Sen. Bob Graham must have felt like he was in grade school, fielding the kind of who's-buried-in-Grant's-tomb questions that make kids giggle. "Is the Federal Aviation `Administra-tion` a federal organization?" Chris from Orlando wanted to know.
"Yes, that's an agency under the U.S. Department of Transportation," Graham replied, sounding like the teacher's pet.
But Chris from Orlando wasn't quite finished. Is the Immigration and Natural-ization Service a federal agency? The Department of Transportation? The Border Patrol? Customs?
"I think you see my point," Chris from Orlando concluded. "We have a lot of federal employees who have let us down ... I think we should have federal-employee reform. What do you think of that?"
Graham responded that the real issue was how to provide maximum security to America in light of the Sept. 11 attacks. He easily he could have told Chris that he hadn't a clue what federal-employee reform was or how, exactly, any of the federal agencies were responsible for the hijacking of four aircraft and the deaths of more than 5,000 people.
At least Graham was trying, which was the point of the Nov. 3 radio show on which he appeared, broadcast live from the stage of the Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola Park to a small, mostly uninterested audience.
The occasion was the annual Fall Fiesta in the Park, a holiday crafts fair that attracts thousands to booths selling puppy place mats, homemade ceramics and yard art. Into that mix, WDBO-AM (580) news-talk radio originally had planned a jarring session on guns in schools, according to the schedule. More current events led the station to substitute a so-called, two-hour "Town Hall Meeting on Terrorism," presumably designed to calm the nerves of locals by giving the straight scoop from their elected leaders.
What it often devolved into, however, was a mix of good old American cornpone, conspiracy theories and a willingness to play the blame game.
"It was in Bob Graham country and Janet Reno country that the terrorists roamed freely, set up their bases, planned our demise; and our national security has been brought to an all-time low," caller Faye from Orlando told Graham, forgetting to mention that Florida is also Jeb Bush country, John Mica country and a peninsula ruled by a Republican-led legislature.
A caller named John not only identified who the terrorists are -- the eight million illegal aliens in America -- but also pinpointed their location. "A lot of these illegals are of military age," he reported. "If you think they are not here and not armed, go to the rifle range at the Ocala National Forest on any weekend and see who shows up and who blows off the most ammunition. It's scary."
The public officials on hand weren't content to sit back and let callers have all the fun. Orange County Sheriff and neo-good old boy Kevin Beary suggested teen-agers were behind many of the false anthrax scares and that perpetrators would be dealt with harshly. "If we find someone causing a hoax," he said, "we need to barbecue their fanny."
After a caller suggested that the feds should begin torturing alleged terrorist conspirators by confining them in a pig sty, Congressman Ric Keller quipped, "We make them listen to Barry Manilow for 48 straight hours. That usually breaks them down."
Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, who participated over the phone, took a broadcasting moment to announce that he was a civil libertarian. That should come as news to the Florida ACLU, which has ripped Feeney for his stands on such issues as voter reform and faith-based funding.
The show's production was also over the top at times. Returning from a commercial break, comments from President Bush -- such as, "One of the things we're learning is what a great country this is" -- were dubbed over children reciting the pledge of allegiance. Radio host Bob Rose also waded into the muck. He was more than willing to stroke Feeney's ego, admiring the legislator's alleged blood-and-guts reputation.
Rose told the 43-year-old Oviedo attorney, "As tough as you are, Tom, we wouldn't mind if you were in Afghanistan with the rest of the fighting forces."
A sentiment, no doubt, shared by a number of civil libertarians.
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