The Speaker's Lobby: Words Have Power

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

27 March 2010

I've heard about death panels for months. But I could never locate them in the health care reform bill.

I finally found them.

The health care rhetoric was so vitriolic, so combustible, so venomous, that it exercised people of all political persuasions to call and email Members of Congress and threaten to kill them.

There's your death panel.

Could there be any other outcome? People have been frothing at the mouth for months.

It started last August with town meetings that blistered with bombast. Then Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) jeered "you lie!" at President Obama during a Joint Session of Congress. And on the night the House finally passed the bill, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) yelled that a deal the White House crafted to secure the votes of pro-life Democrats was a "baby killer."

There were other episodes, too. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) threw Republicans into an uproar after he declared that the GOP health care plan was to "die quickly."

So now the Capitol Hill switchboard and email systems are smoking with people carpet-bombing Congress with their views on the health care bill. Most of the comments are civil. But some crossed the line.

Some callers targeted Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) after he led the effort to carve an abortion agreement with the White House. One caller told the Michigan Democrat  "there are millions of people across the country who wish you ill." Another told the former Michigan state trooper "I hope you die."

Then someone sliced the gas line at the home of Rep. Tom Perriello's (D-VA) brother. A coffin showed up in the yard of Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO). Vandals ravaged the offices of Reps. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY). Someone even mailed Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) a condom.

Meantime, Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Andre Carson (D-IN) say some protesters called them the "N"-word as they walked to the Capitol. And police detained a man who spit on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO).

Republicans weren't immune, either.

One caller left a profanity-laced message on the voicemail of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH). I won't transcribe it here because I'd probably wear out the "M" and "F" letters on the keyboard. But the caller wished Schmidt had broken her back when she was hit by a car while jogging last year. The same caller also threatened to shoot those demonstrating at the Capitol with "my f**king nine millimeter."

On Thursday afternoon, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) called a news conference to announce that he "has been directly threatened" and that he had "received threatening emails."

Cantor, the highest-elected Jewish official in the country and the only Jewish Republican in the House, also said that "a bullet was shot through my campaign office in Richmond this week."

Cantor then called out Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), for "dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon." This came after Van Hollen told MSNBC that Republicans were embracing "what they consider to be the political benefits from these activities."

Cantor's remarks then prompted a fierce proxy war of charges and countercharges volleyed between his spokesman Brad Dayspring and Van Hollen's spokesman Doug Thornell.

Thornell accused Cantor of leveling "false accusations" and "deflecting responsibility." Dayspring returned the salvo by saying Van Hollen  "should listen to Mr. Cantor's statement where he repeatedly called for restraint and condemned violence."

Thornell then called Cantor's press conference "bizarre and abrupt" and added that the Republican Whip had produced no evidence that Democrats were using "these incidences as a political weapon."

The back and forth was enough to give a journalist whiplash. And it creates a problem for reporters covering all of this political strife. We're the referee in the middle. And we can't keep up.

The health care debate has devolved the spin and propaganda to an unprecedented state in Washington. The enmity is so fierce that that every move, every assertion, every interpretation is questioned. And nearly every fact is shaded.

This doesn't help reporters.

It started last weekend with the reports that protesters spewed a racial epithet at John Lewis and Andre Carson. Within moments of FOX posting the story online, my phone and email lit up. People demanded "where was the proof" that protesters shouted a slur. Many of those complaining asked why I reported that "Tea Party" members badgered the Congressman.

First, I was careful to note in our story that it was simply "protesters." I have no idea who these people may be associated with. What's to separate a garden variety protester from a member of the Tea Party? After all, they don't all wear "T's" on their sweatshirts. Secondly, without video or a police report, I had no direct evidence there had been a slur. But it was important to hang the allegation on those who said they were verbally harassed: Lewis and Carson.

Still, people browbeat and badgered me. Some emails intimated that the lawmakers fabricated the entire incident. Others said that Democrats infused race into what was already a tumultuous political melee so they could stage their walk to the Capitol last Sunday arm-in-arm with Lewis amid the sea of demonstrators.

More than one Republican told me that the scene seemed a little too convenient.

Then came the debate over Emanuel Cleaver.

Unlike with Lewis and Carson, FOX did capture video of Cleaver walking into the Cannon House Office Building, and then turning and angrily shaking his finger at someone in the crowd. However, there was no "Roberto Alomar" moment. In a well-documented 1996 incident, cameras clearly captured Baltimore Orioles' second basemen Roberto Alomar spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck during an argument. The FOX video showed that someone truly provoked the usually mild-mannered Cleaver. But the pictures don't show saliva splattering into the Congressman's face.

Again, there were protests. What proof do we have that Cleaver was spit upon?

Fair point. But U.S. Capitol Police detained a man. And Cleaver released a statement saying someone spit on him. But was the video conclusive? Hardly.

