Sunday, February 7, 3:28 p.m. Among the convention’s several last-minute saves—opening the conference to media, replacing one speaker who fell ill and another who dropped last minute—was bringing on Andrew Breitbart. Convention spokesman Mark Skoda knew the conservative media mogul through their mutual friend Mike Flynn, who manages the Breitbart site BigGovernment.com, and when Marsha Blackburn and Michele Bachmann backed out, Breitbart swooped in to help.
At first, Breitbart himself was just supposed to introduce Sarah Palin. But to no one’s surprise, really, his portfolio grew. He addressed the crowd before Friday evening’s screening of the film Generation Zero and made a long speech Saturday morning, earning some of the biggest applause lines of the convention. In addition, he provided boosterish, wall-to-wall coverage on BigGovernment and BreitbartTV, shooting extensive behind-the-scenes interviews that will be broken into clips and distributed to other media outlets. And the tall, white-haired Hollywoodite—surrounded by a flock of bloggers and videographers, joking with organizers—brought a touch of glamour to the decidedly down-home crowd.
He’s a hero among the attendees partly because of his support of guerilla videographer James O’Keefe—on Saturday night, radio host Phil Valentine introduced Breitbart as “the man who almost single-handedly brought down ACORN.” Breitbart’s greatest appeal to the tea partiers, however, is his ability to say that while he hangs out with all these big media types, at heart, he’s true to the base.
“They’ll say to me, ‘It’s all an act, Andrew. You’re not really one of them,’” Breitbart told the convention floor. “Well, you better bet your ass I am!” At one point, he directly addressed the media perched on a dais at the back of the room, thanking those who reported “just the news” fairly—prompting the audience, en masse, to spontaneously turn around and applaud the frozen reporters. Then, he had a warning for the rest of the media, which spins and slants.
“I am going to organize a tea party on 6th Avenue in Manhattan and you’re not going to be able to get out to the Hamptons that weekend!”
While bashing the media, Breitbart is a firewall against some of the tea party movement’s more extreme, insular elements. His sites have only occasionally* veered into birtherism, and he defended Generation Zero director Steve Bannon when the crowd instinctively booed the filmmaker’s Harvard-to-Goldman Sachs career track.
Breitbart doesn’t just deal in message—he’s also a master of symbolism. At his last appearance, opening for Sarah Palin, Breitbart brought a musician friend onstage to perform a tea-party-inspired song. The guitarist and singer, “David,” wore dark aviators to hide his identity.
"There is an ideological bias against singers who lean right,” he explained afterwards. “I'm completely tolerant of their politics, but if a lot of them knew I was playing here tonight, they wouldn't work with me."
* Media Matters points out that Breitbart's contributors have made birther arguments at times.
Sunday, February 7, 10:56 a.m. Going back through my notebook, I’ll relate a few thoughts that occurred to me over my three days in Nashville. Starting with the race thing.
The tea party movement has long been marked by an extreme defensiveness over the charge of racism, which tea partiers use to argue that the left has no substantive arguments. It’s true, most tea partiers aren’t racist in any way they understand it. And there’s probably not even much tea partiers can do about the fact that their events are completely devoid of skin color other than white—but the dynamic was especially glaring at this convention, where I spotted exactly three black people (and I was looking).
One was Charlotte Bergmann, a small businesswoman running against Democrat Steve Cohen in the Tennessee 9th. Another was Fox News commentator Angela McGlowan, also debuting a congressional campaign: In a barn burner of a speech Friday night, she all but announced her intention to challenge Travis Childers in the Missisippi 1st (“Is she running for something?” someone in the audience asked a neighbor, as she spoke.) With her soft southern accent, and pointed zingers against the political establishment, she utterly charmed the convention floor. As Lewis Drake of Kentucky related to me later, his tablemate during the speech, a large, stolid man who had been very difficult to draw into conversation, leaned over and told him: “I’m sure glad she’s on our side.”
But perhaps the most constant presence was one Bishop E. W. Jackson, of Bishop Jackson Ministries in Chesapeake, Maryland. Jackson has made a habit of showing up at right-wing events—he was also at this pastor’s protest of hate crimes legislation—to absolve the participants of any charges of racism. On the first night of the convention, he almost seized the mic from Rick Scarborough’s hand to do so for this gathering.
“I’ve just got to say this,” he told the convention floor. “I am an American who happens to be black. In the tea party, I have not found racists, I have found Americans! If they were racists, I would not be here!
“None of us cares that Barack Obama happens to be black! We don’t care if he’s black, we want him to be red, white and blue!” he cried. And, finally: “I pray that the Americans in this country who are black would wake up!” Yeah! an audience member yelled. “Bring them into this movement!” Jackson went on. “Help them not to buy the lie of the mainstream media!”
Sunday, February 7, 7:12 a.m. Sarah Palin hit all the right notes for a keynote speech at a tea party convention: Barack Obama protects terrorists, the media hates you, Scott Brown is a warning sign, and Reagan is the man.
