Bachmann positions herself at the front of the impromptu greeting line. “I’m Congresswoman Michele Bachmann from Minnesota,” she says, gripping a scrap of yellow police tape. “Welcome to your memorial!” Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, who like Bachmann voted against the rule on the penultimate continuing resolution, appears out of nowhere, dressed down to shirtsleeves, shaking hands and telling people about “what I just said on Fox News—what are they gonna do next, put drapes on Mount Rushmore?”
The veterans slowly make their way into the memorial. The crush of politicians and reporters makes it slower. Missouri’s two senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, accompany them in. They brush past congressmen from Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota, and Michigan, whose states are not actually represented in the Honor Flight today.
“Is this your first Honor Flight?” asks a reporter.
“Oh, gosh no!” says McCaskill. “The thing that’s a little confusing is the number of people here who don’t have honor flights from their states to play politics on the backs of veterans, which I think is bad news.”
“Do you think the Park Service will arrest these veterans?”
“Of course not!” says McCaskill. “People who work in the Park Service have a lot more common sense than people in the Tea Party.”
The drama-cum-circus spreads around the memorial. Huizenga finds himself in a short shouting match with a tourist who’s standing outside the memorial, looking down at him.
“Do your job!” yells the tourist.
“We tried to fund the veterans and the parks, and the Democrats blocked it,” Huizenga says.
“You didn’t try! Why don’t you vote for a gun ban and maybe the Democrats will stop Obamacare,” the tourist says.
There is, fortunately, enough space left over for the veterans to enjoy their memorial. Gaza Bodnar, a Navy veteran from Missouri who helped with the landing on Okinawa, Japan, regales me with the story of the occupation and the party that broke out when the troops learned that a nuked Japan had surrendered, preventing a bloody land invasion. “I think we shot every bullet we had into the air,” Bodnar says.
What does he want Congress to do, to end the shutdown? “It’s terrible. Somebody wants something, they knock him down. Why can’t they make a deal? Obamacare is not going to affect me whatsoever, because I go through the veterans’ hospital. I don’t know ... it’s nice if they can take care of people,” he says.
But it’s not like the nonagenarians walking the memorial are willing to become health care pundits. They, like the parks, were supposed to be victims of the House GOP’s intransigence. The House GOP wants to prove that they’re really victims of a reckless President Obama. Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer spots the bureaucrats sliding back the barrier and starts to confront Johnson again. Beyond the barrier, another heckler tries to rattle him.
“Why don’t you go back to Congress and do your jobs?” the heckler yells.
“Why don’t you get a job?” snaps Neugebauer.
The heckler, a Harvard Ph.D. student named Matthew Kustenbauder, calmly moves away as Honor Flight workers tell him to keep it civil. “The nerve of him to say ‘get a job,’ ” says Kustenbauder. “For all he knows, I’ve been furloughed.”
Neugebauer goes back to work—i.e., back to berating Johnson—but is surprised by another heckler, a 62-year-old furloughed worker named Jim O’Keefe.
“This woman is doing her job!” he says. “The government won’t do its job and pass its budget.”
“The House did its job,” yells a Republican staffer.
O’Keefe makes his way out of the memorial. Carter, who heard the exchanges, asks O’Keefe where he works. The Department of Homeland Security, says O’Keefe.
“I’m the chairman of that subcommittee,” says Carter. “We’ll have you back to work.”
“OK, and you can go back to work!” O’Keefe says.
“I am working. I’m here on the request of my veterans,” Carter says.
“You’re not doing your job. You’re grandstanding,” O’Keefe says.
“OK,” sighs Carter. “Have a nice day.”
“I’m having a bad day!” says O’Keefe as Carter walks past. “And so are the people who work for me and don’t know how they’ll pay their rent!”
There’s a small smattering of applause, but O’Keefe doesn’t smile. Why, he asks, is there so much coverage of this—CNN over there, Fox over here—and nothing about the average government employee. “They’re focusing on National Parks and monuments,” he says. “I gotta put a lot of that on journalists. They should dig a little deeper and get the real story.”