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At the Tea Party

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/
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Tania Ashe, a member of Team Sarah from Orlando, Florida, carrying a poster of Sarah Palin at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, February 4, 2010

People who watched the Tea Party Convention in Nashville on television in early February saw and heard an angry crowd, unanimous in its acclaim for every speaker. Standing ovation followed standing ovation, the fiery crackle of applause was nearly continuous, and so were the whistles, whoops, and yells, the Yeahs!, Rights!, and cries of “USA! USA!” Inside the Tennessee Ballroom of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, it was rather different: what struck me was how many remained seated through the ovations, how many failed to clap, how many muttered quietly into the ears of their neighbors while others around them rose to their feet and hollered.

It wasn’t until the last night of the event, when Sarah Palin came on stage, that the Tea Party movement, a loose congeries of unlike minds, found unity in its contempt for Barack Obama, its loathing of the growing deficit as “generational theft,” its demands for “fiscal responsibility,” lower taxes, smaller government, states’ rights, and a vastly more aggressive national security policy. “Run, Sarah, Run!” everyone chanted, though if Palin could have seen inside the heads of the 1,100 people at the banquet, she might have felt a pang of disquiet at the factional and heterogeneous character of the army whose love and loyalty she currently inspires.

I went to Nashville not as an accredited reporter but as a recently joined member of Tea Party Nation. (I had my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of mass surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, and the rest, and I counted on my libertarian streak to give me sufficient common ground with my fellow tea partiers.) When I presented my Washington State driver’s license at the registration desk, the volunteer said, “Thank you for coming all this way to help save our country,” then, looking at the license more closely, “Seattle—you got a lot of liberals there.” I accepted his condolences.

As we milled around in the convention center lobby, we might easily have been mistaken for passengers on a cruise ship. We belonged to a similar demographic: most—though by no means all—of us had qualified for membership of AARP a good while ago; 99.5 percent of us were white; in general, smart leisurewear was our preferred style of dress. (The TV cameras made far too much of the handful of exhibitionists in powdered white pigtail wigs and tricorn hats, and of the peculiar, bug-eyed gentleman from Georgia, who was sometimes costumed as an eighteenth-century American revolutionary, sometimes as a kilted Highland chieftain, his copper tea kettle lashed to both outfits, and spoke to his many interviewers in a hokey and ponderous English accent.) Few of us would see much change from the $1,500–$2,000 we’d spent on travel to Nashville, the $558.95 convention fee with service charge, a room at the hotel, and a couple of drinks at the hotel bars, where a glass of the cheapest wine or whisky cost $12. Seen as a group, we were, I thought, a shade too prosperous, too amiably chatty and mild-mannered, to pass as the voice of the enraged grassroots.

I asked one woman whether she’d been part of “9/12,” as tea partiers call the great taxpayer march on Washington, D.C., last September. No, she’d missed it, she said, and “felt really guilty” about doing so, but she and her husband had been on vacation.

Where did you go?”

We spent a week in Amalfi, then we toured Tuscany, then we spent a week in Rome.”

Another woman, hearing my accent, told me about her and her partner’s second home in Torquay, England, which they visited three times a year from their base in Atlanta, and about their thirty-five-foot powerboat, in which they’d crossed the Channel to Le Havre and cruised down the French canals to Marseilles.

Most of us were political novices. When we were asked how many attendees had never been involved in politics before joining the Tea Party movement, roughly four out of every five people raised their hands. On the outside balcony where the smokers gathered, I was joined at a table by an intense, wiry, close-cropped, redheaded woman from southern Virginia who dated her conversion to hearing Sarah Palin for the first time.

She was me! She’s so down-to-earth! If Sarah was sitting here with us now, she’d be just a normal person like you and me. You could say anything to her. She’s not like a politician—she’s real. And Sarah always keeps her word. If Sarah promises something, you know she’ll do it. She’s just amazing.”

Before Sarah, the woman said, her interest in politics had been limited to voting in general elections. Her one big involvement was with her church. Now she was traveling around the country on behalf of Team Sarah and Conservative Moms for America, a fundamentalist group whose “Conservative Moms Pledge” begins with a quote from the first epistle of Saint Peter:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear.

