My brother rolled into D.C. from Boston on a chartered bus, arriving in the dark outside a Marriott.
I scanned the pack of fairly nondescript folks standing in front of the hotel, and there he was: Paul, smiling and waving. My kind brother, 11 years my senior. The brother who, knowing my parents were barely paying attention during my teen years, took me aside to make sure I knew about birth control. The brother who climbed on and off of four planes to get to my crumbling wedding, which took place in the days just after Sept. 11. My brother who traveled for the baby shower after we adopted our daughter. My very sweet-natured brother who I always wished lived much, much closer.
But, this is also the brother who has become, in recent years, an avid right winger, arriving on this day in DC for the big Glenn Beck-inspired 9/12 Tea Party march on Pennsylvania Avenue. To me -- an earnest Obama supporter and Bush detractor -- "sweet" and "right winger" had come to seem mutually exclusive. Terribly, toxically so.
And yet there was Paul, who didn't seem to fit that bill. And here he was, getting off a bus he had booked himself onto through Glenn Beck's website. And here I was, picking him up and feeling suddenly anxious around him, but eager to see if he could help me challenge my own now-rigid constructs about conservatives. Did a kinder, gentler side of the right wing exist? If so, could he show it to me?
"Oh, there's the hater bus. And there are the haters," I told my husband Marty as we watched a slew of Tea Partiers collect their baggage.
"Stop," Marty admonished, ever the objective, middle-of-the road guy. We both laughed.
I got out and hugged my brother. None of his new buddies from the bus rushed over to attack our Prius. Maybe everything was going to be ok.
As Paul gathered up his luggage, I jumped out of the car and drew near the bus; I couldn't help myself. I wanted to view these folks up close. Most, I saw, were older -- 60 and higher. All were dressed very basically, in sweatshirts, ball caps, jeans, khaki pants. They were quiet. They were tired. They didn't stand out as a bus load of people who really, really don't want me to have an abortion or marry a woman; this could just as easily have been a bus unloading for a tour of Virginia's wine lands or a show at Ford's Theater. They must be saving their American flag-wear and vitriol for tomorrow, I reasoned.
Two older black men stood in front of the bus. They seemed to be on the job in some capacity at the hotel. "Hey, you know who's on that bus?" I asked them. I couldn't help myself. The words just spilled out.
They nodded, expressionless. I expected at least an eye roll but I didn't get it.
"My brother's on that bus. He's going to be staying with me. I do not support what they believe in." My god, apparently I was going to go around apologizing to everyone for the rest of Paul's stay.
"I do," said one of the men. "I support what they believe in."
"What?" I nearly spat, my upper half bending involuntarily forward.
"Obama's not doing a good job -- he's not getting things done. That has to change," the guy said, giving me a stern look.
I wilted and walked away. I thought the weekend might be stereotype-busting, but I didn't expect it to happen so fast, and like that, exactly.
* * * *
That night at the kitchen table, Marty, Paul and I talked through all of the issues about which my brother is agitated. For four hours.
The health care bill. The stimulus package. Obama saying a Cambridge cop "acted stupidly" in arresting a black professor in his own home, and the fact that Obama later said he should have "recalibrated" his comments, rather than actually apologizing. (Paul, a Boston guy, was really burned up about this.) The "main-stream media" which the right now refers to as the "MSM." "Czars," the right-wing term for the president's advisors (what -- didn't Bush have advisors?). Van Jones, Cass Sunstein and Mark Lloyd - all mid level political appointees nobody had heard of but whom Glenn Beck has taken on with a vengeance, so now the right wing is pissed about them, too.
Paul delivered to us the party line, the talking points. It all sounded a lot like what the far, far right was trumpeting during the campaign last year. The underlying message: Everything Obama has done is really just terrible -- criminal even -- and the MSM is paying no attention to it. None!
My husband, a reporter and editor who covers politics, is usually the most even-keeled guy in the room. One can yell right in his face about matters on the right or the left, and he stays calm like the Buddha. Calm because that's his nature, but calm also because he is armed with facts, and facts can fell a man, so why yell? The guy's got the finer points of the constitution, the stimulus bill, and the health care bill right there in his brain. Not someone's take on those documents, but the documents themselves. I love this about him.
