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Tea Party Convention Marks Coming Out for a Movement


National Tea Party Convention organizer Judson Phillips (Photo by David Weigel)

NASHVILLE — In the weeks leading up to the National Tea Party Convention, Judson Phillips didn’t do much talking to the media. The founder of Tea Party Nation, the chief organizer of the conference alongside his wife Shelley, was buffeted by attacks from Tea Party activists who accused him of staging a costly, “elite” convention, and dirtying the reputation of the movement by paying Sarah Palin $100,000 to speak there. On January 14, Tea Party Nation put out word that only five conservative media outlets would get full access to the convention. On January 30, they issued an email to their internal list pushing back against “baseless accusations and criticism” from angry Tea Party activists.

But on the floor of his convention, the paranoid, mysterious Judson Phillips was nowhere to be seen. The real Phillips, a jovial defense attorney, bounded in and out of sessions, across the stage of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel’s Tennessee Ballroom, and from interview to interview. Hardly 15 minutes could go by without Phillips, sporting a rumpled tan suit and day-old shave, shaking the hand of a grateful attendee or being miked for a new interview.

[GOP1]“I’m talking to them,” he said, pointing at a video crew from Time magazine, and asking if he could wait a few minutes to answer questions from TWI. “Then I’m talking to them.” He pointed to CNN’s set-up box in the corner of the small convention hall. “Then I have another interview in a half hour. But I will talk to you!”

As this three-day event wrapped up with an hourlong address by and Q&A with Sarah Palin — broadcast live on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and C-Span — it was clear that Phillips’s massive and controversial gamble had mostly paid off. More than 200 members of the media had descended on Nashville to write probing stories on the Tea Party Movement. In the end, said Phillips, the convention would turn a small profit — a step down from his initial hopes to make enough of a profit to launch a 527 that would back conservative candidates, but when compared to the rumors that led up to the convention, a smashing success.

“We’re going to break even, maybe a little bit into the black,” Phillips told TWI. And just as he did from the main stage, Phillips went a little further and ribbed his critics with a joke. “I’m not planning to declare bankruptcy. I had to do that one time–it really sucks when you have to do that.”

To the delight of attendees, the National Tea Party Convention became a coming-out party for a movement that’s always had an oppositional relationship to the press. It was a small event — around half the size of the inaugural YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers in 2006 — and The Gaylord Opryland location served to make it look even smaller. The entire weekend was contained in a ballroom and three breakout rooms adjacent to a short lobby with media check-in on one end and a raft of cameras on the other, with pundits like The Daily Beast’s John Avlon and RedState’s Erick Erickson doing quick live bits. Getting to the convention floor meant walking through one of two indoor shopping malls, one of them inside a massive dome decked out with greenery and artificial lakes. “I imagined one day I’d meet [Palin],” said conservative media pioneer Andrew Breitbart in his introduction of the former governor. “I just never knew that it would be in the middle of Tennessee, in a biosphere. Or is it an international space station? Or is it the set of Avatar?”

Inside the main hall, and inside the breakout sessions, there was one member of the media for every three Tea Partiers. During the troubled run-up to the convention, those sessions (and Palin’s speech) were scheduled to be closed to the media, and only a few cloaked-in-mystery “availabilities” would be opened up.

“I think they were the dog that caught the car,” said Erickson, who had been an early critic of the convention. “They got Palin. Who thought they were going to get Palin? They didn’t know what to do next.”

In the final stretch, as coverage of the “intra-Tea Party infighting” reached fever pitch, Phillips put Memphis TEA Party founder Mark Skoda in charge of media outreach. (“I just didn’t want to deal with it,” Phillips told TWI.) It was Skoda, a bombastic radio host and consultant, who started keeping in touch and on top of media requests and letting the world in.

“I jumped in when all the negative press was coming,” Skoda told TWI, “because I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people who want to be bullies. My focus was getting as much video press in here as possible, that show that we’re not a bunch of crazies, OK? So there was a necessity to look at international press. We wanted to give them access because this is truly American. Our president may not believe in American exceptionalism, but I do. And if you look at most of the U.S. press, there’s a national audience — there’s a lot of videography going on. My sense was: Nobody here is wearing crazy outfits, there’s no little pointy hats, no screaming mimis, no signs.”

Skoda’s calculation paid off. The few people in “crazy outfits” did draw cameras toward them as if they were magnetized. One was William Temple, a pastor who donned the revolutionary war garb and British accent he’d broken out at every Tea Party. During speeches, Temple would wave his hat and lead cheers of “Hip, hip, huzzah!” Outside of the main room, he was interviewed with every step he took. But Tea Partiers hardly had anything to fear from the quotable and polite man who co-starred in “Tea Party: The Documentary Film” and led the 9/12 march on Washington.

