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Shutdown Kabuki

A Tea Party circus at the WWII Memorial; no one at a children's cancer ward

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It wasn’t hard to pick out the Republican congressmen and aides at the World War II memorial on the Mall Wednesday. There, in wheelchairs and with canes, were the veterans who’d come to see the memorial in all its Albert Speer-inspired glory. And there, walking alongside them in lime-green polo shirts, were their “guardians” from the Honor Flight program that brings the veterans to Washington. And there, hovering over them all in dark suits, with parade-style American flags stuck cockeyed in their lapel pockets, were the Capitol Hill warriors come for the great shutdown showdown of 2013.

“I had to get down here,” Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, told me. “My soul would not have rested knowing that these guys may have been turned away.”

Yes, as you may have heard, there was a moment on Tuesday, in the first hours after the federal government had shut down, when veterans on one of the Honor Flight tours had been confronted with barriers around the memorial. This was undeniably obnoxious – it’s one thing to close museums and historic sites for the shutdown, but blocking off an open-air memorial that is normally only minimally staffed, if at all, seemed only another example of the Jersey barrier-ification of the capital.

But Tuesday’s vet cohort had gotten in anyway – someone just lifted the barriers away for them – and by Wednesday the policy had been officially changed: vets on Honor Flight tours would be allowed in even as the memorial would remain closed to the broader public. (The official rubric for the allowed visits was positively Orwellian: “First Amendment activity.”) This made for a strange sort of theater Wednesday: the activists and media who had come to feed off of the outrage of the closure circled the memorial alongside some stray gawking tourists, but the veterans who were the purported victims were happily wheeling around inside, with the place all to themselves, but for the congressman chasing after them. A TV reporter from WUSA, Channel 9, leaned across one of the barriers to interview William Parrillo, an Army Air Forces veteran from Indiana who’d spent the war in Greenland. “How do you feel?” she asked him. He shrugged. “We should be allowed in. We’re veterans,” he said. And the thing was, of course, that…he had been allowed in. As WUSA peeled away to find a more demonstrative victim, Parrillo’s guardian squealed, “You’re famous!”

The mellowness of the veterans inside the memorial was not, however, going to stop the fury on the perimeter. Reports flew around the conservative Twittersphere that Obama would “arrest” the veterans who were coming to the memorial. Sen. Rand Paul tweeted:  “@BarackObama sent 7 security guards to #WWIIMemorial this AM to keep out our vets. Sadly, that is 2 more than were present in Benghazi.” Sitting on a bench outside the memorial was a blonde middle-aged activist eagerly telling her friend that she had come down Tuesday as soon as she heard about the closure on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. “I hadn’t done my hair,” she said. “I just brushed my teeth and came down.” It was well worth it, she added: “There are going to be so many pictures out of this.”

A moment later arrived another opportunist, Jordan Sekulow, a 2009 graduate of the law school at Pat Robertson’s Regent University and Director of Policy and International Operations for the group where his father Jay serves as chief counsel, the American Center for Law and Justice. Sekulow, sockless in loafers, was trailed by three young aides, one of them filming Sekulow’s every move with an iPad. Sekulow marched up to a police officer on hand demanding to know what was going on and, getting little satisfaction, marched up to a young sailor standing nearby, asking him how he felt about being barred from the memorial. The sailor declined to comment. Sekulow turned to the iPad camera, undeterred: “The point I wanted to prove there is that our own service men aren’t open for comment.”


I decided it was time to head off for another place affected by the shutdown: the National Institutes of Health. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal had reported word from NIH director Dr. Francis Collins that “about 200 patients who otherwise would be admitted to the NIH Clinical Center for clinical trials each week will be turned away.” This, Collins said,  included “about 30 children, most of them cancer patients.”

I had mentioned this fact to Huizenga, the Michigan Republican, asking if he might head off to protest that as well, and he said he had not heard about the NIH impact. And when I got up to Bethesda, it was plain that he was not alone in this, for there was no equivalent to the World War II Memorial scrum awaiting me there. A sign taped to the door of the NIH welcome center declared it closed and urged patients to call a number for a shuttle bus instead. I walked a good ways down Rockville Pike following signs for a secondary entrance at the Commercial Vehicle Inspection Facility and, once through the security checkpoint there, caught a shuttle bus through the eerily deserted campus to the Children’s Inn, the 59-room facility that houses kids who are at NIH for treatment.

It is a cheery building, with sunlight pouring into the lobby, a couple giraffe sculptures in the back garden, and stacks of children’s books organized by type: “Fairy Tales,” “Books with Animal Characters,” “Realistic Fiction,” etc. A menu announced the week’s dinner fare: meat and vegetable lasagna Wednesday, chicken parm and vegetarian ziti Thursday. Another flyer hinted at the shutdown: the movie trip Thursday night and the trip to the Natural History Museum on Saturday had been cancelled.

But of course the impact went far beyond that. Calls have been pouring in from families with children scheduled for upcoming trials, said Children’s Inn official Fern J. Stone. Those families have been forwarded to NIH clinical staff, she said, but have reported having trouble getting answers. So far, Stone has heard from one family, from Puerto Rico, that has been told definitively that their child’s trial is off.

I sat down with Bob Vogel, a board member of the Children’s Inn whose son, now 23, has been in and out of NIH for more than two decades after being diagnosed at the age of nine months with an immune system deficiency (he spent several months at the Children’s Inn at age 10, when he received a stem cell transplant.) Vogel said it was still unclear to him how exactly the cuts would play out, whether NIH would be able to keep going with trials already underway by relying on a skeleton crew; canceling future trials was easier said than done given that so many patients were engaged in months-long research protocols leading up to NIH treatment that couldn’t simply be called off. (NIH John Burklow told me in a statement:  "Although our hospital remains open for patients already enrolled in studies, we are not enrolling new patients into current studies--or starting new studies--during the shutdown, except inpatients with a life-threatening medical problem.  Under normal circumstances, approximately 200 new patients are enrolled per week, approximately 15% of those are children, and approximately 33% of those children have cancer.")

Having been through NIH and the Children’s Inn so often with his son, Vogel said he couldn’t imagine what the uncertainty was like for other families. “For most, this is the last resort for treatment,” he said. “When you’re around here, you see these people coming through and you try to imagine what it’s like for someone who needs to come finding out that they can’t. Because there’s really no other option for them.”

As the day went on, it was seeming to dawn on congressional Republicans that the shutdown’s impact on the NIH might become a real problem. They added funding for the NIH (which has already struggled mightily under the budget sequestration they had pushed through earlier this year) to a series of piecemeal proposals meant to keep certain parts of the federal government operating even amid a lasting shutdown, and then pounced when Harry Reid, in characteristically infelicitous terms, rejected this approach, saying that the whole government needed to be re-opened, period. I asked Vogel what he made of the piecemeal approach. “From a selfish point of view, it’s great,” he said. “From a procedural or process standpoint, that doesn’t make much sense.”

As I left the Children’s Inn, word came across Twitter that the battle was still raging back at the World War II Memorial: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was offering to pay to reopen the memorial to all.

It was the afternoon rush hour, normally a traffic crush at NIH. But it was a breeze getting back to the Metro stop on the otherwise empty shuttle bus. With 17,000 employees told to stay home, there was barely anyone in sight at the world’s premier medical campus. Just enough people to attend to the needs of the 38 kids still being housed at the Children’s Inn, and their adult counterparts.

And certainly no TV cameras or congressmen or activists in sockless loafers.