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March 11, 2010


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Essay: Tea Partying in Glenside with the disaffected

Early last Friday afternoon, Local associate publisher Larry Hochberger asked me if I had any interest in the President of the United States.

Don’t think there’s a reporter or editor anywhere in the country who would say no.

“Sure,” I said. “Where’ll he be?”

“Arcadia University,” Hochberger said.

The President was scheduled to address healthcare reform at the university. It was part of a barnstorming effort on his part to get some kind of legislation – stalled now for nearly a year – through an immobile congress.

I wasn’t thrilled. Arcadia is less than four miles from the Local, but in the world of the local press, it might as well be New Orleans. Why couldn’t Obama address healthcare on the lawn of Chestnut Hill Hospital? That would be news.

I didn’t bother applying for press credentials. Not that I wasn’t interested in what Obama had to say, but his speech – scheduled for 11 a.m. on Monday, March 8, at the Glenside campus – would be televised and the top story of every national and regional media outlet by 2 in the afternoon. By the time the Local hit newsstands on Wednesday morning, it would be old news.

Then, over the weekend, I got an e-mail from a group called the Independence Hall Tea Party Association. It’s an organization that, according to its Web site, “strive(s) to educate the general public regarding the principles of limited government, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.”

“By keeping a vigilant watch over the role of the Federal Government,” the statement continued, “we seek to protect the rights and liberties of all individuals and institutions, including state and local governments.”

The e-mail was a press release with a promising lead:

“At least a few hundred Tea Partiers are expected to descend on the sidewalks surrounding Arcadia University, tomorrow, to voice their opposition to Obamacare after having been denied a request to hold a Press Conference/Rally on Campus.”

Like most Americans, I had read about Tea Partiers but had never seen one in person. Their reputation was that of a mob against everything – from socialism to abortion, income taxes to food stamps. Tea Partiers were the new outsiders, replacing the old leftwing G8 and World Bank agitators.

The language of the release set the tenor for the coming conference well. The protestors were refused admittance to Arcadia’s campus despite the pleading of treasurer Don Adams. The group would be forced to congregate on the sidewalk at the corner of Easton Road and Limekiln Pike like common rabble. It was all the classic narrative of the protestor – the little guy couldn’t beat the system, but he could sure make a lot of noise and maybe cause some trouble.

The cause was to oppose “Obamacare,” as it was derisively called by the Tea Party press info. I still had trouble understanding what these guys had against healthcare reform. Why were they so afraid of the government yet so willing to rely on the insurance industry?

If I could get some answers, it would be a good story.

***

On Monday morning, as I approached the intersection of Easton and Limekiln, the air lacked the feel of populist revolt. Traffic on Easton Road was running smoothly. The sun was shining, and the pre-spring air was a warm 42 degrees. It didn’t look like hundreds of protestors had descended on the sidewalks as the Tea Party e-mail had promised.

When I reached the corner opposite the protest, it looked like about 100, maybe 150 tops. But what they lacked in sheer numbers, they made up for in decoration. The crowd, all white (except for several black police and university security officers who stood vigil under the university’s arch to keep the protesters off campus), waved colorful signs of every stripe decrying socialism, Obama and abortion. One giant signed featured an enlarged photo of the President bowing to Saudi King Abdullah. Below the photo was the ominous caption: “He bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia but not to We the People.”

On the corner, a man was seated waving an anti-Obamacare sign. He looked up at me and asked, “You from around here?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“What’s with Arcadia?” he asked. “Is it a black school?”

“No, it’s your typical school for suburban kids,” I said, wondering how else I might describe the average American institution of higher learning.

My conversation was cut short as the walk light allowed me to cross and the Tea Party press conference began with a chant from the crowd, “Kill the Bill! Kill the Bill!” I hurried across Limekiln and got a good spot between the cameras of a couple of the local news affiliates.

The first speaker up at the plywood podium was former Republican congressman Mike Fitzpatrick who is challenging Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Bucks) this fall for his old job back, representing the 8th congressional district.

Fitzpatrick was one of three promised congressional candidates to make the rally. Gloria Carolineo, who is running against Fitzpatrick in the Republican primary, was not there. Nor was 13th district candidate, Dee Adcock. Fitzpatrick didn’t waste the opportunity, and he gave the crowd what it wanted.

“We cannot sit back any longer and watch what is happening to our country and watch what’s happening to our health care system without saying something about it,” he said to a chorus of yips and woohoos.

Fitzpatrick assailed the current legislation, calling Obama’s urges to pass the bill “an ultimatum,” and said the President’s insistance on passing the legislation was “holding the country hostage.” He urged the President to consider “real solutions” like tort reform, which he said would save “$92 to $207 billion.”

But his message was not ultimately about numbers but big issue concerns. The government, Fitzpatrick said, wanted to become a “player” in health care and takeover one sixth of the nation’s economy.

“The legislation that President Obama is ramming through congress is nothing less than a government takeover of the whole health care industry,” Fitzpatrick said. “Under this bill the government will control the price of premiums of health insurance. Government with lobbyists and special interests would determine what services health care would cover. Government would establish dozens of small bureaucracies to regulate every aspect of what doctors can do, what services you can get and how it will be paid for.”

“We need to kill the bill,” Fitzpatrick continued. “We need to start over with free enterprise and free market solutions to healthcare. That is what made health care great in this country – made it the best healthcare system on the face of the earth – and it will do so again.”