“Gone were the placards that protesters carried [at Tea Parties] last year with Mr. Obama’s face wearing a Hitler mustache or superimposed on the Joker,” wrote Kate Zernike in a New York Times piece representative of the convention coverage. Many questions to organizers were about the firey speech by former congressman Tom Tancredo that opened the convention; many questions to attendees were about Palin, and whether they’d back her if she ran for president. The controversy surrounding the convention and its speakers led to media coverage of the convention as a mainstream political event, a stop along the road to the rebuilding of the GOP. One sign of how happy Tea Partiers were to see the media there came after Anthony Reese, who’d left the organizing committee of the convention in a huff, staged a press conference with three other angry activists critical of what happened–and then asked Fox’s Carl Cameron for a photo together. Cameron obliged.

“I think the media convinced the media to cover this by playing up the early stories,” said Glenn Reynolds, the libertarian Instapundit blogger who drove to the convention from his home in Knoxville. He was conducting interviews for PajamasTV, the conservative web network that ran some of the earliest coverage of the Tea Party movement, and was allowed to livestream most of this convention. “If I wanted to give Judson Phillips more credit than he deserves, I’d claim he was actually a genius who manipulated the media into giving this more coverage. I mean, this was the front-page, headline story in the Knoxville paper yesterday!”

High ticket prices aside, the Tea Partiers who made it to Nashville made up a representative — if slightly wealthier than average — cross-section of the movement. The overwhelming number of attendees were white, and when World Net Daily Editor-in-Chief Joseph Farah took a moment in his Friday night speech to ask how many of them were “born between 1946 and 1961,” the vast majority of hands shot up. On Friday night, Andrew Breitbart introduced “Generation Zero,” a splashy documentary that argues that the financial crisis was deliberately engineered by radical 1960s ideologues. Footage of dancing hippies and pictures of Saul Alinksy — the radical organizer who has become a household name among Tea Parties — were intercut with conservative writers like Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund, historian Victor Davis Hanson, and Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald, explaining how left-wing theorists had long wanted to bring down capitalism and replace it with a socialist society. In a breakout session on immigration policy, Tancredo explained to Tea Partiers that Democrats wanted immigration reform in order to enfranchise millions of new voters to put them in perpetual power.

“Remember when Rahm Emanuel said ‘You never let a good crisis go to waste?’” said Lisa Mei Norton, a Tea Party activist and singer who opened the convention on Thursday night. “Now, what did he mean by that?”

Norton told TWI that her beef with the media stemmed from how reporters covered things “they think are bad” out of proportion to everything else. She didn’t sing it at the conference, but she’s recorded a song about Barack Obama’s citizenship called “Where Were You Born?” Yes, she had questions about Obama’s citizenship. It was perfectly fine for reporters to write about it when Tea Partiers questioned Obama’s birth certificate. The problem, she said, came when reporters didn’t put that in context.

“Why is it?” she asked. “Is it the media leans left, and wants to only highlight things that put conservatives in a bad light, and downplay negative things that happen on the left?”

For John Ball, a political consultant working for “Ten Commandments judge” Roy Moore — now a candidate for governor of Alabama — understanding how the media covered conservatism was one of the major goals of the convention. After TWI spoke to Moore, Ball asked for some analysis of exactly how and why the media turned conservative quotes into “extreme” gaffes.

“When we talk about the Constitution and getting back to the founders,” said Ball, “you guys are ready to say ‘Oh, the founders who owned slaves? Who wouldn’t let women vote? You want to get back to that?’ I think Tea Party people need to understand how that works.”

The threat of media bias, the way that the press could trip up inexperienced activists, was obvious enough to Amy Kremer. She had split with Tea Party Patriots — she’d been on the board — when she decided to join the Tea Party Express. Unlike Tea Party Patriots, which is run by grassroots activists, her new group is run by Republican consultants. It had been the focus of outsized media attention, more grist for the “Tea Party infighting” narrative. Kremer didn’t care. Neither, she said, did activists. “Nobody who comes to these rallies knows the difference between Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express.”

From her perspective, the coverage of the Tea Party Convention represented the media as it should work. The live network broadcast, she said, was “amazing.”

“You go the media when you have a message to get out,” said Kremer. “We’re our own media resource in this movement. But I think it’s good that they were here so the whole country could see what happened tonight.”

When the convention had ended and the cameras had packed up, TWI caught Phillips again, rubbing his eyes, summoning the energy to go out with his top volunteers to celebrate. He’d had no idea that the networks had indulged him by running so much of the conference and of Palin’s speech.

“I just assumed that as soon as she sat down, they all would jump out,” said Phillips. “I knew C-Span would stay. That’s C-Span’s thing. But wow! That’s incredible!”

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