As a journalist, I receive a lot of invitations to luncheons and dinners where I am expected to work and not eat. A recent get-together of the local Tea Party was no exception.
I went to the meeting well prepared. (Specifically, I ate a baloney sandwich in the car.) I'd read that left wingers considered the Tea Party to be a bunch of racist religious kooks, and the right wing – well, the Tea Party was the right wing, except for its libertarian wing and the wing that hates Wall Street. If you're keeping count, that's three wings, which is too many to fly and not enough for the guy who ordered the buffalo chicken dip.
I've always been suspicious of populist movements. Or, for that matter, anything popular. Pop music? Can't stand it. Pop culture. Gag me. (I just thought of one exception. Pop Tarts. Love them!) Similarly, I've always been suspicious of radio talk show hosts. So I guess I'm doubly suspicious of a populist movement inspired by a radio talk show host.
These folks did know their Constitution -- I will give them that. I was barely able to sit down before the quizzing began. Did I know what the 17th Amendment was?
Of course. Repeal of the Corn Laws. (A little trick I learned from talk radio. Always act like you have the answers, even if you don't know what you're talking about.)
Turns out it was something about allowing state legislatures -- and not the citizens -- to vote for U.S. senators, like they did before things officially went to hell, which, for the record, occurred in the spring of 1913.
Finally, it was my turn to play interviewer. What inspired them to join the Tea Party? That was easy: Glenn Beck. There was a glow in their eyes and quiver in their voices when they said His name. Glenn Beck. It was kind of creepy.
For the rest of the hour I learned how their lives had been transformed thanks to Beck, and how conservatism didn't begin until Fox News debuted in 1996.
But what about National Review? That's been around since 1955.
But that's not TV, they said.
Fine, but William F. Buckley's Firing Line began broadcasting in 1966. That was TV.
Public TV, they said. Only liberals watch public TV.
IT WASN'T LONG BEFORE someone handed me a copy of "The Contract From America." It was like the "Contract with America" except instead of being a list of promises put together by politicians, it was a list of promises put together for politicians. Either way, the novel idea was that politicians keep their promises.
Next, someone showed me the 9-12 Project's newsletter. I kept waiting for someone to hand me something I really wanted, like a chicken wing, but all I got was a lousy copy of Glenn Beck's "Nine Principles and Twelve Values."
Most of these were the same ideas conservatives have been kicking around for 30 years, and some, like "I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," we stopped kicking back in 1776. Other parts might have been excerpts from a Boy Scout manual, circa 1950:
1. America is good.
2. I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.
3. I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday.
4. The family is sacred.
My visceral reaction to this kind of stuff is not unlike that of a moody teenager: Don't tell me what to think! Or, if you insist on telling me what to think, at least offer me a chicken wing or a Pop Tart first.
Listening to the Tea Partiers was exhausting. They were informed. God, were they informed. Most received about 500 emails a day from different political organizations, ranging from the Cato Institute to some guy in Poughkeepsie who's convinced Barack Obama is the love child of Idi Amin and Ethel Rosenberg. Naturally it wasn't long before the conspiracy theories came out.
Somehow the Amazing Beck had convinced these folks that Obama is only using the U.S. presidency as a stepping-stone on his path to becoming leader of a one-world socialist dictatorship. As one Tea Partier put it to me: "My father fought in Korea. He's seen a communist dictatorship first hand. And this [the Obama administration] is it."
When I sat down to write my story, I decided to leave out a lot of the conspiracy nonsense. I didn't want to portray the Tea Party as a bunch of political naïfs parroting Glenn Beck. In the end, they came off as earnest, concerned, even passionate about their country.
I was respectful. After all, when the revolution comes, I don't want to be at the top of Glenn Beck's hit list.
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