A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Montana Town Hall


Q: Did the White House "orchestrate" a recent town hall meeting to make it appear that Montana is "just crazy for Obama and government health care"?

A: A chain e-mail that makes that claim isn’t supported by the record. Some of what it says is false.

FULL QUESTION

This e-mail below is circulating on the Web and has been posted on various blogs. Could you folks verify if any of it is true?

Obama has Lobster flown into Montana Town Hall

This is a letter from a Montana resident.

[EET ]

Hello All,

By now you have probably heard that President Obama came to Montana last Friday. However, there are many things that the major news has not covered. I feel that since Bill and I live here and we were at the airport on Friday I should share some facts with you. Whatever you decide to do with the information is up to you. If you chose to share this email with others I do ask that you DELETE my email address before you forward this on.

On Wednesday, August 5th it was announced locally that the President would be coming here. There are many groups here that are against his healthcare and huge spending so those groups began talking and deciding on what they were going to do. The White House would not release ANY details other than the date.

On about Tuesday Bill found out that they would be holding the “Town Hall” at the airport. (This is only because Bill knows EVERYONE at the airport) Our airport is actually located outside of Belgrade (tiny town) in a very remote location. Nothing is around there. They chose to use a hangar that is the most remotely located hangar. You could not pick a more remote location, and you can not get to it easily. It is totally secluded from the public.
FYI: We have many areas in Belgrade and Bozeman which could have held a large amount of folks with sufficient parking. (gymnasiums/auditoriums). All of which have chairs and tables, and would not have to be SHIPPED IN!! $$$$$
During the week, cargo by the TONS was being shipped in constantly. Airport employees could not believe how it just kept coming. Though it was our President coming several expressed how excessive it was, especially during a recession. $$$$$

Late Tuesday/early Wednesday the 12th, they said that tickets would be handed out on Thursday 9am at two locations and the president would be arriving around 12:30 Friday.

Thursday morning about 600 tickets were passed out. However, 1500 were printed at a Local printing shop per White House request. Hmmmm……900 tickets just DISAPPEARED.

This same morning someone called into the radio from the local UPS branch and said that THOUSANDS of Dollars of Lobster were shipped in for Obama. Montana has some of the best beef in the nation!!! And it would have been really wonderful to help out the local economy. Anyone heard of the Recession?? Just think…with all of the traveling the White House is doing. $$$$$ One can only imagine what else we are paying for.

On Friday Bill and I got out to the airport about 10:45am. The groups that wanted to protest Obama’s spending and healthcare had gotten a permit to protest and that area was roped off. But that was not to be. A large bus carrying SEIU (Service Employees International Union) members drove up onto the area (illegal)and unloaded right there. It was quite a commotion and there were specifically 2 SEIU men trying to make trouble and start a fight. Police did get involved and arrested the one man but they said they did not have the manpower to remove the SEIU crowd.

The SEIU crowd was very organized and young. About 99% were under the age of 30 and they were not locals! They had bullhorns and PROFESSIONALLY made signs. Some even wore preprinted T-shirts. Oh, and Planned Parenthood folks were with them…..professing abortion rights with their T-shirts and preprinted signs. (BTW, all these folks did have a permit to protest in ANOTHER area)

Those against healthcare/spending moved away from the SEIU crowd to avoid confrontation. They were orderly and respectful. Even though SEIU kept coming over and walking through, continuing to be very intimidating and aggressive at the direction of the one SEIU man.

So we had Montana folks from ALL OVER the state with their homemade signs and their DOGS with homemade signs. We had cowboys, nurses, doctors you name it. There was even a guy from Texas who had been driving through. He found out about the occasion, went to the store, made a sign, and came to protest.

If you are wondering about the press…..Well, all of the major networks were over by that remote hangar I mentioned. They were conveniently parked on the other side of the buildings FAR away. None of these crowds were even visible to them. I have my doubts that they knew anything about the crowds.

We did have some local news media around us from this state and Idaho. Speaking of the local media…they were invited. However, all questions were to be turned into the White House in advance of the event. Wouldn’t want anyone to have to think off the top of their head.

