A Montana Ruckus That Wasn’t

By Kellyn Brown

As President Barack Obama landed at Gallatin Field airport in Belgrade last week, both Fox News and MSNBC were, for once, in agreement: the president was expecting a more confrontational town hall and perhaps even welcomed one after the yawner in New Hampshire a few days prior that prompted speculation that the audience was hand-picked. In Belgrade, however, tickets were distributed “first come, first serve.”

On Fox, a correspondent said Obama had prepared for Montanans to ask “tough questions.” MSNBC went further, alleging that the White House was hoping for criticism and even “wild accusations.” While the pundits previewed what they were sure would better reflect the deep divisions in the country over health care reform, Obama was on the tarmac pretending to be working on his flycasting with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It was quite the juxtaposition.

Once Obama took the stage, it was obvious that his supporters outnumbered his critics, but he squarely aimed many of his opening remarks at the latter. “I know there’s been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country – especially those where tempers have flared,” Obama said. “You know how TV loves a ruckus.”

That last comment not only quickly made headlines – the President directly challenging cable news and implying their coverage gave too loud of a voice to a minority of Americans – but at once appeared to be a prelude to the type of town hall that cable pundits on the left and the right appeared to be pining for. So as Obama removed his suit jacket, an obvious transition from pulpit speaker to potentially pugilistic debater, it was unclear how the 1,300 Montanans there would react. Even from the comfort of my couch, it felt tense. Among the largely friendly crowd eager to applaud, there were obvious Obama critics who, when the television cameras panned them, had thus far been sitting and staring in stoic silence.

But the first couple of questions were softballs, and already Montana was beginning to resemble New Hampshire. Then the President called on Randy Rathie, knowing full well that the man was wearing a National Rifle Association jacket, a group that has basically labeled Obama the most anti-gun president to ever hold the nation’s highest office. Rathie rose, said he was a “proud NRA member” and defended cable television as a place to get news without all the spin. This was the exchange the talking heads had been waiting for.

Unfortunately for them, Rathie didn’t scream. He was pointed, but respectful, when he challenged the president on how he was going to pay for any health care proposal: “You can’t tell us how you’re going to pay for this,” Rathie said. “The only way you’re going to get that money is raise our taxes.” Obama responded that he would, in fact, have to raise taxes for families making more than $250,000 per year to pay for part of his plan and thanked Randy for asking the question. And that was that. Besides another question on whether Obama was vilifying the insurance industry, the president emerged from the “ruckus” unscathed. Then cable news reacted.

MSNBC overstated that the town hall was “incredible,” claiming Randy’s was “the kind of question he wanted” and the White House was “chalking it up as a win.” Meanwhile Dana Perino, former press secretary for the Bush White House, said on Fox News that it’s obvious that “people are concerned about the American way of life being threatened” and the more the President talks the less he is able to convince people to support his plan.

I was only convinced that there was no way that we all just watched the same, relatively dull, town hall broadcast, when even Rathie later said he was “well-impressed” with how the president handled his question. I wonder if he still felt the same about the absence of spin in cable news coverage.