A Day At The Freak Show: A Report From The Heart Of The Tea Party Protest
The only thing more frightening than being caught in an angry mob of health care protesters is revealing to that angry mob that you work for the Huffington Post.
On Thursday, I ventured down to Capitol Hill with a professional death wish. I was going to mingle with a group of tea partiers to get a sense of what, exactly, keeps their clocks ticking. For two-and-a-half hours, I got the Glenn Beck treatment -- accused of, among other things, subverting freedom, working for a communist propaganda outlet, and having a soulless devotion to slander and scandal.
One woman picked up her items and moved away -- taking her family with her -- after I settled down on the Capitol's front lawn. At another point a man, who seemed generally concerned about my safety, whispered in my ear: "You're a sheep amidst the wolves in this crowd, son."
And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to Rep. Michelle Bachmann's (R-Minn.) "Super Bowl of freedom." I was adopted -- in a way -- by a group of tea baggers. Sure, the politics they spoke seemed dripped in abject paranoia. But there was, at the very least, a sense of mutual respect. How else, after all, should one feel about people so devoted to a cause that they would skip work and travel hundreds of miles for a milquetoast protest?
Getting to that point, however, involved some harrowing moments. I was admittedly too frightened to reveal my profession to one group of people after a man, pointing to the Capitol building, insisted that the crowd would "tar and feather these members" if they "voted for this health care bill." I did strike up a conversation with a physician named David Marx who quickly relayed that he was not related in any way to Karl. But the conversation fell flat after that.
Walking closer to the Capitol building, I happened upon a group of interesting signs: one pictured the president next to Hitler, another had Obama's face below the words "No Marx, No Mao," and another announced the forthcoming "Attack of the Astroturf."
"So," I asked a woman standing nearby, "who does Obama resemble more: Hitler or Mao?"
I was bracing myself for some enthusiastic dissertation on 'All the President's Communists.' What I got, instead, were daggers. My reporter's notebook was conspicuously open.
"The media is filled with liberal hate," she said. "Take it someplace else." Her husband, clearly not paying attention, started talking, only to be told to "zip it" by his wife. After I didn't move from my spot of grass, they did, bringing their two children and signage with them. Zero for two.
I walked closer to the Capitol as Bachmann was now whipping the crowd into a freedom-loving frenzy. By the time I settled down, however, Jon Voight had taken the stage.
"This country is showing signs of his failed stimulus programs," the famed actor said. "His only success in his one-year term as president is taking America apart, piece-by-piece. Could it be, he has had 20 years of subconscious programming by Reverend Wright to damn America?"
"THAT'S RIGHT!" screamed the protesters.
I turned to a woman next to me. "So Obama has been indoctrinated?" I asked. "Oh yeah," she replied. "He sat in that church every Sunday. It's called Black Liberation Theology. Look it up."
To my left, an Asian-American woman named Sarah noticed that I was writing down the response. "Are you a journalist?" she asked.
"Who do you work for?"
"The Huffington Post."
She demanded a business card, which I produced.
"Oh. You're a Jew," she declared after reading my name.
I was a bit taken aback. "Yep." A few seconds passed with only silence. "I'm a Jew too," she added. Relief.
By that point, however, news of my professional affiliations had spread through the adjacent crowd. Expecting to be treated like a strand of H1N1, I found, however, that most people were simply curious. They all wanted my business card. A woman named Carolyne from Pennsylvania explained why she was there. "You can't fix stupid but you can vote them out." A Vietnam veteran named James pulled me close. "I have four words for you," he said (gulp). "Emperor has no clothes, sir."
"That's five words," I responded, jokingly before thanking him for his service.
"Drop the sir," he responded. "The point is I'm offering Obama clothes. I'm praying every night that he'll take the clothes."
At that juncture, conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin took the stage and on cue, the crowd produced copies of his book -- "Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto" -- and pointed them up to the bright mid-day sun.
"Mark Levin is my mentor," said Sarah, the Asian-American Jew. "I listen to him for three hours every day, 6 to 9 a.m."
There was no apparent recollection that we had just discussed Obama's own supposed indoctrination. A sermon-like back-and-forth ensued between audience and speaker.
"Having ruined the banking system," Levin screamed.
"That's right!" the crowd yelled back.
"The auto industry and the housing market"
"Having robed the social security trust fund"
"The Medicare trust fund"
"The highway trust fund"
"Now they are telling us to trust them"
"Now they have their sights on the mother of all entitlements," Levin concluded. "They want to control you. They want to control your children, your parents, your doctors, your nurses... You in the press, are you getting all this down?"
At least six sets of eyes turned to me. "He's talking to you," said a slyly smiling Carolyne. I was, indeed, taking notes. And continued to do so as the event progressed. There was some additional freak show weirdness. One woman asked whether I'd rather have a single apple pie to divide between a bunch of people, or apples, sugar, cinnamon and crust to make my own apple pie. I think it was a metaphor for the job market. Later a guy would walk by me with Lipton tea bags tied around each ear demanding that the government take its hands off his stethoscope.
But, by and large, the conversation was genial. Was health care reform unconstitutional? You bet. Did it promote the rationing of care for the elderly? Of course. Were Republicans in Congress doing a good job promoting alternatives? Not really. Was Sarah Palin the answer? Too soon to tell. Was the government the enemy? Without a doubt.
By 2:30 p.m. I had had enough. Hungry, I trekked through the crowd and into the actual Capitol building -- which protesters had earlier pledged they would storm. On my way in, I crossed paths with personnel from the Capitol physician's office -- an entity that, as The Washington Post's Dana Milbank would put it "could, quite accurately, be labeled government-run health care." Some protesters, apparently, had been trampled or sickened and required treatment. One person had had a heart attack. The government was needed.