Washington — Yesterday, citizens congregated in Taft Park, just a few steps from the Capitol. It wasn’t so much a protest as a gathering. Sure, “kill the bill” chants danced off tongues, but the spastic clang of an unruly mob was absent. As were the usual tea-party “antics” we hear about on 30-second cable-television reports. Instead, the sound, and spirit, was communal, fiery.
As I moved between grandmas in parkas and their grandsons in flannel, it wasn’t the yelling that stood out — real hollers were few and far between. The number of attendees on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. — 500 to 1,000 in my estimate — was also notable, but not the story. Same with the signs. And while the energy soared, for a couple minutes at least, when conservative favorites Michele Bachmann and Tom Price showed up (see below), this was not some rah-rah tea party. In fact, the takeaway from it all was that the overall mood was actually pretty grim.
Those who came to this patch of grass between the Senate chamber and Union Station huddled with the quiet sobriety of a candlelight vigil, clasping “Don’t Tread on Me” flags in lieu of flickering flames. Obamacare, they kept telling me in rushed whisper, was on the horizon. Big government, they said, was already here. And “the media,” they shuddered, is against them. After nearly a year of uproar, in the health-care debate’s final hours, these citizens seemed tired, exasperated. I don’t blame them.
As I made my way to Taft, I ran into a woman from Alabama. We struck up a conversation. She saw my press badge and paused. I said I worked for National Review. It was slight relief. “Well, at least you hopefully won’t misquote me,” she said. Then she launched into a two-minute story, about how she was interviewed by Time magazine about Glenn Beck and ended up being a key “color provider” in the mag’s cover story about Beck and tea partiers. Instead of focusing on the issues she cared about, she said “the media” wanted to focus on people — the crass ‘Podunk person comes to Washington’ narrative. Here is a snippet from that Time piece:
At any rate, what we can say with confidence is that Deanna Frankowski was there. A cheery woman of 49 from Leeds, Ala., Frankowski said she had come to Washington as part of a group of 100 or more protesters. They filled two buses. And they were motivated by a concern about runaway government spending — that, plus an outraged feeling that their views as citizens are not being heard. “We are sick and tired of being ignored,” she said. “There is too much money being spent.”
Frankowski has been hit hard by the economic turmoil of the past year. Short of funds to make the trip, she painted an American flag on a pane of glass and asked people at her church to chip in toward her expenses, with one of them taking home the flag. She would like to share a house with her soon-to-be husband, but first she must figure out how to get free of the house she has — the one with the underwater mortgage. Some left-leaning writers argue that people in her boat must be deluded to oppose Barack Obama, but Frankowski is skeptical that her interests are being served by trillions in new government interventions. So she said, “I’ve paid my mortgage every month. And I’m getting no help. I’m just saying, Let capitalism work.” Then she added, “We just want people to listen to us and care.”
Listening. I heard that word a lot on Tuesday. Change? They’d like to see it, but listening? That’d be a nice start.
After the morning rallies, the group dispersed, strolling off to Longworth, Rayburn, and Cannon — the House office buildings. Later in the day, I ran into folks I’d seen earlier, patiently waiting outside offices, trying to get a meeting with their congressman, usually with some lanky intern or staffer explaining “how that just won’t be possible today, since things are so busy.” Bachmann, for what it’s worth, got no such hassle. She’s a star of sorts — people would linger by her office just to express their thanks to her staff and to sign the guest book.
In the afternoon, outside Cannon, I sat down with two small-business owners from Pennsylvania. By now, the sun was out, and D.C., for the first time in months, felt hot. As I spoke with Lee Gorham, a 61-year old electrician from Chambersburg, I thought back to Deanna Frankowski, and that Time story. As Jonah writes today, reading the tea-party leaves is not easy: Is the tale of the tea-party movement one of people or policy?
Maybe it is both. Gorham detailed his complaints about the tax system. So did his friend, Jeff Keefer, a 50-year old plumber from Newburg. Good points, all. Then something Gorham said struck a real chord: “We came down here for our kids,” he said. “For our grandkids, for their future.”
Gorham explained that while his political differences with the Democrats were important, he thought of himself as an independent, and didn’t think the GOP had many answers. What bothers him most is how the Obama administration “seems to be on a mission,” and, like Frankowski, “wishes they would listen.”
As we parted, I felt of a pang of well, something. These weren’t angry agitators from Podunk. Or tea-party zealots. Or partisan wingnuts obsessed with Fox News. These were citizens, at the end of their patience. No longer able to believe their government cared, they were hoping for an ear, a listener. They liked hearing fired-up talk from Price et al, but in the end, Obamacare, they sensed, may pass, whether they like it or not. They came to Washington not with high hopes of stopping things over which they have little sway, but of reminding others that years later, when people look back, they can say “I was in Taft Park, I tried to fight this.” And regardless of what happens, or what you believe, you can credit them for that.