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One Town Hall, Two Americas

HAGERSTOWN, Md. - Carol Powell and Tim Stuart are both 66 and Marylanders, and by chance, they ended up sitting next to each other Wednesday at a raucous health care forum sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin.

The similarities ended there. In a conversation full of quiet disagreement before Cardin's event began, it became clear that the health care debate is a proxy for many of the things that Stuart and Powell think are wrong with the country.

They parted on good terms. He called her a "nice lady." She said they might agree on the need for choice in health insurance.

But they remain two very different Americans.

Stuart left the town hall soon after it began, disgusted with what he said were "nut case" questions and attempts to shout down those who see a need, as he does, for reform.

Powell was not among the shouters inside the community college theater where the event was held, but she clearly agreed with much of the anti-reform sentiment. In the gathering of about 450 people, perhaps three dozen were making the most noise, from the man who kept shouting "You work for us" to a loud woman who might have challenged Cardin had he said the Earth was round.

An overflow crowd of several hundred people outside included two supporters of perennial fringe candidate Lyndon LaRouche who held pictures depicting President Barack Obama with a Hitler moustache.

For the rest of the world, the raucous behavior of the few dominated the TV clips. But the quiet conversations, like the one Powell and Stuart had as the event was about to begin, show how deeply the differences run beyond the heat of the moment.

Powell, who retired after managing a Giant food store, bitterly opposes the health care reform plans being discussed in Congress. A leader in her county's Republican politics, she sees the reform efforts pushed by Obama and congressional Democrats as a Trojan horse for socialized health care - and as part of a trend in which hard work, responsibility and values are devalued.

Powell said her husband, a Realtor, works 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

"It is a shame that this is going to be on the backs of hardworking people, and that is what it is going to be," she said. "You know, they want us to give free health care to people who are not willing to work for it, and I have a problem with that."

She wasn't alone in that sentiment. John Campbell, 43, a Realtor from Middletown, Md., angrily confronted Cardin over who would pay for the proposed changes and what they would do to the current system, which he calls the best in the world. Cardin said he wouldn't vote for any bill that would raise the nation's debt, but Campbell said he's not convinced.

"We have the best doctors, and they are paid well, and it is OK to make money," Campbell said. "It is a good thing to have people that are going to cut into your brain making a lot money. You know, this whole demonization of people that are successful and people that have worked hard and sacrificed, it is wrong ... and I am tired of it."

Stuart, a retired Environmental Protection Agency technician who once worked in the Clinton White House, says he shares the concerns about spending and debt and thinks Obama could have done a much better job setting the framework for reform. Part of the problem, he said, is there are so many proposals still being debated in Congress that opponents have had ample opportunity to turn isolated passages into broader debates over abortion, euthanasia and other contentious topics.

But Stuart's younger brother is a professional engineer who's lost his health insurance. And this week, Stuart is helping to organize a benefit sandwich feed through the Lions Club of Thurmont, Md., for a tow-truck driver with cancer who lost his health care on July 1.

"The idea is that, gee, we are not sustainable so we need to do something to fix the mess," Stuart said. "It is pretty obvious a lot of people don't have health insurance."

Before the meeting, Powell and Stuart had engaged in a civil but spirited debate over, of all things, a postcard that Powell said was being sold at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The card depicts World War II-era soldiers and a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance - with the words "under God" omitted.

She can't imagine the Capitol selling a card that omits God, Powell said.

"After they ruin health care, they are going after every Christian value we have," she said.

Stuart told her the card was an obvious replica of one that would have been sold in the Capitol before Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, nine years after the war.

"You've got a problem with history, then," he told Powell.

"People are frightened and are frightened in terms of change," Stuart said in a later phone interview. "Here we have a black president, a Latino Supreme Court justice, we have all these changes and all this uncertainty. People are just frightened of the change ... and certain people are going to stir the pot for political purposes, try to use the fear and confusion and the lack of knowledge out there to basically make a political point."

He added: "This is a classic split where people watch different newscasts, read different books, talk to different people and are living in a whole different reality."

Why didn't he stick around for the entire 70-minute town hall?

"A lot of what I was seeing and hearing from folks, you see it on the Internet, you see it in the same old, same old," he said. "I had already spent a couple of hours there. ... The luxury of being retired is I don't have to sit through boring meetings any more."

And so Stuart headed home for the Lions Club, where they planned the sandwich benefit for the uninsured tow-truck driver.

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