Historian R. R. Palmer, in his book about the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, Twelve Who Ruled, wrote the following account of the strangely inspirational quality of a legislator at that time:
It is difficult to imagine the effect produced in 1793 by the phrase ‘Representatives of the People.’ Neither word today sends a thrill through anybody’s spine. Both words were then alive with the emotions of a new belief. A Representative of the People, for Frenchmen of the First Republic, was the most august being that could exist on earth.
The representatives embodied the majesty of the nation, and traveled in the reflected brilliance of its glory, like the proconsuls of Rome or the satraps of ancient Persia. Members of the Convention, they were the immediate wielders of sovereignty, the individual agents of the people’s might. They stood above all existing laws and authorities, for the source of law flowed through them, a mysterious current that gave their actions the attribute of justice. Plain enough men for the most part, not demanding or wanting to be fawned on, they nevertheless often found that local Jacobins received them with adulation, ordinary persons with marked deference, and counter-revolutionaries with the hypocritical and ostentatious respectfulness associated with royal courts.
I’ve had cause to think about this more than a few times in my nearly three month long history of interaction with the Congressional Representative for my district, Lee Zeldin. Palmer is surely understating the difficulty of understanding how impressive an elected legislator can be. Members of Congress today tend to inspire some degree of disgust, not reverence. Zeldin, though, is interesting when one considers Palmer’s description of the deputies to the National Convention as simple men who sought no glory, yet were treated as the royalty they had replaced. In Zeldin’s case, there is another reversal: despite simply being an elected public servant, he seems to want to enjoy the deference of royalty.
Last Sunday, Zeldin made what I will (in the spirit of charity) call a personal development breakthrough: he actually appeared in front of an audience of his constituents. It took several months of pressure, but he did it. And despite the combative nature of the first event, he did not respond with the whiny insults about “liberal obstructionists” to which his constituents have become accustomed. Instead his attitude, in his after-event Facebook post, was celebratory:
Thank you to everyone who came out to today’s three Town Hall events across the First Congressional District. The first Community Forum was hosted by Suffolk County Community College at their Riverhead Campus, and moderated by Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy. The second Community Forum was hosted by LI News Radio and the Portuguese American Center, held at the Portuguese American Center in Farmingville, and moderated by Jay Oliver from LI News Radio. The third Town Hall was hosted by Catholics for Freedom of Religion and held at St. Patrick’s Church in Smithtown. Greatest congressional district in America!
I feel that I can’t help but call this progress. And in the spirit of fairness, I think it has to be said that #wheresleezeldin is a dead meme. We know where he is. The substantial issue now is the style of his appearances.
Read over that post again. Notice anything interesting about how he characterizes the events? He switches back and forth between calling them “town halls” and “community forums.” Broken down to their root meanings, these are somewhat interchangeable terms, but I’d argue that this distinction matters.
Prior to Sunday, these scheduled appearances were specifically termed “community forums,” which inevitably made for a contrast with “town halls.” As one local pre-event story points out:
Some residents of the First Congressional District, upset with the Trump administration and some of the positions the congressman has taken, have demanded that Zeldin hold a “town hall” meeting in the district to answer constituents questions and hear their concerns. Zeldin has resisted their demands and has said he did not believe a town hall meeting would be productive. In February, he held a “telephone town hall” — where residents were able to call into a conference line. More than 9,000 people joined the call, Zeldin’s spokesperson said afterward.
The fact that he called them “community forums” really seemed to matter given this noted and much derided resistance on Zeldin’s part to hold a town hall. But now he sees fit to call these appearances “town halls” or “community forums” as he pleases. I feel that there is a strategy here. As one of his supporters wrote in a comment on his post, “Hopefully now all [those] complaining about ‘town halls’ are satisfied.”
Are we? Should we be? Is that really the point of all this?