But Fitzpatrick was only a warm-up for the next speaker, Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, N.J., and a candidate for Governor of New Jersey. Lonegan was billed as a man who “put taxpayers first, challenging public employee labor unions and left-leaning interest groups and keeping taxes low.” These were things for which the crowd cheered him before he even took the podium.

When he did speak, Lonegan’s prognosis of health care reform was far more dire than Fitzpatrick’s. Where Fitzpatrick saw an attack on the health care industry and said he had to “say something about it,” Lonegan described an assault on personal liberties, the solution to which was unclear.

“At stake for America is our future, our independence and our liberty,” he said.

Lonegan related a brief version of his biography. At 14, he said, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a deteriorating condition of the retina leading to blindness. By the time he was out of college, he was legally blind.

Despite these setbacks, Lonegan said he worked hard. When he was 16, his father died and the family moved in with his grandparents – immigrants, he said, from Sicily.

“I am blessed to have lived in an immigrant household where America was the most important thing in the world,” he said to a rush of applause. “Where my grandparents who spoke fluent Italian would not allow me to learn that language because they said ‘English is the only language’ (Applause!) They didn’t accept welfare. They didn’t accept government handouts. That’s the way I was raised (Big applause. “Me too!” yelled someone in the crowd).

Lonegan went on to assail the government in almost every manifestation. He blamed Affirmative Action for keeping him out of work as a young man. He talked about facing the possibility that he might be forced to collect Social Security disability benefits for the rest of his life.

“It was a very difficult time of my life,” he said. “Other people were getting married starting careers and I felt, I could feel that [sic] cold fingers of government wrapping around my soul.”

Lonegan would eventually succeed at turning a small cabinet and home remodeling business into one of the largest of its kind in New Jersey. He said it was possible through hard work and Reaganomics (“When Reagan was president, the economy grew”). He warned the crowd to resist health care reform, which was, again, an assault on core American values.

“America is about ingenuity, individual initiative,” he said “It’s about fighting for individuals and independence. Everybody talks about taxes and healthcare, but at the heart and soul of this battle is the heart and soul of what America is all about – independence and individualism. We’re not Europe. (Woooo!) We’re not Cuba (Noooo!) We’re not Venezuela! (NOOOOO!) We’re the USA!”

At this point the crowd took up the chant: “USA, USA, USA.” Lonegon left the podium having given a star turn. The crowd was thrilled with his words, but I still couldn’t tell why the government should inspire such fear.  The “cold fingers of government wrapping around my soul”? How could a crowd ready to chant “USA” over and over be so distrustful of the government? Some in the crowd waved copies of the Constitution. Why was the government, the one established by the pamphlet in their hands, deserving of such scorn?

***

Lonegan was followed by much less inspiring speakers. Dr. Robert Sklaroff, M.D. seemed reasonable enough. He spoke in favor of the favorite conservative reform measures like tort reform, health care savings accounts and interstate competition. He even sounded reasonable when he argued that the Constitution prohibited the government from compelling the populace to buy heath insurance.

But even the doctor couldn’t resist dipping his rhetorical finger in conspiracy.

“They’re going to keep pushing and keep unemployment rates elevated so more people say,” ‘gee this could help me,’” he said. “So it’s very important that we sustain this effort.”

Talk show host Dom Giordano followed, but did little more than plug his 1210 AM “Big Talker” radio show and stump for Fitzpatrick.

So that was that. The sum of the press conference was that the government was bad, free enterprise and America were good, and that very simple fixes like tort reform and interstate competition would put the country back on track.

I walked to a line of protestors along Limekiln prepared to ask a few of them my unanswered question: Why was our government so awful and why was private industry, which in part had oiled the chute for the current recession, so worthy of our trust and faith?

As I approached the line, a young black man – perhaps just the Arcadia student with which these protestors expected to tangle – driving up Limekiln slowed, rolled down his window and yelled, “What’s wrong with health care reform?”

Several of the protestors leaned down to shout back at him.

“It’s not about healthcare!” yelled one.

“He’s a socialist!” cried another.

“Obama is a radical!” shouted another. “This is a government takeover!” 

I packed up my recorder and notebook and headed for the office. There was no logical answer to my question or any other at the corner of Limekiln and Easton. For the Tea Party crowd, the government is a front for special interests — minorities, welfare recipients, labor unionists, closet socialists and a long list of other groups in conspiracy to bilk the nation, and thus the working population, out of their hard-earned dollars.

How can you have a political conversation with a group that assumes the President is a bag man?

For the Tea Party crowd, healthcare is not a policy debate. It is a battle for the soul of a nation — a winner-take-all slugfest between the socialist ills of big government and the life-affirming virtues of capitalism. Prone to fits of grand conspiracy theory, they see themselves as the few who recognize the clear and present danger to the American Way, even if they can’t define what that way is, they sense the grounds shifting beneath them and want to fight back.

I can say this: They seemed to enjoy the fight. These were people full of smiles and laughs (there were lots of knees slapped when a speaker Dr. Sklaroff mentioned the word “teleprompter.” Apparently, that Obama uses a teleprompter is a riot). Apparently, none have had a rough time with health insurance, yet.

It makes one wonder: if this crowd of conspiracy theorists manage to pressure legislators away from health care reform, if they succeed in making the bill a referendum on patriotism, how many of them will be smiling next year?

Here, I think I’m with the Tea Partiers: If they succeed, the loss would be so much more than just health care.

 



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