But she hit a few discordant ones, too. After a weekend where people adamantly stated their suspicion of both parties and fear that the movement could be coopted by the Republicans, she reiterated her opinion that the GOP should "absorb" the tea party movement. It highlighted the tough line Palin has to walk: attempting to retain establishment conservative support, while tapping into the groundswell of tea party types who could make or break her candidacy.
If those in attendance were as close as you can get to movers and shakers in the tea party movement, though, she looks to be in good shape. While some folks had qualms about her continuing support of John McCain--speakers at the convention repeatedly said that a McCain administration would have been just as bad as an Obama administration, and worse than Bush's—the outpouring of Palin love was enough to bowl you over.
“After having a president who detests democracy and wants to destroy it, seeing someone who actually loves America is really refreshing," said Bettina Viviano, a tall blonde from Los Angeles who is making a documentary about ACORN voter fraud, to be released around the 2010 elections. “The people who are emerging from this, and Sarah Palin, are the only hope we have.”
I asked around to see what people thought about the idea of a Sarah Palin presidential run. Not everyone thought she would run--and in fact, they liked the idea of a candidate that had to be asked to do so, rather than immediately throwing their hat in the ring--but the response was uniformly positive.
"Totally," said Pat McCaskey of Ohio, when I asked whether she'd support Palin for president. Anyone else on your radar screen?
"Not right now," she replied.
Saturday, 8:48 p.m. As Sarah Palin speaks at a $349-per-plate dinner, it may be time to recognize those who showed up with no tickets at all. It is by now a common occurrence to see frustrated couples who booked rooms at the Opryland, only to find that the event actually costs money.
One frustrated woman was escorted off the premises by security, who flashed handcuffs. Other unfortunates, however, took their exclusion in stride. "I don't know what we're going to do here! We might bust into a session," said Jim Roesch of Springfield, Illinois. He and his wife Gloria, both retirees, had meant to attend as more of an exploratory venture anyway. "Seems to me that people just want less government," said Jim. "You know more than me."
Some people showed up even though they knew they couldn't get in. "We thought initially that it would be a large outdoor event," said Diane Solberg, who came by with her seven children just to catch a glimpse of the former governor, who she appreciates for "her genuine commitment to the American people, to the Constitution."
(also: I've been live-tweeting the speech a bit at @lydiadepillis)
Saturday, February 6, 7:34 p.m. Eleven hundred well-dressed Sarah Palin fans are chowing down now on elegantly plated steaks, around centerpieces of red roses and Chrysanthemums, to constant piped-in trumpet fanfare. As has gradually become routine for this convention--after Judson Phillips got flak for skipping it at the first meal--the meal began with a blessing, this time from Laurie Cardoza-Moore, president of the Christian Zionist group Proclaiming Justice to the Nations.
"If we do not defend the United States, who will defend Israel?" she asked, as if about to cry. "I would like to think that the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is watching here tonight. And I want Bibi Netanyahu to know that Tea Party Nation is going to stand strong for Israel."
"Despite what our leader says, we are a Judeo-Christian nation," she continued, before closing with an injunction to God. "Be with Sarah Palin. Protect her, Lord."
Saturday, 5:40 p.m.-- It took a couple of days, but Orly Taitz, queen of the birthers, has touched down in Nashville. The California dentist chose all black for the occasion, with a gold pendant necklace. Her trademark eyelashes stretched out like the wings of some gigantic bird. (UPDATE: Dave Weigel was spying).
“I could only come for the day, because I work,” she said in her Eastern bloc accent, already hoarse. “Basically to see my supporters, other people who are working to get the transparency that Barack Obama has promised and not delivered."
And supporters she has. As we spoke, Taitz was flagged down by two passersby who recognized her on sight and whom she greeted warmly. Conventioneers had already been fully briefed on birtherism. Joseph Farah, editor of the extreme right-wing news site WorldNetDaily.com, had given a 20-minute disquisition the previous night before explaining the Biblical nature of his obsession with Obama’s citizenship papers: Could Jesus have gotten away with not having it all written down, when he came to rule the Kingdom of Heaven? Judson Phillips, the impresario of the whole event, praised WorldNetDaily onstage as an “amazing source of information” that he turns to every morning after reading his own site, teapartynation.com.
Birtherism even seems to be working as a platform issue for at least one tea party candidate. Miki Booth, an ebullient Hawaiian-born woman who is challenging Dan Boren in the Oklahoma 2nd, announced her candidacy to the entire floor in such terms. “This piece of junk,” she said, holding up a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, “is what you get when you don’t have one of these,” she finished, holding up her own, to huge applause.
At the break, Booth was surrounded with well-wishers, holding a fistful of cash that people had started giving her as donations. “Why’s he kept it secret?” a man asked indignantly. “He wasn’t born here!”
“Orly Taitz is on the case,” Booth responded reassuringly. Another woman sympathized with Taitz’s campaign. “She’s been through a lot. Boy, she’s just been pummeled.”