But this night even Marty was getting upset. Because most of this stuff coming from Paul -- my sweet, smart, successful brother - seemed to defy logic. Most of it seemed to be channeling directly from mouths of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. In his defense, though, Paul was trying to vet it through Marty -- while at the same time trying to convince us of a lot of it.
"You're not a birther, are you?" Marty asked after we'd wrapped up about 45 frustrating minutes on what exactly is meant by "mainstream media."
"No. But where is his birth certificate? Why hasn't he shown it to anyone?" Paul said.
Marty and I shook our heads. "Want to see it? It's right here online." Marty called it up fast on FactCheck.org.
"Yeah, but where's the long form? Why is just the short form available?"
We just looked at him and winced.
"And can you tell me more about the Apollo Group?"
"Never heard of them," I said.
"That's the group that wrote the heath care bill. It's led by Bill Ayers and ACORN."
I wanted to shake him by the shoulders. "Paul? Paul!" I yelped. "Next you're going to start talking about UFOs!"
"Paul, like Obama or hate him, he's not an idiot," Marty said. "He's not going to re-involve himself with figures and organizations that caused him problems on the campaign trail. Also, organizations don't write bills - lawmakers do. Members of Congress, members of the Senate and their lawyers, their aides."
We Googled "the Apollo Group" and "health care" right there at the kitchen table for Paul. Big surprise: the only hit we got was on Glenn Beck's site. The Apollo Group -- at least one that has anything to do with health care -- doesn't exist. [We did come across the Apollo Alliance, a lobbying group focused on clean energy].
This was getting scary. So the far right is feeding people fiction about where bills come from. Sinister fiction. Fiction designed to re-ignite the fears that riled the right during the campaign. ACORN! (translation: black people) Bill Ayers! (translation: communists) Why let those fears die with the campaign? Use them.
Paul seemed confused, and a little knocked back. But he continued. "Ok, so why was ACORN renamed 'Organizing for America'?"
Marty said, "ACORN is still ACORN. Organizing for America is Obama's campaign website. Two unrelated things."
Ah, another fiction -- an effort to marry Obama's presidency with something the right can't stomach. I felt scared for Paul then. And others like him. He has bought deeply into an ideology. He trusts the ideology completely, so he doesn't question what they tell him is going on. It's loyalty over reason. And from what we were parsing out at the table, lots and lots of what he was being fed was and is patently false.
Paul was all about finding a private solution to the health care problem.
"After all, when has our government ever been known to do anything efficiently?" he said. "Social Security and Medicare are both going broke, we have an ineffective SEC, the FDA is controlled by drug makers. And now we're going to trust them to run health care? Don't we owe it to our children and grandchildren to explore private initiatives to solve our health care problems? Ones that, if successful, won't leave future generation hopelessly mired in debt? Think 1970s: a tax rate double what it is today, and inflation running three to four times what we see today. Is that really what you want?"
Marty pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only about 5 percent of Americans - about 15 million people -- would need the public option. About 100 million people in the U.S. are already on some form of "government-run health care" (Medicare and Medicaid recipients; veterans). There are no rallies about that.
Also, I wondered why conservatives weren't this upset about the SEC and the FDA under Bush, or all the debt Bush has left for us. But I just listened.
Paul continued. "Privately, what about a pension trust-type approach to fund the health care of the temporarily unemployed? Like 50 cents per insured per month held in trust by the insurance carriers? What about real tort reform? What about 'insurance without borders'? If we can agree that a private approach is bound to get things done more efficiently, why can't we relegate the federal government's role to a regulatory one - setting policy an assuring compliance?"
Paul was carrying around an interpretation of health care bill put together courtesy of 1) a right-wing Phoenix blogger named Peter Fleckenstein, and 2) the Liberty Group, a public interest law firm and ministry that provides free legal assistance in defense of "Christian religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and the traditional family." It was posted on the website of the Christian conservative organization American Family Association, which exclaimed, "You better read it because you will be forced to live with it!" Apparently this particular take on the health care bill was getting passed around like mad among the right, inflaming them to no end.
