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.
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.
But an approaching British accent soon diverted my shopping: "What you see here is a rebellion. A rebellion against bigger government and higher taxes," proclaims a man dressed as Yankee Doodle-frock coat and tri-cornered hat complete with feather. But William Temple, who tells me he's the vice president of the Golden Isle Tea Party in Georgia, also has a copper teapot hanging from his belt. "We will overthrow this government one way or another. Hopefully by the ballot box."
Histrionics is exactly what convention organizers had hoped to avoid. "Some people want to do nothing else but rallies," said Phillips. "But if that's the case, the Tea Party movement will merely be just an interesting footnote in history."
In an effort to turn raw energy into election victories, Mark Skoda, the 55-year-old Memphis TEA Party founder, used the convention to announce the launch of a political action committee to endorse political candidates.
Skoda said the group would first focus on a half dozen races in the Southeast, before expanding to support candidates nationwide.
"I'm not a politician. I'm a guy who works a day job and happens to love his country," explained Skoda.
But Phillips said he opposes the notion that the movement should endorse specific candidates: "I think candidates should endorse the Tea Party movement."
The disagreement between two leaders at the same convention shows the disjointed nature of the group that was prevalent thoughout its proceedings.
"This country is a bottom-up country," proclaimed Terry Plamondon, a 66-year-old retired chef from Ruston, La. Plamondon and others say the movement reflects the spirit of America: independent and sovereign. So they proudly reasoned that any time there is an attempt to top-down the movement, it is going to meet resistance. Competing groups in Florida, for example, have already gone to court over the Tea Party name.
Inside the convention's main ballroom, many Tea Partiers believe that the second American Revolution has already started. The first three battles: last fall's New Jersey and Virginia Republican gubernatorial wins and Scott Brown's election last month to the U.S. Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy. The fourth battle: this November's mid-term elections.
Studious note taking occurred at most of the convention's sessions. At a social networking strategy session where everyone agreed you wouldn't have the Tea Party without the internet, the instructor asked the mostly grey-haired students if they had ever used Twitter. A later seminar about taking back college campuses for conservatives made the largely retired audience seem out of place.
At 38, Jonathan Wilson of Los Angeles would qualify as one of the convention's younger participants. An organizer of Pasadena Patriots, Wilson acknowledged that the movement has work to do to attract more youth to its free local meetings. "The older generation has seen the drift of what's happened to America in the last 20 years, and it's frightening," Wilson explained. "I think with a lot of the younger generation, it's just a matter of really not being in tune with history."
Still, most I spoke to don't feel that protecting freedom means becoming a third party. Delegates here mostly used the word independent, but conservative would be a better description. Only one delegate I spoke to claimed to have Democratic roots. "This is not about Republican or Democrat right now; it is about 'We the People,'" insisted Jack Wilson of Millersville, Md., a retired union member.
Both parties aren't sure exactly what to do with the Tea Party movement. Republicans in Florida and Texas are finding that their endorsed candidates are being snubbed by partiers who prefer other candidates. At the same time, the South Carolina Republican Party this week announced a partnership with its state Tea Party groups.
One thing is clear: The movement will be around for a while. In a recent Rasmussen poll, independent voters said they preferred a hypothetical Tea Party candidate (33 percent) over a Democrat (25 percent) or a Republican (just 12 percent).
But voters will eventually want more Tea Party policy specifics than what was offered in Nashville. Seminars focused on building the movement through creating and uniting groups and registering voters.
Policy offerings were slim: A session on the finances of the federal government mostly diagnosed the problem while a seminar on immigration reform ignored the fact that Congress has tabled that issue. In one session, leaders stressed the importance of focusing on fiscal over social issues because more Americans can agree on the need for spending accountability.
Other groups are planning future gatherings where platforms may be discussed: The newly formed Patriot Caucus has scheduled an April convention in Valley Forge, Pa., while the Tea Party Express is kicking off a national tour next month starting in Searchlight, Nev., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's hometown.
Weeks shy of the movement's first anniversary, organizers ended the weekend by asking for the same thing conventional groups do: money. Phillips said individuals must "belly up to the buzz saw" and get used to asking for dollars to support candidates.
In a call for a show of hands, about a dozen of the 600 delegates said they were thinking about running for office; an additional six said they actually are running in 2010. The delegates in general seem to embrace their outsider status and relish the fringe label they get from the mainstream media (at one point the group turned and shouted in unison to the press seated in the back of the room).
Convention organizers seemed to leave asserting an agenda to their closing speaker: Sarah Palin. Her appearance, covered live by all the major news networks, seemed to give the group a link to the political mainstream. With her trademark folksy jabs, Palin attacked Democrats for their approach on nearly every policy front, including foreign affairs, the economy, and energy. She stuck to the Republican talking points of tort reform for healthcare, described an "out of touch" pre-9/11 security mindset at the White House, and attacked past and future stimulus bills along with the president's $3.8 trillion federal budget.
"D.C. would just love for us to believe that this is all way over our heads," she told the crowd. In return, the audience held up copies of Palin's book, and a few raised "Palin 2012" bumper stickers.
Decked out in a patriotic sequin hat and wearing a jacket with an American flag print covering the back, Donna Fike, 72, of Ridge Top, Tenn., said Palin is her presidential favorite: "She is a politician you can trust, which is rare these days."
Washington, perhaps due to inclement weather, largely ignored Palin's speech. Senate and House majority leaders, as well as the White House, did not comment. These Tea Party hopefuls are still waiting for Washington to listen to them.