Members of Congress call them “listening sessions” or “town hall meetings.”
Over the years, I’ve been to a million. You know who ends up doing most of the talking? Surprise, surprise: It’s the member of Congress who rattles on and on, often leaving little time for Jane and John Q. Public to speak.
So something unusual happened Thursday night in Kansas City when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver conducted a town hall meeting to hear from citizens on a single topic — Syria. What transpired was fascinating if only because, for once, a member of Congress listened, and listened intently. For two hours, Cleaver heard the public that had elected him weigh in on the day’s dominant issue.
Cleaver acknowledged upfront just how rare this is.
“It just doesn’t happen,” he said.
The congressman stood the entire time, mouth shut, nodding almost imperceptibly at times. His eyes were focused — and I mean focused—
on speaker after speaker.
For good reason. Cleaver, for once, is flummoxed, leaning against authorizing the shooting of missiles into Syria, to be sure, but not set on that position.
On the one hand, there was the prevailing sentiment in the room Thursday night opposing intervention, opposing more bloodshed and uncertainty.
“It’s a no-win situation,” said John Rowe of Kansas City.
On the other side were those with ties to Syria begging for the U.S. to step in to rid the world of another tyrant, President Bashar Assad, slaughtering innocents.
“Assad will stop at nothing to kill his own people,” said Belal Tarakji of Kansas City, whose parents hail from Syria.
Cleaver is weighing all this, often late into the night. He is, after all, a man of the cloth, a United Methodist pastor who opposed the Iraq War and questions the validity of the intelligence this time around.
Then again, he is a man opposed to evil and influenced by the Edmund Burke sentiment that one man recast Thursday night as “bad things happen because good people do nothing.”
Cleaver also is a Democrat eager to support the leader of his own party.
“I am deeply invested in the success of Barack Obama,” Cleaver said.
So the citizens talked, and Cleaver listened, and two hours later he was in an adjoining room finally sitting down, weighing the merits of what he had just heard. Syria, he said, is without question the toughest call he has ever made in a political career that stretches to 1979 and landed in Congress in 2005.
“This is number one,” he said.
At least he’s listening.