WASHINGTON -- Watching the muscular tactics being used in congressional town meetings by some opponents of health care reform, I keep thinking somebody should remind the Republican leaders who are reveling in the scenes about Bruce Alger.
Alger was the first Republican congressman elected from Texas in the modern era, winning a Dallas district in 1954. In 1960, just a few days before the presidential election, he was part of a crowd of several hundred people who surrounded Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and his wife, Lady Bird, when they arrived for a luncheon at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas.
Many of the demonstrators carried signs labeling the Texas senator as a "Judas." Alger's placard read: "LBJ Sold Out to Yankee Socialists."
As I later wrote, the Johnsons "were engulfed by the crowd, and for more than half an hour, were reviled and jostled as they slowly made their way across the lobby. Johnson refused offers of police assistance, telling an aide that 'if the time has come that I can't walk with my lady across the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel, then I want to know it.'"
The backlash was instant and powerful. As conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak later wrote in their book about Johnson, the scene in the Adolphus "outraged thousands of Texans and Southerners. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, who had not campaigned for his party's national ticket since 1944, telephoned Johnson that evening to offer his services." The Johnson biographers concluded that while no one could prove the case, it is "a credible hypothesis" that the Adolphus incident swung Texas and perhaps other closely contested Southern states to the Democrats.
In 1964, when Johnson headed the Democratic ticket, he got even: His coattails swept Alger out of office.
I was reminded of this saga by what happened to Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the venerable Democrat who was shouted down last week by protesters at a health care town meeting in Romulus, Mich. Dingell, 83, has represented the area for 53 years, surviving all the political tides and a Republican effort to redistrict him out of office.
Nonetheless, he was called a "fraud" by a woman who said the plan he supported in committee would empty her wallet, and was booed and denounced by hundreds of others who filled the meeting hall.
Dingell said he hadn't faced as angry a crowd since he voted for the civil rights bill in 1964, but said, "I'm a tough old bastard" and won't waver.
Scenes like Romulus have filled cable news as Democrats across the country have been meeting their constituents during this August congressional recess. The cameras were watching as Sens. Arlen Specter and Claire McCaskill were harangued on Tuesday.
What doesn't make the news is what the reaction is among the larger population of voters whose views will ultimately influence the fate of health care legislation.
I haven't seen any polls taken since the demonstrations began, but an editorial in Tuesday's Detroit Free Press said "the disrespect Dingell was shown in a state where he has made such a profound contribution was unforgivable."
There have been many such editorials. And at least some Republicans are beginning to notice. Sarah Palin, who earlier had called the plans Obama is supporting "downright evil," said in a Facebook post that "we must stick to a discussion of the issues and not get sidetracked by tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation or harassment."
But not all the GOP leaders have gotten the message. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents a heavily Jewish district in Florida, phoned me to complain that top House Republicans have not publicly repudiated Rush Limbaugh for his statements likening Obama's health policies to those of the Nazis.
Much improvement is needed in the health care bills, but I think these angry opponents are playing with fire.