WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- "Where do you stand?" Art Durazzi asked me. He wasn't belligerent or angry when he looked me in the eye. He just wanted to know, could he trust me?
I told him I stand for my country, which I do, and I have relatives who've served in the military, also true. He relaxed.
That's where we -- "we" meaning Americans – are right now. The 50 or so Joe Wilson supporters who gathered outside the now famous South Carolina congressman's office here on Friday evening don't trust many things, certainly not the Democrats' health-care reform plan. They may take issue with Wilson's manners but agree with his message that illegal immigrants would benefit, a claim
Most folks I spoke with said they were sick of being caricatured when all they want is what they think is best for America. And they think that Joe Wilson
They have that sentiment in common with the sign-carrying protesters on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday. But their love of country and fear of what it's becoming is also shared, I'm sure, with the pro-Obama, pro-health plan crowd that packed the president's weekend Minnesota rally
. The president's supporters don't like the anger on display at town-hall meetings and think that Wilson's "You lie!" outburst is no rallying cry but a sign of what's wrong with our country.<
Wilson's supporters in West Columbia didn't yell or scream. But if President Obama is looking for common ground, he won't find it here. Durazzi, 66, doesn't live in Wilson's district but traveled from Lake Wylie with his wife, Sal. He wanted to make sure I wouldn't question the sincerity of his beliefs, though he questioned Obama's: Why is it taking this president so long to find a church -- "longer than it took to find a dog for his girls"? His wife worried about debt, their six children and six grandchildren, and Obama "changing the Constitution."
Tommy Richardson, a veteran from Lexington County, was with his congressman all the way: "To be honest with you, why not? The liberals get to say whatever they want to say." Like many at the rally, he voted for John McCain but is not a big McCain fan because he doesn't think the Arizona senator is tough enough on illegal immigration, either.
Paul Hopper of Lexington brought along his 5-year-old daughter, who was having fun running up and down the stairs. Her T-shirt urged a vote for Wilson; Hopper's read "Commies Aren't Cool," with a line drawn through Che Guevara's face. Hopper said he doesn't appreciate Obama "schmoozing with [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez," with whom Obama shared a handshake and a few civil words earlier this year. Wilson may have had "a breach of protocol," he said, "but he spoke for a lot of people."
Hopper, 46, who actually sells health insurance, said he knows there are a lot of problems in the system, particularly if you have "pre-existing conditions." But he said the insurance companies are "handcuffed" by regulation, and believes opening up competition across state lines and tort reform would fix the problems.
Friday's gathering was not quite official, though Richard Bolen, chairman of the Lexington County Republican Party, and Bill Connor, a candidate for lieutenant governor, spoke briefly. And you have to wonder if South Carolina politicians possess a sense of irony or history: A letter Bolen distributed read, "Representative Wilson has essentially engaged in civil disobedience by breaking the rules of Congress for a greater purpose, continuing a long and proud tradition in southern politics," calling to mind the filibusters Wilson's late mentor Strom Thurmond waged to block civil rights legislation. (That's particularly unfortunate since Wilson denounced
Thurmond's black daughter in 2003 when she revealed who her daddy was.) Then Connor declared: "If we give up here, we become slaves."
The reddest of red-state rhetoric came in Loren Spivack's speech. Spivack, who had spread the word about the rally, was last seen in the news and on Glenn Beck's show when the lease for his Free Market Warrior kiosk
(with its anti-Obama merchandise) was not renewed by the owner of the Concord (N.C.) Mills mall at the end of July.
"Dare to say no to Obama and socialism," he said, and derided what some in the crowd called "poodle Republicans" who "wanted to sit quietly and be polite" and "just socialize a little bit."
"This is our Revolutionary War," Spivack said to some applause. "Our country is under threat." He handed out fliers for his online shop, which offered a dwindling supply of Obama as the Joker posters. "Get one before they become a collector item!"
At the edge of the crowd, Matthew Gates, a 32-year-old attorney, and his wife, Lori, took it all in. The Lexington couple had just stopped by to support their congressman. Gates is not "aboard with socialist" talk. Obama, he said, is "just carrying on the traditions the Democratic Party" has always fought for, "more centralized control of policy." He'd rather see decisions made at the state level. The federal government should just "keep borders safe and take care of national security," according to Lori Gates. On health care, "I'm not saying we don't need a change," she said, uttering an Obama word I had not heard during the rally. "I'm not sure that they've found the right solution."
Her uncertainty was the evening's most optimistic sign of bipartisanship.
Where do Americans stand? On either side of a widening chasm, with our guards up.