Michele Bachmann invites tea partiers to Washington for another swig.

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Nov. 5 2009 9:33 PM

Bachmania

Michele Bachmann invites tea partiers to Washington for another swig.

Whether it was billing the event as a "Super Bowl of Freedom" or challenging conservatives to "scare" members of Congress, it worked. Rep. Michele Bachmann got thousands of protesters to flood the lawn in front of the Capitol building Thursday afternoon, joining her for what was originally described as a "press conference" but turned out to be a full-blown rally against health care reform—a mini-sequel to the 9/12 protest of two months ago.

"Hi everyone!" Bachmann said to the cheering crowd. "You came!" On short notice, too. Bachmann planted the seed only last week when she told Sean Hannity of Fox News that she hoped viewers would come to her press conference and then walk through the congressional office buildings, "up and down through the halls, find members of Congress, look at the whites of their eyes and say, 'Don't take away my health care.' "

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That's essentially what happened. After a brief introduction by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri *, who led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance—"It drives the liberals crazy"—and the National Anthem, Bachmann spoke of the protesters' place in history. "Thomas Jefferson said revolution every now and then is a good thing," she said. It reminded her of what Abigail Adams wrote to John Adams: " 'After all we've done, I wonder if generations unborn will know what was done for them.' … We are that privileged generation," Bachmann said.

Bachmann soon turned over the podium to actor Jon Voight, who in addition to starringin National Treasure, she said, is "a national treasure." Voight played the role of pundit admirably. "President Obama has his own obsession with trying to ram this health bill through and create a socialist America," he said. "We as freedom-loving Americans must not be scared into Obama's radical Chicago tactics. His agenda is not for the poor. It's solely for his political gain. His lies and propaganda are all very blatant, shown to us by those who exposed ACORN, which is as corrupt as all the president's czars."

Republican leaders took turns riling up the crowd as well. "I do think there is a rebellion going on in this country," said House Minority Leader John Boehner. "How else could you get 10,000 people to show up with only a few days notice?" Minority Whip Eric Cantor assured the audience that "your efforts to stop this bill are being heard loud and clear." Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee noted the number of women in the crowd and said the summer's town halls were "like an inoculation to prevent the illness that is Pelosi care. … So this is our booster shot!" "As a physician," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, "I've got a diagnosis. … Legislative malpractice!" (Best metaphor of the day went to Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who told the audience, "Go tell your Congress member that you're not going to eat this rotten, stinking fish that is Pelosi health care.")

Many protesters measured their anger in miles. A woman named Lisa drove all the way from Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday, even though she has to be in Michigan for a wedding Friday afternoon. "That shows how angry we are," she said. Others came from West Virginia, Florida, and Texas. Ruth McCormick drove in from Ridgeville, Ind., just to let Democrats know that "We're not going away."

Some of them dressed for the occasion. Before the speeches started, a man in a death costume grabbed a bullhorn and introduced two protesters dressed up as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Each was bound in chains and their clothes were spattered in blood. Baby dolls hung upside down from their chains. Around each wrist they wore bracelets made of what looked like small plastic fetuses. "Whyyyy?" moaned the Pelosi character. "Why did I kill the babies?" Nearby, Nancy Murphy of Annapolis, Md., complained that they were making the rally look bad. "We want you to write about this," she said, indicating the rest of the protest. "Not about that." Indeed, many protesters were still livid over media coverage of the 9/12 protest, particularly the phrase teabagger. "Do you see anyone here with nutsacks on their face?" said one man to me.

Their main grievance was health care reform—some periodically broke out into chants of "Kill the bill!"—but many protesters saw reform as a part of a larger problem of government overreach: the stimulus, bailouts, and proposed cap-and-trade legislation. Dolores, a woman from the Dayton area, objected to the lies she saw coming out of the White House. The last time she came to Washington to protest, it was during the bombing of Cambodia in 1970. "They were lying to us then, they're lying to us now," she said. Another woman went on about health care for a good five minutes before she asked whether I was aware that Obama showed "signs of the Antichrist."

As the speeches wrapped up, the day entered phase two: confrontation. The destination was Pelosi's office. When I arrived, staffers were politely greeting people and inviting them to sign the guest book. ("Kill the bill!!!"—again, popular.) Someone soon brought copies of the 2,000-page legislation, which protesters proceeded to rip up and scatter across the floor. Police intervened, and about a dozen people were arrested to cries of "Martin Luther King!" and "Letter From Birmingham Jail!" (They weren't the only peaceful resistors of the day. Nine pro-health care reform protesters were jailed after a sit-in in front of Sen. Joe Lieberman's office.)

Republican offices, meanwhile, were delighted. Frank Wolf of Virginia posted a sign on his office door: "We are here. Please come in. Thanks." Joe Wilson of South Carolina had a good 50 signatures in his guest book. ("He DID lie!") Blackburn, who had spoken at the protest, was receiving well-wishers and posing for photos. Scott Garrett of New Jersey was holding court before a crowd of 40 people mesmerized by his remarks on the powers enumerated in the Constitution.

That was the main difference between the 9/12 protests and Thursday's rally. While congressional Republicans largely responded to the September event, they spearheaded this one. Boehner stood alongside Jon Voight as he called Obama a liar and propagandist. (There were no calls for a Joe Wilson-style apology.) Cantor stood there while protesters raised signs suggesting that Obama "takes his orders from the Rothschilds," the family that was once central to theories of Jewish world dominance.

Thus did members of the GOP leadership court a subspecies of Republican that, as recently as a year ago, many would have ignored. (Many still do: Gov.-elect Chris Christie of New Jersey distanced himself from the tea parties during his campaign, and RNC Chairman Michael Steele was notably absent today.) Now, these fringe Republicans—with an assist by Bachmann, who first rose to prominence by suggesting that Obama wanted to round up young people up and send them to "re-education camps"—are taking over Congress. Or, for a day anyway, the Capitol.

Correction, Nov. 6:This article originally identified the speaker as Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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