I got to witness a little bit of history Sunday night in Washington, sitting in the gallery of the House of Representatives as the vote was tallied for final confirmation of the health-care reconciliation package. It was a pleasure seeing the beaming faces of Democrats (and there was no small bit of schadenfreude in seeing Republicans' scowls), especially people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who looked fresh and energized despite probably having had no sleep for 72 hours or more, and my own representative, Jim McDermott, who has fought consistently for health-care reform for several decades now.
Of course, I only sort of witnessed the final vote. You see, security was rotating groups of about 18 people in and out of the seats every 15 minutes, because demand was so high; and my group's time ran out just as the count reached 200. I returned quickly to the item-return room (you had to leave behind your cell phones), where a big screen ran the tallies on C-SPAN; when the vote hit 216, a loud cheer erupted among the 30 or so of us gathered to watch.
Not all of us cheered, of course. A sizable portion of the crowd forming those long lines, in fact, comprised Tea Partiers who had spent the day outside the Capitol protesting, "Kill the Bill!" And they scowled and booed while the rest of us cheered.
I had, in fact, spent a portion of my day among these Tea Party protesters, wandering among them with a video camera in the hours before that afternoon's massive March For America. (And it has to be mentioned that this crowd, of several hundred at best, was utterly dwarfed by the crowd of immigration-reform activists behind them, estimated to be 200,000 strong, a contrast that must -- or should -- have struck some of them as a wee bit ominous for their Beckian claim that "We Surround Them".)
As you can see, some of the leaders of the chants were not above some ugliness in the process. A woman reporter from the local ABC affiliate was mercilessly harassed by one of the bullhorn holders, as you can see. And there was no shortage of kooky signs, including:
I DID NOT SERVE SO THAT DICTATORS COULD RULE
Take Your Flight
Now And Don't Ever
A brief exchange of insults occurred when a middle-aged man in a blue soccer shirt made clear he adamantly supported health care, and a man in Michigan Militia T-shirt said, "F--k you," to which the older man responded in kind. Someone in the crowd (the guy holding the "Take Your Flight Now" sign, in fact) called out, "Commie!"
(And yes, the incessant chant of "Kill the Bill!" did start to remind one, after awhile, of the crowd of zombies chanting "Im-ho-tep!" in The Mummy.)
Media Matters spent all day among them and produced some even more disturbing clips.
Dave Weigel at the Windy also found some prime violent wingnuttery:
As a Democratic victory looked more and more likely, Tea Partiers got more ornery about the liberals who’d showed up to cheer for reform and take commemorative photos of what, to them, looked like the end of a year of agenda-slowing right-wing activism.
“Look at that idiot!” said Linda Cocsy, a New Yorker who’d spent the weekend in Washington for the protests, pointing at one of the young Democrats who’d infiltrated the protest, holding up a pro-reform sign provided by a pro-choice Catholic group. “This one, here with the stupid grin on his face! He looks likes he’s brainless. You look at these people and, they really look like jerks. You look at the other people, with the Don’t Tread on Me [flags], and they look like real people!” Cocsy stared off at another protester, waving a sign he’d picked up from a pro-immigration reform protest that had broken up around the time that Stupak announced his flip. “I just wanna kill them!” said Cocsy.
Meanwhile, the NY Daily News reports that one right-wing blogger called for Obama to be shot:
Solomon "Solly" Forell tweeted: "ASSASSINATION! America, we survived the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy. We'll surely get over a bullet 2 Barack Obama's head."
The crazy talk isn't just coming from the rank and file. Some of the Tea Partiers' favorite congressmen are saying similarly nutty things, such as Rep. Steve King's call for secession (via Amanda Terkel) as a response to HCR, following up on his earlier call for an armed revolution.
So it was very interesting listening and observing their responses that evening as we all crowded together into a line to watch the House vote -- Tea Partiers and reform supporters together, required to remain quiet and civil with each other, upon pain of being immediately removed by security.
For the longest time, it seemed, there were about a hundred of us lined up along the long corridors leading to the House gallery, where we had to run a gauntlet of security checks. I was right behind as group of middle-aged Tea Partiers who were dead set against reform and talked among themselves with the usual talking points: "It's just too much government control," "We're talking about one-sixth of the economy", etc. etc., all straight out of Fox News.
But directly behind me was a boisterous young man from Tulsa who was an ardent supporter of health-care reform, and he made his feelings known as well, talking loudly about the vote count as it trickled in on the preliminary vote to advance the measure -- which, had it failed, would have ended the counting for the night. When it passed, he and others in the line cheered loudly.
One of the Tea Partiers ahead of me said to his fellows: "I can't believe all these people want health care."
Because I was being quiet and civil, I refrained from saying: "Yeah, who'da thunk?"
About the same time, a group of people who had been watching in the gallery and whose time had expired began filing past us, some of them beaming. The young Oklahoman began high-fiving them and cheering. But one middle-aged woman refused:
"It's the night America died!" she said.
Finally, we made our way through the last security gate and took our seats, just as the votes came in on Republicans' last-gasp delaying attempt came in, and then we watched as the counting began on final confirmation. Just as the vote count in favor reached 200, the security men came and escorted us out, leading to our final hurrah at the item-return station.
I caught the last Metro back to the condo where I was staying (thanks again, Darcy!) and sat alone near the door. There were only about six of us in the entire car, but right behind me was as glum-faced middle-aged couple. Their expressions alone made clear they had been among the Tea Partiers, as did their conversation on the way back.
"I have to wonder, when we wake up in the morning, whether this will still be a free country or not," said the husband.
"I know," said his wife. "It's so sad."
Again, self-restraint (and fatigue) were all that kept me from standing up and saying to them:
"Good God, people, get a grip! Do you still have freedom of speech? Freedom of association? The right to vote? To choose your religion? To live where you want, choose your own occupation, decide what kind of family you want to have? Because those are real freedoms. You haven't lost any of that! It's still the freest country on earth, you loons! If you think that paying taxes means a loss of freedom, you're wrong -- it just means you're living up to your end of the social contract. Are you part of that, or not?"
Well, those were the words in my head, anyway. And I realized then that, for all these people who have been watching Glenn Beck and Fox News and listening to Limbaugh and Palin and Hannity lo these many moons, that really is their stark reality now: Sunday night was "the night America died."
And that's really a dangerous prospect. Because it means the American Right has come completely unhinged. And unhinged people begin not just saying unhinged things, but doing them.
There's a reason John Amato and I have just finished up work on our new book, Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane (which you can pre-order at Amazon, though it won't be out till June 1, and no, that's not our final cover, and the foreword is by Digby, not Rick Perlstein).
It's becoming more timely by the day.