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EDITORIAL: Potemkin town halls

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President Obama should be charged with false advertising for calling yesterday's Portsmouth, N.H., event a "town-hall meeting." It was a staged, partisan campaign rally.

The Portsmouth rally was the first of three such events planned for this week. If nothing else, it was well-choreographed, if not completely scripted. The questions posed to the president were all softballs; his answers were mostly platitudes. Mr. Obama said that he wanted to hear from people who disagree with him because "they need to be heard, too," but it was hard to discern opposing viewpoints through the chants of "Yes, we can."

The purpose of these rallies should be obvious. Mr. Obama is on a promotional tour, not a fact-finding mission. The president stated last week that he did not want "the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking." There is not even a pretense of a national discussion going on if one side is expected to keep quiet. And opponents of nationalized health care are refusing to be silenced. Public concerns and frustrations have created an unprecedented grass-roots movement against the proposed health legislation.

Public doubts have provided opportunities for Mr. Obama to engage in his trademark mockery. "Where we disagree, let's disagree over things that are real," he said condescendingly, "not these wild misrepresentations that don't bear any resemblance to anything that's actually being proposed." But the fact is that the president's own grasp of the proposal is limited. He has not claimed to have read the 1,000-page bill and has not demonstrated a keen grasp of its specifics.

The most insufferable moment of the "town-hall" meeting was when 13-year-old Julia Hall from Malden, Mass., read a question from a card about seeing "a lot of signs outside saying mean things about reform in health care." Pundit Michelle Malkin dubbed young Julia a "kiddie human shield." It's a sad commentary on the health care debate that the president has to resort to this kind of stunt to attempt to insulate his plan from criticism.

In the 18th century, Russian Field Marshall Grigory Potemkin constructed elaborate villages to impress Empress Catherine II with the territory he had conquered. The villages were fake, comprised of nothing more than fancy facades on the front of empty shells. In today's health care debate, a chanting crowd of cherry-picked supporters is the Potemkin-village version of a town-hall meeting. Maybe some day the president will summon the courage to engage in a real discussion with a more representative sample of Americans.

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