Among her newfound supporters, Booth described her closest brush with the president, seeing him fly over the crowd in Washington D.C. on September 12. “He’s not who he says he is!” she said. “I don’t know what happened inside me, but I was like, I’m not gonna let you get away with this!”
Most people here are troubled by the idea of Barack Obama’s supposed unwillingness to procure his citizenship documents. It’s a key data point in their belief that this government is secretive, trying to hide ugly truths from its citizens. But as Dave Weigel documents, the more practical figures in the movement would rather see the issue quietly simmer down.
Julie Dam, who had driven to the event from Indianapolis, was surprised that Obama hadn’t had to document his birth, when the disclosure requirements for most government programs and employment are so strict. But, she said, she doesn’t actually question that Obama was born in Hawaii.
“It’s actually good comedy,” Dam said. “And I think that’s the spirit everyone took it in. It’s kind of poking fun—"
“At the system,” finished her husband Jim. “We don’t make it an issue.”
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that Orly Taitz is going anywhere.
NASHVILLE, Friday, 5:30 p.m..--William Temple, the Revolutionary war re-enactor who led tea partiers down the Mall on 9/12 in his waistcoat and wig, can’t go anywhere at this weekend’s national tea party convention in Nashville without a reporter or two scribbling down his quaint, British-accented phrases. Same goes for a man representing Get Out of Our House, a “non-partisan political party,” at last night’s meet and greet—it’s a useful way of branding, he admitted.
If you’re wearing a tricorn hat, you’ve got the worst of it. But any tea partier at the Opryland hotel could be forgiven for feeling a bit hunted—there are now 200 credentialed media on the premises, or one for every three registered attendees. The lobby is filled with documentary filmmakers, television reporters, and print journalists, standing out in their pressed pants and blocky glasses, buttonholing anyone who looks vaguely tea partyish.
“It’s a bit intimidating,” admitted Beth Stoltzfus, a veterinarian from rural Pennsylvania.
The media themselves could be forgiven a little surprise—three weeks ago, the event was to be completely closed to press, except for five conservative news organizations, ranging in legitimacy from World Net Daily to the Wall Street Journal. It was a “working convention,” organizer Judson Phillips explained, where participants could learn unmolested. And it came with a weird kind of paranoia: When I identified myself as a reporter to an organizer through the Tea Party Nation social network, my membership was immediately revoked.
Around that time, two things happened: Memphis businessman Mark Skoda came on as media director, and Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, which sent media interest skyrocketing. Since Skoda took over, all the major networks were allowed to cover keynote speaker Sarah Palin’s speech live, convention proceedings are now being streamed online by Pajamas TV, and Tea Party Nation has started acting like Chuck Schumer’s press office on budget day.
“Trying to get some sugar, I’m dying! I’ve interviewed my ass off today,” said Skoda last night, munching on a fig Newton before turning to a line of business cards to approve for credentials. He peered closely at them, including one for a woman from the Huffington Post, but then waved them on through.
“So many people were interested, we just wanted to get the word out that we’re serious, we’re not a fly-by-night operation,” the volunteer in charge of the press table told me. At his opening speech, Phillips explained to convention-goers that a lot of people would be wanting to interview them, and even had some advice.
“Be careful what you say to the media, because sometimes you think something is funny, and you look back later and say hm, maybe that wasn’t so funny,” he said. “It will be recorded for posterity.”
Media curiosity, once something to be shut out, is now touted evidence of the event’s significance—especially the international press.
“I think every media outlet in Germany has asked if they can come,” Phillips told conventioneers, ticking off Luxembourg, France, Australia, Switzerland, Croatia, Russia—even Al Jazeera English, which generated some jeers. (Reporters closer to home are having a tougher time getting access: The Tennessean newspaper was denied credentials, and Nashville news station affiliates were kept outside the main convention area, which Phillips explained was for space reasons.)
By and large, the tea partiers seem undisturbed by the intense media interest, even when five cameras pile into the back of a breakout session, clacking tripods and speaking into headsets. The fascination is a change, they say, from how media outlets ignored and belittled protests last year.
“All of a sudden, we’re overwhelmed," said Peggy Marshall, a retired nurse from San Antonio. "They dissed us for so long, it’s amazing that they’re coming here.”
Often, though, the tea partiers themselves are just a backdrop. When Fox's Chris Wallace arrived to interview Skoda, the pudgy, black-turtlenecked media director cleared a path through the crowd through which the two could walk and talk. “We’re trying to make this look like life,” he told curious onlookers. “Kind of talk to each other, mingle!”
And the biggest press event, at which Skoda and Phillips announced their new tea-party-spirited PAC, wasn’t really about the conventioneers at all—while Andrew Breitbart rubbed shoulders with Angela McGlowan in front of reporters from the world over, the 600 tea partiers lunched on chicken pasta in the main banquet hall, listening to Judge Roy Moore talk about putting the Bible back in politics.
Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.