Watching History in Real Time
By mid-morning on Thursday, June 28, something strange began happening in room S217 in the Capitol Visitor Center where the Faithful Alternatives to the Sequester Forum was underway. The room full of once-relaxed panelists, audience members, and photographers slowly transformed into a cauldron of unease. Anxiety resonated as concerns expressed within the room about the vulnerability of the poor under the federal budget gave way to the realization that just across the street the country was at a crossroad.
Barely noticeable foot tapping became violent leg shaking. Ballpoint pens that had been gliding casually along yellow legal pads were now the objects of nervous chewing. Silenced cell phones concealed in purses and pockets emerged from hiding. And, although no one lowered the air condition, the room turned clammy. Not a shvitz-free forehead could be found.
It was just after 10 AM, and as we sat a few hundred yards away, the Supreme Court was delivering its opinion determining the fate of the nation’s health care system (National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius). Though the presentation of the Interfaith Sequestration Panel was important to all in attendance, the anticipation of the Court’s decision was producing significant worry, tension, and mild nausea. That is, more than I’m used to.
The photographers who had been circling the room abandoned their Canons to hover together uneasily. Twitter feeds were refreshed, refreshed, and refreshed again. Nervous habits, normally disguised by years of practice, surfaced. I saw a man rub his right eyebrow so furiously it no longer matched the left by the time the decision came down. Another woman gnawed on her nails without breathing between bites. I considered offering her my inhaler. And a soundtrack of repressed laughter seemed to be playing in the background.
I felt as if I was in an asylum for the politically active.
Fellow Machon Kaplan intern, Chelsea Feuchs, who was sitting beside me, slipped out her phone. She looked at me with despair – her internet connection wasn’t working. I ditched my notebook and grabbed my own phone, but my results were no different.
My nerves began to calm as a photographer walked to the front of the room. He handed Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) an iPhone, pointing to the screen. The two exchanged a smile and the photographer gave Ellison a pat on the back before returning to the back of the room. Three women who had been passing around a BlackBerry taking turns checking the New York Times website sat still, glimmers of satisfaction in each of their eyes.
Chelsea and I shot each other a look. “I think they upheld it,” she whispered.
Finally, David Saperstein, who was moderating the forum, announced the decision that had so effectively competed for our attention: The Supreme Court had indeed upheld the individual mandate. Grateful applause, sighs of relief, and yelps of laughter – no longer so nervous – echoed throughout the room. Chelsea and I hugged, eager to experience firsthand the unedited reaction on the Court’s front steps.
I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place on the day the Health Care decision was released. The energy in that room is what I’ve felt all summer. It explains the difference between reading about events and participating in them as they occur. It has convinced me that I want to be a part of this world – a world that shares a passion for what happens in politics, in the country, and across the globe. A passion so rich that in the inevitable uncertainty, it takes away our breath and – in extreme cases – even our eyebrows.
Zoe Richman is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program. She is interning at the Food Research and Action Center.