Nancy Pelosi, the liberal House speaker, is heckled by liberals
For 17 months, anger at President Obama and congressional Democrats has been pooling on the left. On Tuesday morning, it spilled onto the floor of an Omni Shoreham ballroom and splashed all over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The celebrated San Francisco liberal took the stage to greet what should have been a friendly audience: the annual gathering of progressive activists organized by the Campaign for America's Future.
Instead, Pelosi was eaten by her own.
Just three minutes into her speech -- right after she gave the triumphant news that "Change is here!" -- two men stood up and spread out a large pink banner in front of the podium demanding "Stop Funding Israel Terror."
At that moment, a wheelchair-bound woman named Carrie James began to scream from her table about 30 feet away: "I am not going to a nursing home!" At that cue, about 15 people in the crowd -- who, like James, wore orange T-shirts demanding "Community Choice Act Now" -- unfurled bedsheet banners and struck up a chant: "Our homes, not nursing homes!"
Bodyguards rushed forward and formed a six-person ring around Pelosi and the lectern. Leaders of the conference tried to take the speaker backstage until the disturbance could be quelled, but she brushed them off: "I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving," she said. "You have made your point. I'm going to give my speech over your voices."
And she did, for an excruciating half-hour. The hecklers screamed themselves hoarse, dominating Pelosi's speech through her concluding lines: "I want to say thank you to Campaign for America's Future for your relentlessness, for your dissatisfaction, for your impatience. That's what I see every day in my district."
Political movements tend to unravel gradually, but on Tuesday this one seemed to be imploding in real time. As the "tea party" right has gained strength, Obama's hope-and-change left has faded. The frustration has crystallized at the gathering this week of demoralized activists.
At Monday's opening session, attendance was sparse: 10 empty tables and about 200 empty chairs. "Progressives have grown ever more dissatisfied, and for good reason," Robert Borosage, the conference organizer, said at the start. "Our hopes or illusions were shattered: escalation in Afghanistan, retreat on Guantanamo, no movement on worker rights or comprehensive immigration reform, dithering on 'don't ask, don't tell,' reverses on choice, delay on climate change and new energy."
After a musical break that included the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," Borosage's co-director, Roger Hickey, took up the complaint. "Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and Rahm Emanuel don't see themselves as part of a movement, and we often see them as part of a problem," he said.
Up next, Darcy Burner of ProgressCongress.org accused Obama of "split the baby" politics and complained that some liberal leaders had sold out for invitations to "White House cocktail parties."
Tuesday brought a denunciation of the Democrats from former Democratic chairman Howard Dean: "It's time for them to behave like Democrats if they want to get reelected. They have forgotten where they came from -- and they haven't been here that long."
In the exhibit hall was a table labeled "Phone Bank for Bill Halter" -- the man trying to unseat Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) for being insufficiently liberal.
But that was tame compared with the treatment of Pelosi. With her daughter and infant granddaughter watching, the House speaker stammered and struggled to belt out her speech as disability activists shouted her down. Borosage, shaking his head and licking his lips, tried to shoo the wheelchairs away from the podium.
Some audience members tried to shout down the hecklers. "Why are you doing this? You think this is going to help?" pleaded one. Another man asked the demonstrators if they'd "mind shutting up" and flipped his middle finger at them.
This only worsened the disturbance. "Sorry, the stakes are a little high!" James shouted from her wheelchair. Pumping her fists in the air, she chanted: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, nursing homes have got to go!"
Pelosi tried to make a joke. "Listen, I'm used to noise. I talk to the Democratic caucus every single day." A bit of laughter mixed in with shouts of "Our homes! Our homes!"
Pelosi said she supports the hecklers' legislation, a long-languishing proposal to increase access to community services for the disabled, who say it would allow more of them to live at home. But the protest wasn't about reason; it was about rage. Pelosi finally finished her speech to a mixture of cheers and boos. "Everybody calm down," Hickey pleaded. "Let's take a deep breath."
As if to admonish the discontented activists over their treatment of the speaker, the strains of Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" came from the sound system:
We've come a long, long way together
Through the hard times and the good
I have to celebrate you, baby
I have to praise you like I should.