|March 16, 2006|
Bush Visits My Hometown -- You Got Trouble, My Friends!
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Years ago, one of my elderly Texas great-aunts was asked whether she had seen Halley's Comet when it passed by Earth back in 1910. "Oh yes," she replied, then paused. "From a distance."
That's how I watched President Bush's visit to my hometown Tuesday -- safely, from a distance, in Manhattan. Strange to be viewing the place where you grew up on CNN and Fox News. Or, trying to, at least.
Canandaigua is the smallest, incorporated city in New York State, 11,000 people or so, about 30 miles southeast of Rochester. It's at the north end of Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, a beautiful part of the country to which the old joke applies -- ten months of winter and eight weeks of poor sledding.
The president, at the behest of upstate Congressman Randy Kuhl, a Republican freshman facing a reelection challenge from former Wesley Clark aide Eric Massa, chose Canandaigua as the site for one of his town hall meetings extolling the merits of the Medicare prescription drug program, the infamous Medicare Part D.
This was the biggest thing to happen there since the closing of the lakeside Roseland amusement park twenty years ago. Or the previous presidential visit from William Howard Taft in 1911 (not counting a drive-through by Harry Truman in 1948). Or the Revolutionary War sacking and burning of the original Seneca Indian village from which Canandaigua gets its name (it means "The Chosen Spot").
The president would pay a visit to a local residence for seniors, Ferris Hills at West Lake, and then to my old high school, Canandaigua Academy (a public school with a private school name; coincidentally, its most distinguished alumnus was Lincoln's debating and election foe, Stephen Douglas).
Bush knew he'd be on turf not entirely hostile to his message; New York State is the deepest blue but the region is Republican (nonetheless, Canandaigua has an eight-term Democratic mayor, a 2/3 Democratic city council and went for John Kerry in 2004, but by fewer than a hundred votes). Nor are most of the city's elderly getting the worst of the Medicare prescription plan. Ferris Hills is a very high-end senior facility, with apartments ranging from $1569 to $3000 a month. Few, if any, of those "dual eligibles" -- the poorest and sickest covered by both Medicaid and Medicare, the ones who have been the most hammered by Part D -- live there.
Canandaigua went to work preparing for the visit; its broad Main Street was gussied up, Ferris Hills ordered in flower arrangements and planted 300 hyacinths and tulips, local stores stocked fresh supplies of American flags, which quickly sold out. Plans for protests were made, too, of Iraq and domestic wiretapping as well as Medicare. There were four throughout the day, including a candlelight vigil on the county courthouse lawn, attended, all told, by a couple of hundred or so. A few, carrying anti-Bush placards, got within sight of the high school. There was only one arrest for disorderly conduct.
The first question on the town's mind was not so much about the war or Medicare as whether Bush would be able to pronounce the town's name, the pitfall of many an out-of-town politico (it's "Can-an-DAY-gwuh," and to the amazement of some and the delight of most, Bush got it right).
Then there was the matter of the grape pie. At the southern end of Canandaigua Lake is the village of Naples, which has an annual Grape Festival. Among the delicacies offered are grape pies, the best of which are said to be made by Jane Gentner. Last year, Congressman Kuhl sent one of her pies to the White House. She received a thank you note from chief of staff Andy Card, who allegedly shared a slice with the president.
The congressman's office wanted a pie for the president's visit. Nothing doing, said Gentner. She and her husband were headed off in their RV for a NASCAR race in Georgia. "I have tickets bought and everything," she explained. "It's not something I can put off."
This is what happens when your popularity hits 36% -- even the NASCAR families desert you.
As for me, I was sticking to New York City. My plan was simple: put the TV on mute, flip back and forth between CNN and Fox News (although my television audibly sighs whenever it hits Fox), with an occasional side trip to MSNBC, keeping an eagle eye peeled for coverage of Bush's Canandaigua visit. Simultaneously, I'd listen to a Rochester radio station's live coverage via the Internet.
Easier said than done.
National TV news had little to say about Tuesday's events as they were happening -- except, of course, for the President's encounter on the Rochester airport tarmac with area teen hero Jason McElwain. He's the autistic high school basketball manager who scored 20 points in the last four minutes of his first varsity game. Human interest. Occasionally, they'd cut live to the President at my school, but the anchors nattered away over his big talking head.