In the last year, she’d marched on 9/12, gone to CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference—and attended a string of acronymic events, which she recited to me. Soon she’d be off to New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Lighting her second cigarette in ten minutes, she talked about missing her family on these political jaunts. After their own children were grown, she and her husband had adopted two infant daughters, now aged six and nine. The girls were the light of their sixty-ish lives. One was autistic, the other severely developmentally disabled: her birth mother was an “alcoholic” and a “drug addict,” and the baby had suffered a series of strokes in the delivery room, where her heart had twice stopped beating.

The hospital said they doubted if she was salvageable. Salvageable! Imagine talking about a human life as ‘salvageable’! You see why I love Sarah? We have so much in common.” She rattled on about her girls’ accomplishments—how nearly normal they were, how happy, how responsive to the warm climate of affection in which they now lived. “Here, I’ll show you….” She found her cell phone in her bag and treated me to a slide show of family photos: her husband, a heavily built man in plaid shirt and jeans, playing with their daughters in a well-kept backyard. She hadn’t bothered to mention that both girls were black.

Her crowded freshman year in politics made her a veteran by comparison with most people I met, whose experience was limited to membership of a local Tea Party group and attendance at rallies, in which everyone seemed to have found a mirror of his or her own temperament and character. A dour man from Hilton Head, South Carolina, said of the 9/12 march, “You didn’t see one person—not one!—with an adult beverage, and when we left the Mall there wasn’t a single cigarette butt on the ground.” He eyed me, no doubt scenting these vices on my own clothes and breath. “And they call us a bunch of radicals.”

Although much of the convention was designed to stoke our wrath at the iniquities of the Obama administration, its less reported half was meant to teach us how to take our first baby steps in the new world of politics. One session I attended, on “How to Organize a Tea Party Group,” nicely reflected both the innocence and the age of so many of the conventioneers. The speaker, Lori Christenson, was a retired corporate trainer from Evergreen, Colorado, a small, wealthy, lakeside town in the foothills of the Rockies, thirty miles west of Denver. Her PowerPoint presentation was a handy vade mecum of hints and tips for absolute beginners. How to open an account at Meetup.com. How to name your group. Why alliterative phrases like “Tea Party Tuesdays” or “Tea Party Thursdays” work better than other days of the week, because they are more easily remembered by older people. Why school gyms are to be avoided as meeting places (the elderly will have difficulty climbing the risers). Ms. Christenson advised against using churches because too many people associated the movement with the Christian right; she suggested booking a room at the local public library as a more neutral territory. If you set up a card table outside a grocery store to recruit new members, you must remember to call yourself a “community group,” not a political one. Everybody was nodding and taking notes.

She took us through the ins and outs of 501(c)3s and 527s, and for-profits versus nonprofits. She told us how to make fliers and hide them inside “conservative” library books, like those of Glenn Beck, and put them on the windshields of cars with old McCain-Palin bumper stickers. With a note of plaintiveness that I heard often at the convention, she said, “We’ve got to work on the youth.”

At question time, someone stood up to say, “We did Obama Bingo at the State of the Union address—did you guys do that?” Good idea, said Ms. Christenson. Someone else suggested entering floats in town parades, so that members could sing patriotic songs from them. It was a restful hour, like being back in nursery school.

We said prayers, recited the Pledge of Allegiance (with the words “under God” pronounced as if they were underlined and in bold type), and clapped in time with the beat of country music. Lisa Mei Norton, a former Air Force senior master sergeant, sang, “The shining light, on the right, the left just doesn’t get,/Sar—ah Palin for change you won’t regret….” It would have taken a finely calibrated stopwatch to measure how very rapidly such folksy piety and patriotism could swivel into crude nativism, conspiracy theory, and xenophobia—and to measure, too, the dawning discomfort at this switch of tone registered by a sizable part of the audience.

The first night’s speaker, Tom Tancredo, ex-congressman from Colorado and no-hope presidential candidate in 2008, gave a taste of what was to come as he warmed up the audience with a show of self-deprecating, clownish good humor. He told stories—some of them extremely tall, as when he described visiting a new high school in the richest Denver suburb, where the students all drove new BMWs and, on Monday mornings, were fresh from skiing weekends in Vail. He had, he said, picked up their textbook on American history, whose first sentence was—“and this is exactly what it said”—Columbus came to America and ruined Paradise. Shaking his head, he repeated the sentence, which I took to be a fantastic, garbled invention, loosely inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. But we were still in the realm of good, relatively clean, political fun.

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