Paul wanted to go through this interpretation line by line with Marty. Marty was happy to do this. He called up the actual health care bill on Thomas, the Library of Congress's site for legislative documents, and away they went.
The problem, we soon saw? The popular Fleckenstein/Liberty Group version -- now a right-wing Internet sensation -- was different from the actual version. Most notably, the version Paul had was missing key lines - lines showing that the plan does not ration care for seniors, nor would it kill seniors, nor does it allow care for illegal aliens. Lines containing information that would serve to calm people down were gone - removed completely. But leave these lines in and how do you keep your base scared, angry and ready for combat?
Not surprisingly, Fleckenstein/Liberty invoke ACORN four times in their version of the bill, saying the organization would be responsible for promoting the plan and signing people up for it. Their take -- which contains lots of CAPS and exclamation points!!!! -- also indicates that the government, through the health care bill, will take control of everyone's bank accounts and siphon them dry. We read that section of the real bill. It indicates nothing of the sort. Great tactic for scaring old people, though.
Jaws were dropping all over our kitchen. Including Paul's.
Later, I Googled Fleckenstein's take on the health care bill, and learned that FactCheck.org had come across it as well. Their findings: only four of its claims are true, 26 were false and the rest were misleading.
And that's what the right is trumpeting as "the truth" about the health care bill. Turns out that North Carolina General Assembly member Rep. Curtis Blackwood (R) even sent the thing out to his constituents in a blast email. Yikes.
We all went to bed soon after that, with Paul and I both requiring sleep aids.
* * * *
The next morning he and I emerged at the top of the escalator at the Falls Church (Va.) Metro station, bound for downtown D.C., Paul with his rally sign and Tea Party shirt, me with my palpitating heart.
At the last minute, I decided I wanted to go with him. Why exactly, I still wasn't sure. To see these people. To hear them. To be a fly on the wall. To see if what they were saying made any kind of sense. To study their demographics. To study their signs. To understand who they are. To see if there is or can ever be any common ground. And to be with my brother, who doesn't know his way around DC, and who, despite his leanings, I'm still a huge fan of.
Nearly everyone on the platform seemed bound for the rally. They had signs. They had American flag garb. Many were attracted to Paul's sign. "Acting Stupidly. Recalibrate Now." One man from South Carolina immediately started talking to him about the Boston situation. He had a friendly face, and a sweet way about him, just like Paul. He drove up from South Carolina, he told us. He had his teenage son with him. A family thing, this was.
Then a couple in their 60s ascended the escalator and edged out the father and son. They also seemed nice enough - a botanist and his wife from Missouri. But as soon as that assessment of them began to cross my brain, Obama vitriol began to spill from them, tumbling out in such a collegial, conversational tone, it disoriented me. It was as if they were at a coffee klatch talking about their grandkids, but instead the guy was calling Obama's "czars" criminals and saying that Joe Wilson was right to yelp in the middle of Obama's speech because we need "spirited debate" in the chambers of the Capitol.
Paul told them he was from Boston. "Oh! How do you stand it?" the woman gushed. "I'm glad there are some nice people there."
Paul then explained who we were - that he's a conservative, and I, his sister, am a liberal. The couple laughed a little uncomfortably, then just continued on as before, with paranoid and mean-spirited topic after topic spilling out fast. The woman posited that the trains, which were running late, had been stopped by Obama, who feared this fierce movement. Almost in the same breath, she said that if anyone got injured during the march or the rally, they'd likely be poisoned in the hospitals. All this with a nice, Mid-western lady smile on her face. I had to step away for a minute. It was just too weird to bear.
A train came. It was jammed full. I got Paul to move down the platform to better position us for the next one. There, he fell into a conversation with an older woman festooned in a crocheted American-flag hat and sequined star earrings. She and Paul groused about czars and the like for a minute, then he told her about us. Her demeanor changed. "That's beautiful. That's family. And that's more important than all this," she said, waving her hand around the platform.
Her family was standing right behind her. There were about seven of them. "The spending, though," she said, "Oh I can't take all of Obama's spending."
"What about all of Bush's spending?" I asked.
She drew in close, looked back at her family to make sure they couldn't hear, and half-whispered, "I didn't support Bush - at least not for those last four years."
