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* * The lost art of the town hall meeting

Who of us in the bifocal set doesn’t love the artwork of Norman Rockwell? During his long and prolific career throughout most of the early 20th Century, Rockwell was among America’s most famous and successful artists and illustrators.

Hold that thought for a moment.

One of the foundational ideas of our American system is that all of us have the right and responsibility to participate. Our Founding Fathers decreed that our nation would not be a monarchy. There would be no kings or queens. Those who rule us would come from us, with their powers granted by our consent. For legislators to know what we want and need, they must hear from us. Thus, town hall meetings emerged in the 19th Century, modeled after New England town meetings of the 17th Century, to allow interaction between political leaders and citizens. In these meetings, participants don’t actually vote or making legally binding decisions. Instead, they provide an equal exchange of ideas. One by one, a citizen express his or her concerns, opinions, and wishes, and the legislator reacts and comments on it.

Local governance, for example our town council and county board of supervisor meetings, are generally open to the public and habitually offer citizen input. Thus, town hall meetings are more useful for state and national level politicians whose work, in our case, is done in Richmond or Washington, and are more appropriate for state senators and delegates to the former and U.S. Senators and congressmen to the latter.

President Franklin Roosevelt was well into his four-term tenure as President of the United States when on January 6, 1941, he delivered one of the most powerful and memorable State of the Union addresses in history. Adolph Hitler’s Nazis had already established concentration camps and his armies were already marching through Europe when Roosevelt proposed four fundamental freedoms that in his view should be enjoyed by people not just in his own country but across the world. Everyone, Roosevelt declared, should have the freedom of speech and of worship, and freedom from want or fear.

To honor and promote these ideals, in 1943, Norman Rockwell released a series of four oil paintings, each illustrating one of Roosevelt’s visions. Rockwell chose a scene from a fictitious town hall meeting to illustrate the Freedom of Speech. It has become one of the truly iconic portraits in American history, especially considering it includes no recognizable subject.

It remains strongly symbolic and timeless. Its main character is a handsome but otherwise undistinguished dark haired commoner. He is of the working class; he wears no tie or jewelry, merely a flannel shirt and worn, frayed jacket. His hands, resting on a wooden railing, are darker and rougher than the bystander to his right, who is bestowing upon him a look of respect, anticipation and earnestness. The speaker is clearly no elitist; he’s merely a devoted citizen speaking his mind to an unseen legislator.

What has made the town hall format so effective and enduring? For one thing, there is an unspoken relationship between the citizen and the legislator, that they are of the same stature. For another, citizens feel empowered because they’re being heard. When a complex issue is raised, speakers not only educate the legislators to their concerns but also educate fellow citizens as to how these issues may affect them. Even though no specific rules or guidelines govern town hall meetings – organizers are free to establish their own – it is implied that give-and-take is an essential part of the process. It is a way for legislators to hear from citizens on upcoming issues, legislation, or regulation.

Recently, several local politicians have purposefully withdrawn from invitations to these events. Why? There may be several reasons; I can only guess. One may be that they can be a locus for protest, often turning heatedly vitriolic. Some have even turned violent. Maybe it’s too much trouble to attend. Sorry to be cynical, but maybe they don’t care what constituents think.

Local congressmen Morgan Griffith and Bob Goodlatte have sworn off these events. Goodlatte is retiring after this term, but Griffith is up for re-election. He hasn’t participated in a town hall meeting since 2011, arguing that carefully orchestrated telephone “meetings” serve the same purpose. You decide whether that’s a compelling point or whether Griffith refuses to directly encounter his constituents.

The local activist group, NRV Indivisible, is hosting a town hall meeting in Blacksburg on February 22, 2018. Griffith and three Democratic potential challengers have been invited. Organizers and many local citizens including myself implore the congressman to attend. I’ll be in the audience, seeing in my mind’s eye the ghost of Norman Rockwell’s fictitious speaker, expressing his fundamental freedom of speech. 

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