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Tea & trumpets

Politics | The nation's first Tea Party convention is agitated, but is it politically agile?

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Getting out of Washington just before snow clapped its icy grip on the nation's capital, I arrived at the Nashville airport and headed to the shuttle booth where a soothsaying clerk said, "You are a reporter here covering that Tea Party thing, aren't you?"

"How did you know I was a reporter and not a Tea Partier?" I replied.

"You don't look like the rest of the Tea Party crowd," she grinned.

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What exactly does a Tea Partier at the nation's first Tea Party convention look like? I didn't have to wait long for my answer.

"I'll be the guy in the Obama socialist T-shirt tomorrow," Terry Cupples, a 62-year-old Californian, promised me on the shuttle ride. "I don't want my grandchildren paying off Obama's debt."

"No way," agreed Nancy Bunting, of Hilton Head, S.C. It turned out that Nancy and her husband, Bob, both in their mid-70s, also were headed to the convention. Just minutes on the ground, I had met three partiers from opposite coasts.

"I've never been politically active ever," said Cupples, in a refrain I would hear throughout the weekend. Soon Bob, also an activist novice, chimed in: "The Republicans and Democrats are both screwed up," he fumed. Bob wore a green button-up shirt, jeans, and sneakers. "I don't think they have a clue what to do. But they woke up the country pretty good."

Over the next two days what became most apparent is that a cross-section of America from literally every state in the union is awake, willing to pay $549 to join 600 delegates, and fully convinced that the Washington elites yanked them and the nation out of a blissful sleep.

More than 3,000 groups have registered the name Tea Party on the internet-a fact Tea Partiers point to when critics suggest established conservative groups manufactured the movement. Republican-leaning organizations like former congressman Dick Armey's FreedomWorks have tried to jump on and support the movement. But it has taken a life of its own since CNBC reporter Rick Santelli ended an on-air rant against Washington's bailout policies last February by suggesting, "We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party this July." Frustrated taxpayers didn't wait that long.

The movement grew like a political Chia Pet. Hundreds of tax day Tea Parties occurred throughout the nation last April. Then partiers challenged lawmakers in face-to-face confrontations during August town hall meetings. Last September tens of thousand (some partiers claim more than a million) descended on Washington. The more Democratic lawmakers tried to marginalize the movement, the more it grew.

"I'm going to say, 'Thank you Barack Obama,'" said Memphis-based Tea Partier and convention organizer Judson Phillips.

After a fist-waving year, it is now time for the next edition. But assembling a dispersed grassroots movement isn't easy.

Other Tea Party groups attacked the event's $549 registration fee (plus an additional $349 to attend the closing banquet with speaker Sarah Palin) and the fact that the group begun by Phillips, Tea Party Nation, is for-profit. Some conservative sponsors like the American Liberty Alliance dropped out, and some Republican congressional lawmakers slated to attend followed suit.

Then members of Phillips' own group left and held their own smaller, cheaper gathering. But Phillips joked that the profit after expenses would only be in the "low two figures" and that the cost was set precisely to avoid appearances of being aligned with more establishment organizations.

"Nobody gave me any money to attend this event," chafed conventioneer O.P. Ditch of Woodbridge, Va., a military retiree, when I asked if the Tea Party movement is really a grassroots movement.

Many also believe that the nation has forgotten its native values. In the Tea Party ethos that means fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states' rights, and a strong federal focus on national security.

Jeff McQueen, a laid-off autoworker from Detroit, said he is a direct descendent of an American Revolution soldier. His flag for the Second American Revolution, which features the standard stripes but with a large Roman numeral II surrounded by 12 stars instead of the normal 50, will become the national symbol of the movement. It took just two weeks to get orders from all 50 states after he launched his website.

"The 'Don't tread on me' flag is a symbol of anger," explained McQueen, referring to the colonial-era flag that has so far been the flag of choice at rallies. "This is a symbol of hope."

Elsewhere booths selling $20 commemorative convention T-shirts competed with a jeweler selling $89 sterling silver tea bag pendants that came in four colors. Bill Bruss of Winfield, Ill., peddled sandbag-sized tea bags with the words "Taxed Enough Already" that he hopes people will hang from trees in their front yards.

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