Her dirty secret was safe with me.
* * * *
The train moved very slowly, and we were packed in there like forks stacked in the silverware drawer. Almost no one was local, and everyone was talking. Paul and I were flush with a man who seemed to be in his 70s, and his son, likely in his 50s. The dad's hand, which held onto a cane, was bleeding fairly profusely. Neither men looked like they'd showered in a while. The dad told us in a heavy mountain drawl that he had six kids, and only one - the one with him today - was a conservative. He and Paul went over what had already become the day's well-worn topics, validating each other on all of it. The son nodded a lot. His greasy hair fell into his face.
About three inches away from my back, a blond guy in his 20s sporting a pork pie hat spouted conservative rhetoric like he was speaking in tongues. The energy radiating from him was like a jagged piece of sheet metal flapping hard and fast in gale-force winds. For the first time that day, I felt a bit frightened. So far everyone had used a friendly tone, regardless of what they were saying. Not this guy; he was pissed. He ranted about fighting the "new world order" and some sort of vaccine conspiracy. He spat about how the trains were always late and slow when conservatives tried to rally. He invited all in earshot to come see what he was talking about at changeforvirginia.org. I gave Paul a look that said, Oh my god, the guy needs heavy meds. Paul said, "Now, what's that website again?" I looked down and groaned.
The train stopped. A young woman stepped on. There was no room for her; she practically had to burrow into me to avoid assault by the doors. She was on her way to work, it looked like. She had an iPod. Her head was level with mine. She felt like an oasis to me. I told her about me and Paul. She smiled her support.
"Hey, you live here?" said the old bleedy man to her, across Paul and across me.
"Yes," she said, and looked at me with oh no in her eyes.
"So you work for the gov'munt?"
"No," she said.
"Everyone here works for the guv'munt, and everyone who works for the guv'munt is a lib'ruhl," he said.
"I work for a non-profit," she said, then added, "There's nothing I can do to change your mind about anything between here and Metro Center." She stuck her little white ear buds in.
* * * *
We arrived at the Federal Triangle station, right at the cusp of the march. People were handing out leaflets left and right. I took one titled "Brother, You Ain't My Keeper." It featured a typo-ridden essay about how condescending Obama is.
Before heading straight into the mob, we sought a bathroom break. The Ronald Reagan Building was letting people in, as long as one left one's signs outside.
I scurried in. As I came out, hurrying to meet back up with Paul, a random guy's stride matched mine. We walked together, inadvertently, for several steps, passing the sign that announced the presence of the Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in the building.
"Eww, the EPA," the man said, as if he'd just gotten some vomit on his hand.
"Yep," I said, "Right here in the Ronald Regan Building."
Outside, Paul was waiting with Susan, a local woman we'd met coming off the train. She'd told us that she felt very alone in Montgomery County, Md., a very liberal county in a very liberal state. Paul said he felt the same way in Boston. After that, she and Paul were buddies. Susan - originally from New York City -- told us she was a federal worker (I wish I could have doubled back and introduced her to the bleeding guy on the train) and that she was fairly sure it was against the rules to protest like this, but she couldn't help it. I liked Susan. She was sharp, she was courteous, she had thought through matters to arrive at her views; her stance did not seem knee jerk or ugly.
The three of us joined the crowd and began to walk then, east toward the Capitol with thousands of others. Paul seemed giddy, which reminded me of me at the two Obama rallies I'd attended, then the Inauguration, standing out in below-20-degree weather for hours and hours, suffering physically but smiling so wide I thought drool might start spilling from me. I adored the people I met on those days, and I could see Paul going through the same thing on this day. I was pleased for him, even though I found many of his views and his comrades scary.
As we got closer to the Capitol, the crowds grew thicker as did the population of hand-made signs. A lot singled out some policy issue. Health care. The stimulus situation. But most were far more broad, and many were hateful. Nancy Pelosi's head yanked sideways by a combination tea bag/fish hook. Obama's health care plan depicted as a killer of old people. Obama dressed as Robin Hood on a sign that read "Robbin' for the Hood." Obama with a Hitler mustache. Obama in white face a la the Joker, with black paint around his eyes, stitches and lots of red lipstick at his mouth. That eerie image was all over the place. Most posters and t-shirts bearing it read "Socialism."
