Give Me Liberty or Give Me...Meh

A Tea Party "die-in" to protest the tyranny of health care reform turns shockingly polite.

| Wed Dec. 16, 2009 6:00 AM EST

Yesterday, Tea Party activists converged on Capitol Hill to stage a "die-in" to protest health care reform. Originally, they'd planned to camp out in their senators' offices and simulate what it would be like to wait in line for government-run medicine. "As the day goes on some of us will pretend to die from our untreated illnesses and collapse on the floor," Tea Party Patriots national coordinator Mark Meckler explained on the group's website. "Many of us plan to stay there until they force us to leave." But instead of leaving a trail of prostrate patriots, the event ended up more like a run-of-the-mill lobbying day for AARP.

At 8:30 in the morning, those about to die gathered on the Hill to receive marching orders from Jenny Beth Martin, a bullhorn wielding TPP coordinator. After issuing assignments, Martin reminded everyone to leave anti-abortion and other off-topic signs outside and to stick to the day's talking points: fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. Soon they were off to navigate the corridors of the Dirksen and Hart Senate office buildings.

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Meckler, a California lawyer who's devoted all his time to the movement since February, headed for the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, who he said has yet to give the Tea Partiers the time of day. At her office, Meckler and two compatriots were rebuffed by a young woman who said the California Democrat wasn't available. "We feel we have a right to speak to the senator," Meckler responded. "We're tired of being ignored. We're here and ready to talk to her. If she's not willing to speak to her constituents, we will tell our national organization. We represent 15 million people. We only need five minutes of her time." No dice.

Meckler politely indicated that he would wait, and the three Tea Partiers settled into leather sofas to watch C-Span. Eventually, Boxer's press secretary came out and offered them literature on the senator's health care positions. Unsurprisingly, that failed to mollify them. Meckler said he'd keep waiting, noting, "It's comfortable here." If anyone was on the verge of keeling over, they were concealing their symptoms pretty well.
 
While the activists waited, they shared photos of their children and swapped health care horror stories. "I have experience with this kind of thing," Mark Petrina said of government-run health care. He'd spent nine years in the Navy and said he was almost declared AWOL when he tried to get private treatment for strep throat because military doctors wouldn't see him. 

Elsewhere in the Hart building, Jim Hehr, a retired industrial fireman from Buffalo, was searching for his senator, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer. Hehr located the right office and took a deep breath before heading in. He greeted the staffers at the front desk and told them that he was opposed to health care reform and thought it was distracting Schumer from his good work fixing the Federal Aviation Administration. The staffers promised to forward his thoughts to the senator.
 
Hehr had linked up with fellow Tea Partiers Lisa Walker and Laura Sharlin, a couple of sisters wearing American flag sweaters. The three met at Glenn Beck's 9/12 march in Washington, DC and had become fast friends. Walker is from New Jersey and Sharlin lives in Pennsylvania, so next they set off to see their respective senators, starting with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Walker had brought a letter outlining her grievances, which she delivered to a staffer, along with a speech about her opposition to health care reform, property tax increases, and cap and trade.
 
"He's not listening to us as far as the health care thing," she said. "I don't see why they have to tackle it all at once." She didn't ask to meet with the senator, nor did she perish in protest.

Next stop was was the office of New Jersey's other Democratic senator, Robert Menendez. Walker replayed her speech and delivered another letter. Her passion, it turned out, was driven in part by the economy. She was fired on New Year's Day from a job running the office of a drilling company. Her grown kids are still living at home and can't afford to move out. She was recently offered a job running a big office, payroll and all, for $8 an hour, which is less than her son makes washing dishes. Clutching her FreedomWorks folder, she told her story to Menendez's press secretary, Afshin Mohamadi, who listened seriously. "Not that I'm right. Not that I have all the answers," Walker confessed. "But I want people to know I can't afford this. My husband is an iron worker and that job will probably be gone soon." Mohamadi provided her with contact information for Menendez's health care staffers.
 
As they turn to leave, the Tea Party trio all but crashed into Chuck Schumer, whom Hehr recognized immediately and buttonholed with a quick line about his opposition to health care and support for Schumer's work on the FAA. Schumer fake smiled and did his utmost to escape into Menendez's office. After he disappeared, Hehr all but jumped into Walker's arms. "I got Chuck!" he exclaimed in disbelief. "He got Chuck! He got Chuck!" the sisters yelled. "Jim drove 800 miles to meet Chuck Schumer," Sharlin explained. He hugs her and they expressed a moment of joy that could have warmed the heart of even the most cynical Washington observer. After he calmed down, Hehr asked the sisters, "Did I do all right?"
 
Not every Tea Partier was as civil as Hehr or as grateful for even a fleeting moment of recognition. The office of public-option proponent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was besieged by two different groups: 80 folks from Cincinnati and another 15 from Cleveland. While the senator didn't meet with the activists, he made his chief of staff, Mark Powden, available to field questions. He also sagely dispatched his constituent services staffer to jump in anytime someone mentioned a lost unemployment check or trouble getting Medicare. She seemed to win some brownie points from the angry crowd. But Mike Prokop, who has been unemployed for two years, set the overall tone of the exchange when he told Powden, "We're highly concerned that communism has reared its ugly head." He wanted to know whether Canadians and other foreigners would get to bump him in line for health care under the reform plan. "Foreigners coming into our country, what line would they get into?"
 
The discussion then degenerated into a group rant about illegal immigration. Powden tried his best to bat down many of the misconceptions floating around, explaining that the bill would not cover undocumented aliens. Channeling Rep. Joe Wilson, a man wearing a bright red "Got Tea?" shirt yelled "You lie!" He started to look truly menacing, and some of his fellow protesters tried to pull him out of the group. Prokop suggested quietly that he might be frightening the staffers, to which the guy said, "They deserve to be frightened. They don't deserve respect. They're criminals." That prompted Powden to adjourn the meeting.
 
While the Ohio Tea Partiers may not have gotten the answers they were looking for, they at least got face time with a high-ranking staffer. The California delegation wasn't nearly so lucky. When I checked back in with them after noon, they were still comfortably ensconced in Boxer's office, hoping to get noticed. Instead of dying in disgust, they eventually decamped to see Sen. Joe Lieberman, whose staff promptly threatened to have them arrested.