In front of the steps where President Obama was sworn into office in January, one protester's sign at the Capitol Hill House Call on Thursday asked, "Ken-ya Trust Obama?" Another featured a pile of lifeless bodies from the Dachau concentration camp under the banner, "National Socialist Health Care."
The images were disturbing, disgusting and impossible to miss. But they were also vastly outnumbered by the thousands of other hand-made posters, most written with red and blue markers, that bobbed up and down in the crowd as the event began and country music played over the loudspeakers.
"This is one Angry Mom!" read one sign. "Rx for America: Freedom!" said another. "My Congressman is Crazy!" another one asserted, alongside a large photograph of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).
Kristinn Taylor co-founded the conservative group Free Republic and says that the most incendiary signs on the Capitol lawn did not represent the massive movement that he says has taken hold among disenchanted conservatives who worry about the direction of the country under the Obama administration.
"This is coming from people's hearts; it's not coming from any group in Washington," he said. "These are good, decent, hardworking people who love their country."
Like other protesters who had come from Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Taylor drove through the night from Florida to be at the event.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said she originally envisioned the day as impromptu meet-up to protest the health care bill moving through the House. But an enthusiastic response from her Republican colleagues last week and Sean Hannity announcing the event on his show caused the event to morph into what the congresswoman dubbed "the Super Bowl of Freedom."
She stepped up to the microphones and welcomed the 5,000-plus crowd with a boisterous, "You came!!" The rally also featured the full Republican leadership of the House of Representatives, talk radio host Mark Levin, Cliff (John Ratzenberger) from "Cheers," actor Jon Voight and Bachmann herself leading chants of "Kill the Bill! Kill the Bill!"
Carol Macht did not bring a sign to the rally but did bring hundreds of pink slips of paper for people to give to their representatives in Congress, which passers-by grabbed in chunks of 10 and 20 at a time. She drove from Laurel, Md., because she thinks the government is spending too much money and rewarding the wrong people.
"For me, it was the stimulus bill," she said. "I own several businesses and I'm trying to get myself out of them because the government is taking a larger and larger share. I'm making sacrifices for my family, I'm sacrificing my time, my energy and I feel like it's not going to ever pay off."
Dale Darnes said he came because he worries about health care reform hurting his wife. "My wife has some health problems, she visits excellent doctors and my concern is that if Obama and the Democrats get this bill passed, she won't be able to see the same doctors," he said.
A recent McClatchy poll echoed Darnes' and Macht's anxiety. It showed that while a huge majority of Democrats still approve of the job the president is doing, just 21 percent of Republicans do. Most important, the president's approval rating among independents has fallen to 45 percent, down more than 10 points since the beginning of August and an all-time low in that group. On specifics such as his handling of the economy, health care and jobs, the president's numbers were all below 50 percent.
Carol Schnapp, Jane Cosco and Sue Buchthal have never participated in politics before this year, but said their frustration with disconnected politicians, including New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, drove them to action. "I said to Carol, I've got to stop screaming at the TV, stop screaming at the radio in the car," said Cosco.
The friends decided to take the train down from New Jersey to Washington to attend Thursday's rally and to talk to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, about why they oppose the health care bill.
Once at his office, Cosco said, a staff member told them that Lautenberg was not available to meet with them because he was on the floor of the Senate doing business.
"We left, walked around the corner and looked back," she said. Because each office in the building features floor-to-ceiling windows, they could see not only the reception room where they had been, but also the office next to it. "Lautenberg, our senator, was in the next room having his photo taken," she said. "They lied to us."
Undaunted by their Senate experience, the ladies from New Jersey gathered their bags and headed across Capitol Hill to find their congressman to ask him to vote no on health care reform. After attending the rally and walking through the Capitol, they vowed they would be active during 2010 elections. Said Schnapp with a smile, "At least we'll be doing something instead of complaining."