It soon became clear to me: this march wasn't really about issues, per se, but rather about a searing disdain for Obama, no matter what he does or what policies he proposes. And these people, polite though they were to each other, were mad. About what, exactly, I wasn't sure. Losing the election? A black man in power? Fear of the unknown? Whatever the talk show hosts tell them to be? Or all of the above?
And this became sadly clear, too: even if Obama turned around and gave these protesters everything they wanted - everything -- they'd find some way to then hate that, too. No matter what, Obama bad. Liberals bad. Everything outside of the right wing: bad. Vilified to the point that even old ladies were pissed and stomping around.
Right at the corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth, then, it hit me: We will never all get along. We have not come any further than fifth graders on a playground, stratifying themselves via cliques and fallacies and aggression and the need to dominate one's neighbor. Everyone getting along and working together is just a silly fantasy. Best now to stop harboring it.
That landed with a thud in my heart -- bleeding heart that it is.
* * * *
Paul realized he hadn't been taking pictures. His camera was in his backpack. "Will you hold my sign?" he said.
"Sure," I said, and felt my fight or flight response kick in. But I took hold of it. For my brother.
Paul dug and dug for his camera as he walked. And he dug some more. Then he needed to do some adjusting and fiddling once he found it. I grew more and more nauseated about holding his sign. I gave it one more minute, then sidestepped over to Susan. "Susan, can you hold this?"
"What's wrong? Can't bear holding that sign?" she said with a playfully damning glare.
"No, I can't - just like you wouldn't be able to stomach holding an I-love-Obama sign."
She smiled, took the sign, and then stopped and put her hand on my shoulder. She looked for a split second like she might cry. "You are a good sister," she said.
Suddenly, amid the sea of mad Caucasians and "Don't Tread on Me" flags, there emerged a tall black priest with a megaphone. I trotted over to him, assuming he was a counter-protester. No such luck. He was belting out anti-Obama chants, and the crowd was loving him. Next we passed an anti-abortion truck, replete with a long-haired 20-something guy ranting that more babies have been killed in this country via abortion than Jews were during the holocaust. The black priest was there listening and nodding his approval. He was one of six black people I saw all day.
One man yelled, "We are 25 million strong today!" This made even Paul laugh. The crowd felt large, but 25 million? No, more like 70,000 to 80,000.
After about an hour, we arrived at the Capitol grounds, where the throng was alternately thick and then not. One woman randomly told us that she'd tried to use bathroom in the National Gallery of Art and had been told she'd need to turn her American flag upside down if she wanted to come in. That was probably some safety measure, but in her mind, it was just part of a big, hideous anti-American conspiracy, wrought by - who else? -- Obama. Those in earshot gasped. "Terrible," someone muttered. Conspiracy theories were the social currency of the day, and the marchers seemed to enjoy trading them.
At the Capitol, confederate flags abounded. So did signs and stickers asserting "Abortion is Not Health Care" (did someone say it was?). I saw guys standing around holding little brown copies of the constitution, grousing about the length of bills and asserting that Obama was to blame. In the distance, a speaker droned on about something, but the acoustics weren't great, nor were there any Jumbotrons so it was impossible to see who was speaking. Pretty soon a country band was playing, "Take Our Country Back" and people were chiming in with the chorus. Paul saw a little girl playing funereal music on a violin next to a sign about how awful Obama's health care plan is. "That was going too far," he said.
This gave me hope -- hope that there were at least some folks in this movement who were still thinking, and feeling something other than straight-up blind anger. I was relieved that my sweet brother found at least some of it too extreme. That was something to hold onto, at least.
* * * *
Putting Paul on the bus the next morning, a man agreed to take our picture for us. Paul put his arm around me, looked at the camera and said, "Say 'freedom'!" I sighed.
When he arrived back in Boston that night, he called and apologized for that.
"Paul, of all the things I experienced over the weekend, that's the one you're apologizing for?" I said, laughing.
He laughed, too. "Let's keep talking about all this," he said, then he added, "love you."
"I love you, too," I said back, realizing I didn't recall us ever having said that to each other before.