Thus, while my hometown watched Bush on local TV, met him at Ferris Hills, had a seat in the school gym, or braved the wind and cold to stand on the street hoping for a glimpse, my morning went like this:
9:45: I imagine the president on Air Force One, flying over the Finger Lakes on his way to landing in Rochester. I hope he looked out a window and was able to see something through the clouds. That he suspended his purported incuriosity and was taken with the green, rolling hills, even on a blustery Tuesday in March. My Texas relatives always were whenever they journeyed upstate to pay us a rare visit. "My!" exclaimed my Aunt Judy Lynn one time. "Isn't it lush?"
10:50: The president arrives in Rochester. Fox News -- "We Report, You Decide" -- is showing video about a marshmallow roast that caused $50,000 worth of fire damage to a garage in Toledo. I am NOT making this up.
The Rochester radio station, WHAM, interviews young McElwain, who's very happy to have met President Bush. Listening to WHAM on the Internet is weird. The live reports and commercials are interspersed from time to time with random, 30-second bursts of music -- everything from Stevie Wonder to the Beatles' "Number 9." It's irritating, but nowhere near as annoying as the bilious banana oil of their right wing talk show host Bob Lonsberry. A newspaper headline that morning -- "Some questions, Mr. President" -- smacks, he says, of insolence. How dare they on this of all days? Luckily, he's frequently interrupted by updates on the progress of the president's motorcade.
11:45: Lonsberry has just described Canandaigua as all-American but a "somewhat liberal" community and points to the local newspaper, for which I write, as evidence. The White House has flipped the president's schedule. He's starting to speak at the school half an hour early. I confess to a little, reflexive rush when I hear him say, "Canandaigua Academy," my alma mater.
Fox News -- the All Dubya, All the Time Channel -- is reporting on a rabbit roundup in Seattle.
12:20: The president finishes his pitch, urging folks to sign up for Part D before the May 15 deadline. On Fox, an overdressed and over-rouged Georgette Mosbacher, Republican fundraiser and world's richest cosmetician, is attacking Senator Russell Feingold's attempt to censure President Bush. I think Feingold should retaliate by putting more teeth in the fashion law.
I have to admit, President Bush was more engaging than I've heard him for a long time: jocular, but, surprise, totally scripted like the infomercial host he was there to be. "I think you're going to like what you see," he said. "... If you're a low-income senior the government's going to pick up a significant portion of your tab. If you're an average income senior, you're going to see your drug bills cut in half. If you're a taxpayer the anticipated costs are significantly lower than we thought... It's working. It makes a lot of sense."
An educated, elderly couple from a nearby town was part of the panel singing back-up and said, for them, Part D was working fine and dandy. Representatives of a local health provider and the pharmacies run by the Wegmans grocery store chain chimed in, too. They said things were going more smoothly with the plan than initially, although the cases they made seemed to say more for the responsiveness of their companies than the government.
One of the local pharmacists, Janet Tenreiro, who was invited to attend but not be on the panel might have told the president, as she said to the Canandaigua paper, "To have a plan that people don't understand or may not need, why should they be forced to sign up [by a set deadline]? When eventually they do need one, they will be faced with a one percent per month penalty on the premium. That's not right."
I wish there had been questions like Janet Tenreiro's. In fact, ANY questions. None were allowed (have there been any at these town halls since that kid in Kansas asked Bush if he'd seen "Brokeback Mountain?").
So, no questions about the mayhem that attended the plan's initiation or the cost, now estimated over the first ten years at $1.2 trillion; no questions about the corrupt way in which the legislation was passed, about the 15 high-ranking government officeholders who went to work lobbying for the health care industry within a year of its passage; or questions about the gross gaps in its coverage or ways to increase the efficiency of the new plan, make it more accessible and cut its costs and confusion.
No questions about why insurance companies are allowed to change their formularies -- the lists of drugs they'll cover -- twice a month, or why the plan as currently structured won't allow the government to bargain with pharmaceutical companies for bulk discount rates, as the Veterans' Administration does. No questions about what happens in 2011 when the first of 79 million baby boomers start becoming eligible for Medicare, or questions about why what was supposed to be one of the Bush administration's grand achievements has become yet another snafu.
The George W. Bush traveling road show was moved to the Canandaigua Academy gym from where school officials first were told it would be held: the auditorium, where the kids are performing their spring show, "The Music Man." They had already, temporarily struck some of the sets.
Probably it was because the gym is more conducive to the pep rally, no-questions-asked style this administration favors. Or maybe there was some small thought to avoiding knuckleheads like me from drawing parallels with a musical about a con man who sweeps into a small town to sell the folks a phony bill of goods.
"The Music Man" has a happy ending. Maybe "Medicare Part D" will, too. But I doubt it. Not with this cast.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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