keeps referring to Baucus by first name, as many Montanans do -- only favorably, as in, Max is working on reforms, hooray for Max!

Obama seems to disagree with Baucus on some points, though. Obama brings it up while responding to a woman in the audience. She's Carol Wilder, recently laid off with two kids on government-run Medicaid (for low-income families). She asks: What does Obama see in the different health-insurance systems in Canada and Europe, where governments provide popular versions of SINGLE PAYER? Obama answers, he wants "a uniquely American solution" that should include something along the lines of a nationwide health-insurance "exchange" -- some new marketplace where millions of people could band together to buy insurance. Forming such a large group of customers, they would have better leverage and efficiencies of scale, so rates would be lower. If Baucus wants that too, Baucus hasn't played it up. Obama also tells the audience that he'd like to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for reform -- something else Baucus doesn't mention. Pundits think Baucus and Obama are battling behind the scenes. And maybe they're cutting a deal to create some kind of "exchange" rather than SINGLE PAYER.

Putting aside the dialog -- because political dialog is never all that truthful -- I watch Obama work the room. He's a fundamentally charismatic person, handsome and slim and graceful, with a repertoire of measured gestures. He's always in motion as he talks -- shifting the microphone from one hand to the other, back and forth, and using the other hand like a dancer would, to connect himself to everyone and to draw everyone to him.

The Obama arm extends, with the hand in a relaxed fling, then the hand abruptly points -- as if he's pointing to a fact he knows. Thumb up, he's counting a first point in a series. Then forefinger extended, he counts the second point. Then sweeping his arm around he includes all the facts. When a guy in the audience poses a skeptical question, Obama extends the arm toward the guy open-handed like a welcome. Then he retracts the arm and uses it to touch his own gut as he refers to himself, a physical demonstration of gut-level honesty. Then the arm extends upward with the palm patting a point in the air. All very smooth. He's a natural, no doubt enhanced by training from professionals and plenty of rehearsals over the years.

Obama tells several of the skeptics, "That's a legitimate question." He tells one guy, Randy Rathie, a proud National Rifle Association member worried about costs of health-care reform, "I appreciate your question and the respect with which you ask it." He keeps using one of his own downhome words -- "folks" -- to refer to just about anyone. He completely abandons his Harvard and Columbia degrees to intentionally misuse the language for a moment -- "got to be careful of them cable network shows." He points to another woman who's wearing a cowboy hat and says, "If I'm in Montana, I've got to call on someone with a cowboy hat." Several times he laughs in such a way that I think his laughter must be genuine. He is enjoying it.

Obama treats the people with respect, and somehow even the skeptics he calls on treat him the same in the dialog. It's all very civilized -- an antidote to the screeching outside the room. Guess most people tend to act polite around a president. And it's more than that. Most people in effect live in rooms that have this kind of atmosphere.

Finally after 45 minutes of answering questions, Obama has to go. He winds down the dialog, gets another standing ovation, then steps down from the stage to mingle with the people as much as is feasible. He circulates slowly across the front of the audience, shaking hands with many dozens of people one by one, and accepting a baby that he holds aloft for a moment of more applause. Then he disappears -- off to Montana fly-fishing and the Montana-ish Old Faithful geyser. As I walk out with everyone else, many of us are talking about the feeling of being in the room together. And we're noticing, the snipers are still up on the roof, just in case.

(Photos also by Ray)