It was very obvious that it was meant to be totally controlled by the White House. Everything was orchestrated down to the last detail to make it appear that Montana is just crazy for Obama and government healthcare. Even those people that talked about their insurance woes……..the White House called our local HRDC (Human Resource and Development Committee) and asked for names. Then the White House asked those folks to come. Smoke and mirrors…EVERYTHING was staged!!!!!!!!!!!

I am very dismayed about what I learned about our current White House. The amount of control and manipulation was unbelievable. I felt I was not living in the United States of America, more like the USSR!! I was physically nauseous. Bill and I have been around when Presidents or Heads of State visit. It has NEVER been like this. I am truly very frightened for our country. America needs your prayers and your voices. If you care about our country please get involved. Know the issues. And let Congress hear your voices again and again!! If they are willing to put forth so much effort to BULLY a small town one can only imagine what is going on in Washington DC. Scary!! [/EET]

FULL ANSWER

We’ve had several readers forward us a chain e-mail written by an alleged resident of Montana who claims to have been present at the Gallatin Field Airport in Belgrade, Mont., where President Obama held a town hall meeting on health care reform on Aug. 14.

The author of the e-mail claims that the message is intended to "share some facts" about  "many things" that happened before and during the event, as well as inside and outside of the hangar, that "the major news has not covered."

Some of the e-mails carry the subject line "Obama has Lobster flown into Montana Town Hall." And the e-mail claims that "someone called into the radio from the local UPS branch and said that thousands of dollars" worth was shipped in for the president. But we found no news reports of lobster being shipped in for the president at this well-covered event, nor did we find reports of lobster being consumed by anyone during the town hall meeting.

Perhaps the most critical charge in the e-mail is that the president’s town hall meeting was "orchestrated down to the last detail to make it appear that Montana is just crazy for Obama and government health care."

As an example, the e-mail says that the White House had 1,500 tickets printed for the event, but only distributed 600 to locals. "[Nine hundred] tickets just disappeared," the e-mail says. But there were approximately 1,300 tickets available to the event according to a press release issued by the White House. And most news reports said that the majority of the tickets, between 800 and 850, were distributed to Montana residents at City Halls in Bozeman and Belgrade on a first-come, first-served basis. Those tickets were split "80/20" between the two towns, based on population, and the remaining tickets were given to community leaders and elected officials for further distribution, according to the White House. We could find no official report on the total number of tickets that were printed.

Some predicted that the "first-come, first-served" system for ticket distribution would allow a number of those against the president’s health care reform plan to be present in the audience, upping the chances of a meeting as contentious as some other town halls held by members of Congress. Several news reports, however, described the crowd that greeted Obama inside as “largely supportive,” "polite," as well as "civil and responsive."

CBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid, in a report for the "CBS Evening News," suggested that the lack of “anger” during the meeting was due to the fact that sympathetic Democrats had arranged to obtain a majority of the tickets that were issued to the public.

Reid, Aug. 14: So why wasn’t there more anger in here? For one thing, after accusing Republicans of orchestrating their protests, Democrats did some orchestrating of their own, getting in line early in large numbers and snatching up most of the tickets. Some here said they wanted to ask tougher questions, but didn’t even raise their hands. They were intimidated, they said, by the fact that this is the President of the United States, not to mention the fact that he’s surrounded by an adoring crowd and the Secret Service.

Matthew Mosk of the Washington Times, however, quoted Bozeman official Karen Semerau, who assisted in the ticket distribution there, saying she “couldn’t tell by looking at people if they were for the president’s plan or against it.” Mosk’s report also included a quote from an official in Belgrade, Marilyn Foltz, saying that there was no effort to skew the ticket distribution. “It was very truly first-come, first-served,” she said.

Pat Dawson of Time magazine said that Obama “got pointed questions when he called on members of the audience, none of whom appeared to have been prescreened.” At one point, Obama specifically asked for a question from someone who was “skeptical” and got a question from an insurance salesman: "Why is it that you’ve changed your strategy from talking about health care reform to health insurance reform and decided to vilify the insurance companies?" Obama also called on a National Rifle Association member whose question was less "orchestrated" than accusatory.  "That’s all we get, is bull," the questioner said. "You can’t tell us how you’re going to pay for this [health care plan]. … The only way you’re going to get that money is to raise our taxes. You said you wouldn’t."

The full transcript can be read here. The full video of the town hall meeting can be seen here. We’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the questions asked of Obama were tough enough.

