JOE KLEIN'S ROAD TRIP
The caller's name was Donna. She came to praise Michele Bachmann, who was a guest on a conservative Des Moines radio show. But Donna just couldn't help herself. The very thought of Barack Obama sent her into a paroxysm of anger. He was going to destroy the country, she said. He was a joke, she said, winding herself up, searching for something outrageous that no one had yet said about the President of the United States. Finally, she found it: "I would vote for Charles Manson before this guy," and she pledged her support to Bachmann.
"Hey, thank you for saying that," Bachmann replied.
I recount this vomitous episode for two reasons. The first is, obviously, Bachmann's response. I'd like to think the Congresswoman was on autopilot and had tuned out yet another toxic anti-Obama rant. But still: Why is it that neither she nor the talk-show host stopped Donna at the beginning of the tirade and said, "Look, we're open to specific criticisms of President Obama on the issues, but out of respect for the office, we're just not going to tolerate hateful vitriol." Why is it that you just about never hear Republican candidates for President shut those haters down? (And yes, I'm aware that some on the left went overboard about George W. Bush, but we are comparing snowballs with avalanches here.)
The other reason the episode is important is that it is precisely the opposite of the nonstop civility I've been hearing, even from Tea Party people, for nearly three weeks on this road trip. Earlier that day, I'd met with about 20 residents of Ellston, Iowa (pop. 43), and nearby Sun Valley Lake (pop. 161). We met in the local Methodist church, which doubles as the Ellston public library. Most of the group were retirees from Des Moines. They were Republicans and Democrats, divided in that most traditional of ways: the men were Republicans; their wives, Democrats. All of them were worried about the state of the nation. None of them were screamers. "I disagree with the Tea Party on just about everything," said Jay Nichols, a retired banker. "I'm an old-fashioned Republican, and they're radicals. But I do admire the fact that they broke through, that they were outsiders who got the people in Washington to listen to them."
This has been a common sentiment on the road trip. As much as people may disapprove of the Tea Party's positions and intransigence, they disapprove of the phony, calcified rhetorical gridlock among Establishment politicians in Washington even more. And they are far more disturbed by the congressional leaders of both parties than by the President. "I didn't vote for Obama," said Val Bilbrey, who runs an insurance agency with her husband. "I used to consider myself a conservative Democrat, but now I guess I'm a moderate Republican. Most of us here in this room are probably one or the other," she said as heads nodded. "It seems to me the President is trying to do the right thing on a lot of these issues, but his hands are tied by Congress. And I guess the most disturbing thing is that people like us aren't speaking up. We're letting the extremists do the yakking. We're all boomers, more or less--maybe we should go back to what we were doing in the 1960s. Maybe we should be staging sit-ins, demanding that the Congress do something."