A Part of History at the Steps of the Supreme Court
In the city we live, history gives us a kiss, soft, whispery and insistent almost every first-cup-of-coffee regular day. It is a subtext to our daily life in ways that do not exist anywhere else in the United States.
So, on a Thursday morning, like any other June 28—already dubbed historic at the break of day—you walk down the street like anybody else, chat with an old friend back in town, say hello to the French-Canadian woman and her four-year-old daughter on the way to the day care center, wave to the folks at Joseph’s House and watch the fire truck pull out of the station house, see the young men plugged in abd wearing ties, the professional young women with their damp hair on the bus and flinch at the soreness in your knee, wondering if it counts as a pre-existing condition.
On this day, unlike the day before, it’s a concern. It’s an ordinary day in your Adams Morgan-Lanier Heights neighborhood, heat rising, cats and dogs on the move, kids off to school, and the connector bus turning the corner from Columbia Road to Calvert Street on its way to the Woodley Park Metro Station, but it’s anything but ordinary at the Supreme Court of the United States on Capitol Hill. Up here, history doesn’t just give you a buzz on the check, a peck-peck, Italian-style, it’s a full-blown smack on the lips, a suffocating as well as exhilarating full bear hug.
This day was the day that Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed by the president in March 2010) would meet its fate at the hands of the Supreme Court which would hand down a decision on the constitutionality of the bill’s most high-profile, and controversial, mandate forcing Americans to buy health insurance and imposing a penalty if they did not. Most experts in the days leading up to this decision agreed that if the mandate were declared unconstitutional, the rest of the bill would likely be in tatters or even not be upheld at all, including a popular pre-existing illness coverage portion. The rune-readers had also predicted that if the bill would be saved in any way, it would be swing-vote Justice Paul Kennedy who would provide the difference-making vote, as he usually does in any 5-4 decision between hard-to-the-right and hard-to-the-left.
By 9 a.m., all the usual suspects were there: Walt Whitman’s tumultuous crowd of Americans, the pro-life folks, some in strident dark, one dressed in a death-devil cold mask, belly dancers who were part of a logical-pragmatic-sounding group in favor of single-payer health care and doctors. They opposed the mandate but wanted everything else left, according to Kevin Zeese of Baltimore. His cause was helped by the ladies in red, Jennifer Carpenter and Adele Singer from Berkeley Springs, Va.
A priest was marching toward the gathering hundreds, maybe even a thousand, in front of the white-columned Supreme Court on First Street, NE. A young man was warning him that a local reporter who had questioned him before might be there. “You stay at my side at all times,” the priest said. “Keep me from saying anything stupid.”
I don’t know what happened to the priest, but every reporter in the world seemed to be there, including a sweating thin man whispering excitedly into a microphone in Spanish, every other word “Obamacare”. There were doctors dressed up in white, on both sides of the issue. “I’m interested in single care,” one doctor said. “But I’ll tell you I have idea what’s going to happen. None whatsoever.” A young medical student from Georgetown University Medical Center was there to “support the bill.” “I’m hopeful,” she said. “Very hopeful.” Her dog Ellie was also there, doing her bit.
Before the announcement -- and few people seemed to know how it would be made -- competing and middle groups abounded. You could hear banging drums, the honking of horns, chanting for or against Obamacare, for women’s health, or against pro-choice and religious groups hostile to Planned Parenthood. One member sported a sign: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” A poet, no doubt. "We are individual citizens," said one young man from New Mexico, but deserted me when he found out I worked for a newspaper.
You found young people all over place, articulate, raccous, loud, smart as nails, opiniated, really noisy and to the point. Alex Mizenko, from Tom’s River, N.J., was a George Washington University student who majors in public health policy and minors in political science and constitutional law. He figured to be somebody good to talk with. “This bill is the president’s signature bill,” he said. “If they uphold it, it’s law. It’s not a perfect bill, or the best bill, but it’s a start. So here they are talking about repealing it before it's uphold. It’s a start, and you can’t really go back. They might shoot down the mandate; they might not uphold it. I hope they do.”
And so it went—a group of young and not so young conservatives made their political points—“People forget…this is a republic, we are citizens of a Republic not a Democracy.”
You couldn’t tell by the crowd, which was huge, diverse, young and old, undisciplined and passionate. The general feeling—from people on both or all sides of the issues—was a suspenseful feeling of not-quite-certainty.
“We’re bold progressives,” said Sophie Vick, who had worked on foreclosure defenses. Her friend, Rob Wohl, a tall, gangly curly-haired supporter of Obamacare stuck up a fist at a “Repeal It” sign.
In front of us, as we spoke, someone yelled, “The press guys are coming down.” There were boos coming from the right-to-life group. And then cheers arose from the "Support Obamacare" group. “What are they booing about?” Wohl asked. Suddenly, the crowd parted in front of me as NBC News Supreme Court reporter Pete Williams plunged through. “What happened, what happened?” we yelled at him. “Upheld, upheld, gotta go, gotta go,” he responded and went.
In that moment, the couple in front of me and their friends looked like they’d been poleaxed. People were checking their cell phones all around them, either texting, tweeting or squinting to read the confirmation. “Oh, man, oh, man,” someone kept saying. “So Kennedy got it done,” somebody said. “No, man, it was Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts,” another person said. “Are you s------g me?” almost everybody said.
Bit by bit, the ruling flashed through the crowds like crumbs from above. And soon enough, if you need to be sure that it had happened, you could hear the at once strident and somber voice of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). “This is a sad day for America. ... Democracy died today. ... You can be assured that this congress will repeal this decision.”
Suddenly, the forces for the rule of law were saying that, well, they didn’t like the rule of law. As if by magic, "Repeal Obamacare" signs popped up all over.
Others were giddy from cheering, beaming. That was true for Jan Studer and Kristi Milan who had traveled from Idaho just to be here. “This is so exciting, just to be here in the middle of history like this, “ Studer said. “It’s a great day for all Americans, for freedom itself.”
It was left for newsies, for presidents, congressmen and women, for would-be-presidents to sort out the meaning of it all, the intricacies of the bill—all several thousand pages of it—and the ruling—almost 200 pages of it with dissents, and the political leverage, indicators and advantages gained and lost. It’s plain at first plush that the fact that Roberts called the mandate a “tax, and therefore constitutional” will provide grist for the GOP mill and that just as plain is the fact that the president had a win and could explain it all to you and us over the remainder of the campaign.
As for the rest, we had stood, for an hour or so, locked blissfully in the embrace of history as you can do only in this federal city. Exhilarated and exhausted, we returned to the street with the fireplace, the hospice, the kids in day care, the cat prowling and the garden hose spraying. It looked pretty much the same.