"People have been just downright mean," Lewis added.
And that wasn't an isolated incident. Early this afternoon, standing outside a Democratic whip meeting in the Longworth House office building, I watched Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) make his way out the door, en route to the neighboring Rayburn building. As he rounded the corner toward the exit, wading through a huge crowd of tea partiers and other health care protesters, an elderly white man screamed "Barney, you faggot"--a line that caused dozens of his confederates to erupt in laughter.
After that incident, Capitol police threatened to expel the protesters from the building, but were outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed. Tea party protesters equipped with high-end video cameras were summoned to film the encounter and the officers ultimately relented.
After the caucus meeting, TPMDC's Evan McMorris-Santoro caught up with Frank, who reflected on the incident.
"I'm disappointed at a unwillingness to be just civil," Frank said. "[T]he objection to the health care bill has become a proxy for other sentiments."
"Obviously there are perfectly reasonable people that are against this, but the people out there today on the whole--many of them were hateful and abusive," Frank added.
Asked by TPMDC whether today's protesters were more hateful than at other rallies, Frank took issue with party leaders for aligning themselves with the movement.
I do think the leaders of the movement, and this was true of some of the Republicans last year, that they think they are benefiting from this rancor. I mean there are a couple who--you know, Michele Bachmann's rhetoric is inflamatory as well as wholly baseless. And I think there are people there, a few that encourage it.
"If this was my cause, and I saw this angry group yelling and shouting and being so abusive to people, I would ask them to please stop it," Frank concluded. "I think they do more harm than good."
Shortly thereafter, the same group of people surrounded Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) as he entered a first-floor elevator. Above the cacophony, I heard one man call Waxman a "crook" and a "liar."
"This is incredible," House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) told reporters of the slurs. "It's shocking to me." He said he hadn't heard such vitriol since March 15, 1960 when he was protesting segregation laws that forced him to sit in the back of buses. "A lot of us have been saying for a long time that much of this, much of this, is not about health care at all," Clyburn said. "I think a lot of those people today demonstrated this is not about health care."
What is it about, a reporter asked?
"It's about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful."