Tea Party Protesters Arrive in D.C., Cheer Wilson
An enthusiastic participant at Thursday's Freedom Summit (Photo by David Weigel)
The walk from the subway station to the Freedom Summit was quick, less than two minutes if the attendees didn’t dawdle. Every twenty or so paces, smiling volunteers with FreedomWorks shirts or badges ushered them towards the Armory, a sports arena more often used to host Rollergirl bouts and “American Idol” tryouts. Approaching the entrance, the people who’d trekked from as far away as San Diego and Maui could buy buttons — “Proud to be a Teabagger,” “ACORN is for Squirrels,” and “Quit AARP Now!”–and pick up information packets on how to make the most of what organizers assured them would be part of American history.
Image by: Matt Mahurin
“Saturday’s going to be an incredible day,” said Dick Armey, the former Republican majority leader who has made a political comeback as the chairman of FreedomWorks. “On Saturday, we all be blessed to be a part of the greatest demonstration of free market, individual liberty devotion on the streets of Washington, D.C. in the history of this country. And we didn’t get here by accident! We came here by special invitation of President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi!”
The hundreds of people who trekked in and out of the rally cheered and stomped their bleachers. The resilient “Tea Party” movement, seven months on from its first protests against the economic stimulus package, was proud of its success.** **Over three hours, they listened to three current Republican members of Congress, got briefings on cap-and-trade and health care legislation from conservative think tank scholars, and got chances to take the mics themselves — often to launch into several-minute-long rants about the threat of an encroaching government. Occasionally they’d get up to talk to other activists and check out a small table of free Dunkin Donuts sustenance and affordable merchandise — $20 shirts and hats commemorating the weekend, political books by Armey and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and T-shirts that read simply “FIRE CONGRESS.”
“Not every member,” said a volunteer for the T-shirt vendor, WeShouldFireCongress.com. “That fellow from South Carolina who spoke up at the president’s speech last night? We don’t want to beat him!”
The much-discussed outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a conservative congressman who shouted “you lie!” from his seat inside the Capitol when President Obama said that his health reform plan would not cover illegal immigrants, had gained instant legendary status with the people inside the armory. At several points in the morning, a loud chant of “liar!” rose up when speakers mentioned the president. One attendee from Florida said that she and her husband saw the “you lie!” moment on Fox News, before they headed in for the event, and cheered him from their hotel room. During one of the Q&A sessions, an Illinois attendee named Frank Dutton reported that Wilson’s Democratic opponent was fundraising off of the event.
“Let’s start a fund for Wilson!” said Dutton. “He was the only guy there on our side who was saying what the heck he wanted to say.”
Not every attendee was filled with such partisan fervor. Barry Bench, an Orlando activist who took a break from filming his own record of the morning by holding a sign reading “ACORN” over the head of a liberal reporter, confessed that he didn’t trust either party.
“The election between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 was when it started going downhill,” said Bench, referring to the rise of the Progressive Movement and the birth of the federal income tax.
Rob Miller, a Richmond, Va., activist stood with Bench where the noise from the Summit’s panels was a little less oppressive, and discussed theories for what had gone wrong in the elections since then.
“Clinton only got elected in 1992 because Ross Perot got back in the race,” said Miller. He attributed Perot’s decision to pressure from the “Dixie mafia, Jimmy Carter’s organization — they ran half the South.” And according to Miller, Barack Obama had only won the 2008 election because of fraud by the community organizing group ACORN.
“You can assume 10 percent of Obama’s votes were fraudulent votes,” said Bench.
During the long, hot August, some Republicans who met crowds like this were drowned by boos. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), got a far warmer reception when they hit on issues that the audience had been learning about online and on Fox News. Shadegg’s declaration that he was reading Glenn Beck’s book “Common Sense” got the biggest applause of his entire presentation — after his speech, he was dogged by a photograph-seeker who held up a sign telling people to “READ G-B.”
Beck’s influence on the crowd was apparent in many of their comments, which reflected attacks and themes from his radio show, TV show, and books. At times, the professional conservative organizers onstage cast bemused looks at the people asking lengthy questions — multiple requests to “keep your questions short” had little effect on activists who often wanted to share their knowledge with the crowd. Annie Rupp, a Hawaii-based activist, compared Obama’s plans for the country to those of Fidel Castro in Cuba, and told attendees to look into the background of FCC adviser Mark Lloyd, “who has called Hugo Chavez’s revolution in Venezuela the incredible revolution.” She took the microphone twice; when she finished, she was swarmed by fans who signed up for her mailing list and heard her weigh forth on issues like Obama’s religion. “I think he might be a Muslim plant,” said Rupp.
Still, it was Inhofe who got the most thankful reception from the crowd. “There’s no greater champion for who we are and what we treasure than Senator Inhofe,” said Armey, introducing him. Once onstage, Inhofe thanked the audience for stirring up the August town halls — “it was the best recess I ever had” — and told them what the president looked like from his vantage point at the joint session of Congress.
“What I observed,” said Inhofe, “was a new sense of arrogance and defiance I’ve never seen before.”
The morning’s events staggered to an end, as some attendees moved out early to hold scheduled meetings with their members of Congress. “If you already have appointments scheduled with your lawmakers, please be on time,” was the recommendation on a sheet of “Lobbying Quick Tips” provided by FreedomWorks. “Remember, 5 minutes early is on time.”
Some activists ran up against a wall when they got their meetings on the Hill. Weeks in advance, Diane Reimer of Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots had set up a meeting with the staff of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). On the way in, three of Reimer’s colleagues were tired but punchy, armed with quotes from conservative author and radio host Mark Levin. When they emerged, they were disappointed in what they described as a “smooth” and “knowledgeable” performance from one key staffer of a senator committed to backing a health care bill.
“He answered my questions, I think, as honestly as he could,” said Reimer.
“He was a smooth operator,” said Reimer’s husband Don. “The bottom line is they’re going to pass a bill.”
The energy of the activists picked up as they gained some distance from the congressional offices. On the way out, the Tea Party Patriots spotted a group of ACORN activists and rushed to take a picture of them. Outside, every member of the House Republican leadership gathered for a pep rally that boisterously praised and thanked the several hundred people who showed up to wave signs (“Texans Against Another Government Takeover”). First, a technical failure prevented Dick Armey, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) from speaking into microphones that worked.
“We can’t hear you!” shouted some in the crowd.
“Well, then,” said Armey. “Quiet down and listen up!”
The microphones crackled to life in time for Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the third-ranking member of the Republican conference. “Thank you for taking time from your families, from hearth and home, from enterprises, from children and grandchildren,” Pence said. “The sacrifices you made to be here will not be in vain.” The eventual goal, repeated by other members of Congress, would be a Republican takeover of the House.
Armey left the rally with the current members of Congress, stopping briefly to talk to reporters, spending most of that time arguing with a blogger from ThinkProgress (“I’m not used to talking to juvenile delinquents”) and explaining his own stance on Wilson: If it was unfair for him to shout “liar,” it was unfair for the president to accuse Republicans of “saying boldfaced lies.” As Armey made his way to a chauffered car, an activist named Kim Betz handed him a trinket she’d made — a plastic covering to go over his ears, an “Obama Bullshit Reflector.”
“Oh-ho-ho!” laughed Armey. “Where’d you get this?”
“We made it,” said Betz.
“Where are you from?”
“Florida!” Armey laughed again. “I knew there was a little bit of Dixie in this!”