Free speech derails McCain

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Sen. John McCain’s belief in the First Amendment was tested by demonstrators outside and by questioners inside Monday’s town hall meeting at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

His open-to-the-public forum was crafted to contrast sharply with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s invitation-only speeches in Colorado Springs during the previous week.

“I love the town hall meetings. I love the give and take,” said the Republican presidential candidate. “If I make a mistake, we’re all over the TV.”

And he was right. McCain’s optimistic plan to revive the failing economy later became a blip in the media compared to the town hall folks who asserted their free speech rights — for and against McCain.

Inside the Donald R. Seawell Grand Ballroom, McCain stood on the center stage bathed in subdued spotlights that imbued him with a golden aura. Beneath his feet was a cadet-blue carpet bearing the McCain insignia.

Behind the Arizona senator, a billboard-size pale blue banner proclaimed “Jobs for America” — this week’s campaign theme. In front of McCain, three strategically placed teleprompters were positioned to help make the candidate’s speech-reading look more natural.

“More than 400,000 people have lost their jobs since December, and the rate of new job creation has fallen sharply. That’s straight talk,” said McCain, mentioning his opponent more than a dozen times in the 15-minute speech.

“Small businesses are the job engine of America, and I’ll make it easier for them to grow and create more jobs,” vowed McCain. “My opponent wants to make it harder by imposing a ‘pay to play’ health (insurance) mandate on small business. This adds $12,000 to the cost of employing anyone with a family.”

“If you believe you should pay more taxes, I am the wrong candidate for you,” he declared. “Sen. Obama is your man. The choice in this election is stark and simple. Sen. Obama will raise your taxes.”

“He will raise estate taxes to 45 percent. I propose to cut them to 15 percent,” said McCain, who also promised to double the child deduction from $3,500 to $7,000 for dependents on the federal income tax.

“When I’m president, I will order a stem-to-stern review of government, modernize how it does business and save billions of dollars. I will veto every single bill with wasteful spending. I’ll make them famous, and you will know the names of their sponsors,” vowed McCain as the audience hooted, where as “My opponent has a very different record on this issue. He has sought millions upon millions of dollars for earmarks since his first election to the Senate. In 2007 alone, Sen. Obama requested nearly $100 million for earmark projects. I have never asked for a single earmark in my entire career.”

In closing, McCain asserted that he was not driven by partisan politics — in contrast to Obama and despite the publicized ratings of McCain’s voting record that show his movement closer and closer to Bush’s policies over the past eight years.

“Whenever I faced an important choice between my country’s interests or my own interests, party politics or any special interest, I chose my country,” said McCain. “… If you elect me president, I will always put my country first.”

Then came the question-and-answer segment.

The open dialogue of town-hall meetings, McCain said, allows him to “present ideas and listen to Republicans, Democrats, independents, Libertarians, vegetarians, whatever.”

Perhaps it was the bad luck of the draw, or perhaps it was just a bad idea to open the floor to the pubic. Whatever the reason, McCain called on more detractors than admirers to raise questions and assert opinions.

Some opposition groups had planted multiple questioners in all of the four seating sections surrounding the stage. Most were armed with cameras and tape recorders.

Espying a man wearing a black cap with “Vietnam Vet” in gold letters, McCain first selected Jim Hudson to ask a question.

Hudson asked why McCain had opposed increased health care funding for vets in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.

The Veterans Administration came under fire last year for grossly failing to provide medical care for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

McCain said he didn’t know which bill Hudson was referring to. The Arizona senator said he had been at odds with Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, sponsor of the “GI Bill for Post 9/11 Veterans” to increase education and job training benefits for vets.

Webb’s bill, signed into law on June 30, was co-sponsored by 57 senators, notably including Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska; John Warner, R-Virginia; Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey; Barack Obama, D-Illinois; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York.

“The problem that some of us had, who were career military people, was that studies showed we didn’t have incentives for people to become career military people,” said McCain of Webb’s bill.

President Bush and McCain worried that soldiers would enlist for a short period of time — 12 to 36 months — to obtain the education benefits and a housing stipend.

“We needed an incentive to stay in the military,” said McCain, who said he also wanted to extend education benefits to spouses and family. However, the eligibility period would have required a minimum of four years of active duty service.

Hudson interrupted McCain, saying his answer didn’t address the question.

“I have the bill numbers right here,” Hudson said.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re getting at,” said MCain, adding that he’s received awards from nearly every veterans’ organization in America. “I have a perfect record.”

“You do not have a perfect record,” Hudson responded.

Shortly thereafter, another veteran declared his support and appreciation for McCain’s voting record. Because of McCain, said Silver Salazar, of Pueblo, he has resigned his positions in the Democratic Party and plans to change his affiliation to Republican.

And so it went. McCain told a handicapped woman that he wouldn’t support the Community Choice Act. He told a civil-rights-minded young man that he supports expanding the government powers under Foreign Intelligence Act (FISA) and that “it would be very dangerous to hold the communication companies liable” for having intercepted private conservations and text messaging of Americans after 9/11.

A young man asked why McCain voted to impeach President Bill Clinton for an insignificant sexual dalliance, but was against impeaching President George W. Bush, who allegedly violated 10 different protections provided by the Constitution.

McCain said he gets lots of petitions, but hasn’t seen the petition from We The People.

A passionate McCain supporter, Georgette Haddad took the microphone and held her own press conference during and after the town hall meeting.

“You tax us when we’re born. You tax us when we die. You tax us when we eat. You tax us every which way you can. Get off our backs!” shouted Haddad, a 70-year-old immigrant from Lebanon. “Taxes break the backs of people … If I worked, paying taxes would take the clothes off my back!”

Even before the town hall meeting had begun and shortly after the campaign’s “Straight Talk Express” jet had landed at Denver International Airport, McCain’s free speech forum had begun skidding off the track in the plaza of the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Carol Kreck, a part-time librarian and former Denver Post reporter, was exercising her freedom of speech by exhibiting a handwritten “McCain = Bush” poster while waiting to enter the town hall meeting.

Kreck was suddenly surrounded by a few policemen who demanded that she get rid of the sign or leave the plaza. One said they were executing orders given by “representatives of the Secret Service” traveling with McCain.

Refusing to cede her First Amendment right, Kreck was cited for trespassing on private property by policemen who escorted her to the street and threatened to arrest her if she returned to the plaza.

Kreck had assumed the plaza was public property because it is part of the four-block complex owned by the City and County of Denver, and is partly funded by taxpayers.

Why would “McCain = Bush” be offensive? Kreck asked the media and observers. “To any Republican, why is that offensive?”

The two-minute strong-arm maneuver mushroomed into national headlines in print and electronic media within 24 hours, and opened the door to a closer examination of McCain’s campaign.

“If the real issue is trying to separate (McCain) from George W. Bush, this certainly isn’t the way to do it,” commented James Moore, a Huffington Post.com contributor, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

The McCain campaign is “doing a number of things the Bush campaign has done throughout, which is to try to control the crowds, try to control the message, to keep dissent at a minimum,” Moore said.

“This is almost rebranding themselves as the Bush campaign,” said Moore, adding that the Arizona senator has tried to insulate his political image from Bush.

Moore’s views were diametrically opposed to those of Republicans attending McCain’s town hall meeting. Among them were former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown and U.S. Senate candidate and former Congressman Bob Schaffer.

“I’d challenge Barack Obama to hold an open meeting like this,” Owens said. “I think John McCain did a great job.”

“I hope more people get engaged in this process,” said El Paso County Clerk Bob Balink. “John McCain spoke honestly of his beliefs and values.”