Bottom line: the camera can lie. And it can raise more questions than provide answers. See Zapruder, Abraham and the 486 frames of film he shot in Dallas in 1963. Or try  the Pentagon security cameras on September 11th.

But with everyone pitched into battle mode, no one trusted anyone on Capitol Hill the past few weeks. As soon as Bart Stupak's office released the hateful voice messages, some on the right accused him of making them up. Then Jean Schmidt received her voicemail and Eric Cantor spoke about the bullet incident in Richmond. And some Democratic operatives suggested to me that those events seemed "orchestrated."

The contretemps grew worse on Friday when Richmond, VA Police spokesman Gene Lepley declared that the episode at Cantor's office was "a stray bullet as a part of random gunfire." And some on the left criticized reporters and Cantor for jumping to conclusions while police were still investigating. Still, some even sounded an anti-Semitic tone and said the only reason "the media" cared about Cantor is because he's Jewish.

Never mind that Cantor regularly receives an inordinate amount of threats because he's a high-profile Jewish politician.

In addition, some viewers, readers and listeners criticized this reporter just for identifying Cantor as Jewish. Some asked why it was important to distinguish Cantor from the rest of those serve in the House leadership who happen to be Christian.

Then there's the so-called "Slaughter Solution."

For days, Republicans churned out press releases charging that Democrats were playing fast and loose with the rules to pass health care through a unique parliamentary device called "deem and pass."

First of all, I thought that the untrained parliamentary ear could interpret "deem and pass" as "Demon Pass." Which to me, sounds like a ski resort in the Canadian Rockies. Louise Slaughter chairs the Rules Committee. And the legislative tactic of "deem and pass" had to initiate with her. So the GOP labeled it "The Slaughter Solution." Regardless of the merits or demerits of the procedural gambit, Republicans pirated Slaughter's surname. First of all, "Slaughter Solution" sounds a lot like the "Final Solution." And secondly, "Slaughter" speaks for itself. Never mind that Slaughter's maiden name is McIntosh.

In the end, Democrats abandoned that parliamentary sleight-of-hand and handled the bill the old-fashioned way.

Then there was the journalistic nightmare of chasing down another lawmaker who had a "Joe Wilson moment" in the House chamber Sunday night.

No one knew exactly who said it. Only it came when Bart Stupak was speaking. And it came from the Republican side of the House chamber. The first suspect was Rep. John Campbell (R-CA). Campbell came out to the Speaker's Lobby behind the House chamber three times to deny it. Then attention turned to Rep. George Radanovich (R-CA). For a moment, someone thought it was Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL). Others conjectured it could be Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX), John Carter (R-TX) and Neugebauer, who were seated in a cluster.

Interestingly, the Californians blamed it on the Texans and the Texans targeted the Californians. And several Republicans, knowing the shout emanated from their side of the chamber, claimed it was someone in the viewing gallery.

Radanovich even put out a statement titled "I Did Not Say It."

Finally, Neugebauer admitted he said it. But added a twist. In a statement, Neugebauer said he didn't just holler "baby killer" but in fact yelled "It's a baby killer." And he said he wasn't yelling at Stupak, but at the agreement itself.

This time Democrats yelped.

"He clearly said 'baby killer,'" said one Democratic aide. Still, a review of the tape is again inconclusive.

But one member of Congress shouting that a political arrangement is "a baby killer" is a lot different than a member of Congress accusing another member of Congress of being a "baby killer" on the House floor.

Last September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) showed a rare moment of emotion and fought back tears when asked about the frenzy of the August town halls and Joe Wilson.

Without prompting, Pelosi said she "saw this myself in the late '70s in San Francisco."

Pelosi said "it created an environment in which violence took place."

In 1978, a former San Francisco Supervisor assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to win major elective office in America.

On Thursday, I asked Pelosi if the recent invective made her again think of the killings of Moscone and Milk.

"Words have power. They weigh a ton," Pelosi said. "And they are perceived differently by people depending on their, shall we say, emotional state."

There are people on both sides whipped into a frenzy in this health care debate. Many of the threats are just words. But the threats are real. And as the speaker said "they weigh a ton."

U.S. Capitol Police are taking extra precautions to make sure lawmakers are safe. Even Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin has been the target of threats.

"We have to take responsibility for words that are said," Pelosi continued.

Still, the embers smolder. And Democrats and Republicans continue to accuse one another of egging their loyalists on.

Late in the week, senior sources on both sides of the aisle signaled that the House Democratic and Republican leadership was working on a joint, bipartisan letter. It would denounce the heated rhetoric and urge calm.

The letter never came.

-         Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award, the Joan Barone Award and a National Headliner Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

-         The Speaker's Lobby is a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais in the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.