The e-mail also claims that the White House contacted Montana’s "local HRDC (Human Resource and Development Committee) and asked for names" and then "asked those people to come." "Smoke and mirrors," the e-mail says.  But the group says it got no such call.

"The HRDC was not called," said Jeff Rupp, chief executive officer of the Human Resource and Development Council — not "Committee," as claimed in the e-mail. Rupp, who manages both of the council’s offices in Bozeman and Livingston, Mont., told FactCheck.org in a telephone interview that he would not have provided the White House with that information even if he had been asked. "Our office receives federal funds," he said. "We stay way clear of partisan politics." Rupp said that he did receive a call asking to arrange transportation for a wheelchair-bound woman to attend the town hall meeting. But the call, Rupp said, came from one of Montana’s senators’ offices, not the White House.

We also find no evidence to support the author’s claim that "all questions" from local reporters "were to be turned into the White House in advance of the event." In fact, the president took questions from audience members, not reporters.

Other Claims

Disturbing the Peace?: The e-mail describes an altercation between members of the Service Employees International Union and other demonstrators outside the hangar over the territory allotted for protesters. This led to one man being arrested according to the e-mail. Jessica Mayrer of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that airport security had "cordoned off areas to separate the various factions," but said that their efforts "didn’t work" for some. William Dove, public safety chief for the Gallatin Airport Authority, told us that there was  “verbal chiding back and forth” between those for and against health care reform over positioning, and that there were some people who infringed on the territory of others. As a result, Dove said one person was taken into custody for disorderly conduct, but was released hours later. Dove said he couldn’t say exactly which groups were involved in the disputes because the groups were not all easily identifiable.

Protesters Ignored?: The e-mail claims that major media networks were “conveniently” parked “far away” from the protest area. “I have my doubts that they knew anything about the crowds,” the e-mail says. But the protesters were not ignored. We found numerous news reports about the demonstrations from local and national news organizations. CBS News digital journalist Arden Farhi even posted video of the protests on the CBS News Web site.

The Middle of Nowhere?: The e-mail also takes issue with the decision to hold the town hall meeting in “the most remotely located hangar” in the “tiny town” of Belgrade. In fact, the airport is only 8 miles from downtown Bozeman, according to the Gallatin Field Airport Web site, which also boasts "easy access to interstate and secondary highways." Brian Sprenger, director of the Gallatin Field Airport, told us that the hangar was chosen because it provided a place where the president’s plane could land and was a venue that could be easily secured. Sprenger said that the plan was for Obama to arrive at the hangar via Air Force One, attend the meeting, then leave the event via helicopter so that he could join his family for other planned stops in the state. Obama attended another town hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo., the next day.

-D’Angelo Gore

Sources

"Remarks by the President in Town Hall on Health Care." Transcript. White House Office of the Press Secretary. 14 Aug 2009.

"Background on the President’s Town Hall in Montana Today." Press Release. White House Office of the Press Secretary. 14 Aug 2009.

Mosk, Matthew. "Hundreds line up for Obama town-hall." WashingtonTimes.com. 14 Aug 2009.

Lee, Carol. "Montana stop could be rowdy." Politico.com 44 Blog. Accessed 21 Aug 2009.

Dawson, Pat. "Obama in Montana: No Fireworks, Inside or Out." Time.com. 14 Aug 2009.

Schontzler, Gail. "Obama wows crowd; many worried about insurance." Bozeman Daily Record. 15 Aug 2009.

Johnson, Charles S. "Demonstrators have field day near airport." Billings Gazette. 14 Aug 2009.

Denison, Mike. "Crowd gathers early for Obama Montana visit." Billings Gazette. 14 Aug 2009.

Mayrer, Jessica. "Civil discourse." Bozeman Daily Chronicle." 15 Aug 2009.

Adams, John S. "Early birds snap up tickets for Obama town hall." Greats Falls Tribune. 14 Aug 2009.

Reston, Maeve. "Obama’s seeking out skeptics of health care reform." Los Angeles Times. 15 Aug 2009.

Rupp, Jeff. Interview with FactCheck.org. 21 Aug 2009.

Sprenger, Brian. Interview with FactCheck.org. 23 Aug 2009.

Dove, William. Interview with FactCheck.org. 23 Aug 2009.