As pivotal Washington weeks go, last week was one of the most dizzying: a full House vote on a wildly unpopular bill, backroom deals, a president pressuring disobedient members of his own party, a canceled trip to Asia. Twisted arms, votes won, and an intraparty brawl. The vote itself ended a week of developments that have challenged the country’s core.
But another sort of history was made this weekend as well. Few in Washington, D.C., have experienced the kind of electrifying atmosphere that lit up the nation’s capital in the final two days before House Democrats prevailed shortly before midnight on Sunday. Washington is typically lousy with professional lobbyists and special interest groups. Washington is not accustomed to the citizen activists who descended there on Saturday morning. The city is not used to seeing a visceral link between ordinary citizens and the minority of legislators fighting for them.
Thousands stood under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol “hideaway” office, chanting: “Kill the Bill!” Later, in haunting tones: “Naaancy. Naaancy.”
It was a transformative moment inside the Capitol building: Buttoned-up congressmen, aides, and pages looked on in awe at the insurrection. They pumped their fists in the air and tens of thousands roared their approval below.
The week did not start out auspiciously for health care opponents. They held a small tea party rally on the Capitol grounds on Tuesday, March 16. The Capitol Police denied them the right to build a stage or a sound system. They used a bullhorn; someone found a park bench. About a thousand people showed up.
“Welcome freedom fighters!”
Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) greeted the small crowd with the bullhorn. The crowd roared back. “Freedom fighters” was apt — these were peaceful insurgents, guerrillas. They did not control the levers of power or register with the mass media, but they somehow managed with their zeal to slow the dragon.
When Speaker Pelosi announced midweek that a vote would be held on the weekend, tea party organizers tried to reply by putting out a call for a rally on Saturday. First they scheduled it to take place in a small park off the Capitol grounds itself. But as word filtered in of buses, cars, and planes coming, the organizers moved it to the west side of the Capitol building. Only fifteen months earlier this is where Barack Obama had been sworn in as president of the United States. It’s a large space. A small group would look lost.
Very early on Saturday, as I parked in Union Station — a little more than a mile from the Capitol building — I was forced to drive to the top level of a parking garage. All the other levels had already been filled. People were writing personal signs on the hoods of their cars or on the stone pavement at Union Station. Vans pulled up. American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were unfolded. It was a beehive of activity, yet it was as quiet as could be.
No one told them what to write. No one organized them. Alexis de Tocqueville knew of these citizens.
As I walked with my cameraman towards the Capitol building, we could see people silently making their way toward the west side. It was two hours before the rally. We walked pass the Russell Senate Office Building and turned right onto Constitution Avenue. There were already at least 10,000 people at the foot of the Capitol.
For over two hours, the crowd grew. Having participated in anti-war demonstrations, I can tell you that this protest was reasonable. There were perhaps 25,000 people, but it had not been organized by union bosses or Soros-funded groups. These were individuals who drove overnight from the Carolinas and who left in the early morning hours from New York and Delaware. A group of 100 boarded a commercial plane from San Diego.
Over the entire weekend, tens of thousands of citizens remained, circling the Capitol building. About 2,500 went to the Rayburn House Office Building, named after the power broker Sam Rayburn who was known as “Mr. Democrat.”
About 1,500 filled the steps of the Cannon House Office Building and Capitol Plaza, adjacent to the Capitol building itself.
Everywhere you could hear the chanting: “Kill the bill!” The streets were filled; it was impossible to pass. Many of the original 25,000 went to see their congressional representatives on Saturday; others encamped throughout the grounds.
At 5:00 p.m. the demonstrators ringed the Capitol building, about five deep. Flags were everywhere. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) held an impromptu town hall meeting on the steps of the Capitol.
That evening, on two large windows, several congressional staffers printed signs on 8×10 sheets of paper before taping them to windows on the east side, facing the crowd:
“S-C-R-A-P T-H-E B-I-L-L!”
As the letters appeared, the throngs went wild: “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” Inside, congressional staffers pumped their fists in the air, whooped, and yelled. Flags waved. There was pandemonium.
These were staid Republicans and conservatives? No, no they weren’t.
Early Sunday morning about a hundred returned. They soon swelled to several thousand. They were now on the south side of the Capitol building, adjacent to a pathway that is the usual route most members of Congress walk to vote in the House chamber. An underground tunnel runs from the House offices — most of the Democrats chose that route.
“Kill the bill!” wafted into the Capitol building itself. It was faint, but always in the background.
Around mid-afternoon, a group of congressmen stepped out onto the balcony facing the south side. They unfurled a handwritten sign:
“K-I-L-L T-H-E B-I-L-L”
Now the crowd went into an absolute frenzy. Again, congressmen pumped their fists. It was an electrifying moment, seeing the connection between elected representatives and the public.
Emotionally, it seemed as if it was uplifting to both groups of participants. The congressional representatives have worked in isolation, reviewing parliamentary rules, reading 2,700 pages of legislative language, and holding caucuses. It was an insider’s chess match, and they had little connection to the real world of angry Americans.
Those on the lawn knew little of parliamentary procedure. They only felt left out — secret deals were being cut, and no one was listening to them.
Around 4 p.m., about a half-dozen members of Congress came to the walkway above the lawn. Leading the group was Rep. Michelle Bachmann. A bullhorn was passed up to her. “You are my heroes,” she told the crowd. They roared back. Other congressmen and women spoke to the crowd. A visceral connection had been made; energy had been swapped.
The left, which sought to organize “ordinary citizens” using such teachers as Saul Alinsky, has rarely captured the imagination of a plurality of the public. All demonstrations were tough to organize, and people did not instinctively respond to their entreaties. That’s why community organizing was so tough. Over the years, leftist activist organizations found themselves with many bureaucratic entities, such as unions and women’s groups. They could mobilize activists, but not regular citizens.
The type of “activist” that has emerged on the tea party side is what the left has never been able to tap: ordinary people.
Typical of those who came to D.C. was a guy with the improbable name of James Bond. “I’ve never been a protester,” he told me near the Capitol building. He is from Wilmington, North Carolina, and he had his daughter Taylor perched on his shoulders. “I’ve always stuck to myself. But I thought this was important enough that if I didn’t come and at least voice my opinion on it, that I would never get the chance again.”
Among the blizzard of signs, there was a single, lone sign I will always remember. It was held by a young girl, across the street from the Rayburn House Office Building on Independence Avenue. She looked to be about ten. The handwritten sign, which was almost as big as her, read: “Will You Give Me A Free Pony Too?”
I suspect that when Francis Scott Key first wrote that America was “the land of the free,” he might have had a different kind of “free” in mind.
Nevertheless, mandating the impossible — free, yet scarce, goods and services — was the order of the day.
Just last week the federal government held a party on behalf of its “National Broadband Plan,” an idea to provide free “universal” high speed broadband for all Americans.
And of course, no one will have to pay for it. Right?