Guest column: A touching town hall

By Gus Bode

Henrietta Hughes rested her palm on her parched lips. Her fingers were nude and the knuckles on those fingers seemed stiff, like metal clonks. Her eyes flickered on the screen, like dry leaves on a tree.

As I watched her on television, I noticed that it seemed as though the burden of a lifetime opportunity wilted her shoulders a little. She seemed nervous. She also seemed a little excited.’

From eyewitness accounts, Ms. Hughes, in her innocuous manner, had stood silently in the front row from the start of the Q & A session of the town hall meeting, trying to get attention of the president of the United States. The president finally called on her.’

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Perhaps that’s why she seemed nervous. Excited.

When President Barack Obama called on her, she started by telling him she was praying for him, and said she hoped he would do something about homelessness. Soon it became clear she herself was homeless.

‘I have an urgent need, unemployment and homelessness, a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in,’ Hughes spoke and her voice begin to tremble. ‘The housing authority has two years waiting lists, and we need something more than the vehicle and the parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom.’ She broke down in tears. ‘Please help.’

‘ Obama went and hugged her, told her he’d get his staff to help her. The crowd stood on their feet and cheered. It was an extremely touching moment and may become a very important moment in the first leg of his presidency.

The town hall event happened Tuesday in Fort Myers, Fla. Incidentally, Fort Myers is also the nation’s ground zero for home foreclosures and the mortgage crisis. Obama was there selling his $850 billion stimulus plan. He had also been in Elkhart, Ind., the previous day for a similar town hall. Elkhart has a whopping 15 percent unemployment rate.

Last week was certainly a C-minus week for the president and his agenda. The stimulus bill had passed Congress with zero Republican votes. The bill further gasped, with not many Republican senators willing to join the ranks to make 60 votes. His calling for bipartisanship fell on deaf ears and Republicans in Washington turned hostile pretty quickly. In fact, the Republican representative Pete Sessions, from Texas, compared his party’s strategy to disrupt and foil the White House agenda to Taliban’s strategy.’

‘Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,’ Sessions said. ‘And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes…’ He continued, ‘…we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.’

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Last week Obama’s message from Washington seemed inaudible, silenced. In Elkhart and Fort Myers, however, Obama stood at the heart of problem, put faces to crises and stories to the statistics.

These town halls are a great platform for Obama to cut through the beltway holler and take his message directly to his audience, especially in the early legs when he still enjoys very high approval ratings. He should have counted on the struggling stories in Peoria, Fort Myers and Elkhart much earlier and much more than the Republicans in D.C.’

Very aptly, the stimulus bill finally passed the Senate in Washington on Tuesday while the town hall meeting was still in progress. When Obama broke the news to the audience in Fort Myers the crowd erupted in standing ovation.

Bharthapudi is a doctoral student studying journalism.

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