By Dana Milbank
Thursday, April 16, 2009
As a tea party, what happened in Lafayette Square across from the White House yesterday was a washout.
There were no buttered scones, none of those dainty cucumber sandwiches and, as it happens, not a spot of tea. Organizers of the conservative protest were told at the last minute that they didn't have a permit to dump a million tea bags in the square, as they had planned.
Instead, they served up a rather noxious brew.
"Hey Big Brother: Show us Your Real Birth Certificate," said one sign in the rain-soaked crowd.
"Blackbeard Obama, King of the Tax Pirates," said another.
A third showed the president dressed up as Steve Urkel, the nerdy black kid with big glasses and suspenders from "Family Matters." "Did I do that?" the sign said, showing a graph of the economy plunging.
Young girls wore T-shirts printed with the message "Don't tax me, bro" -- a play on a protester's famous "Don't tase me, bro" cry at a John Kerry event.
Those messages might explain why Fox News, though actively promoting the "tea party" protests for tax day, tried to argue that it was not behind yesterday's coast-to-coast events. But Fox News analyst Tobin Smith, who took the stage in Lafayette Square yesterday, evidently didn't get the memo. "On behalf of Fox News Channel," he told more than 500 mud-spattered demonstrators, "I want to say: Welcome to the Comedy Channel of America, Washington, D.C."
After a few preliminaries, he went into a Fox News commercial for anchor Glenn Beck. "Anybody watching Glenn?" he asked to cheers. "That was a shameless plug, wasn't it? Glenn says hello as well. He's out at another tea party." Indeed he was, as were Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto.
A small group of counterdemonstrators, wearing ballgowns, tuxedoes and pig snouts, interrupted and were stripped of their signs. Smith seized the display as an opportunity to highlight the Fox News slogan. "You know what 'Fair and Balanced' means?" he asked. " 'Fair and Balanced' means we take our message and try to overcompensate for their lack of message." Smith left with instructions: "Keep watching Fox, will you?"
The theme was echoed in some of the homemade signs the demonstrators carried, including "Watch Fox News," "Thank You Fox News," and even a recommendation: "Move Glenn Beck to 7 PM."
Without the spectacle of a 1773-style tea-bag dump in the square, the handmade signs became the focus of the event. Though ostensibly an anti-tax protest, it was more of an anti-Obama festival. Among the messages: "The Audacity of the Dope," "O Crap" and Obama as an acronym for "One Big Awful Mistake America." Some messages were ugly ("Napolitano -- Obama's Gestapo Queen," "Hang 'Em High Traitors," and a sign held by a young girl saying "Victim of Child Tax Abuse"). Others were funny ("Don't Talk to Me! I Forgot My Teleprompter"). Certain ones had sinister overtones ("Tax Slavery Sucks," and "Obama bin Lyin"). Then there was the guy holding a Cabbage Patch doll by its hair with the message: "My kid's growth stunted by your stimulus."
Though the left and right will fight over whether the protests were organic or fake AstroTurf, there can be little doubt that the grass roots were well nourished yesterday. The Secret Service informed the protesters that they could not set up their stage in front of the Treasury Department, as they had planned, so they wound up in a muddy patch of grass on the hindquarters side of Andrew Jackson's horse. The legs of the stage began to sink in the mud, and, as the lawn turned into a lake, several of the demonstrators had to wiggle their feet free of the muck.
"I don't think it could rain any harder," one of the organizers said. He urged the crowd to embrace the adversity: "When they tell you you can't bring a million tea bags to Lafayette Square, you work with it -- you find a place to put them."
For somebody, the "place to put them" turned out to be the North Lawn of the White House. As the protest began to break up, a demonstrator hurled what appeared to be a box of tea bags toward the executive mansion. The Secret Service, much like His Majesty's government in Boston, was not amused. The White House was locked down while a robot examined the tea.
Before the main acts, organizers allowed a bit of open microphone time, which resulted in one man telling Obama "You're an idiot!" Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, in a drenched business suit, rallied the crowd before some counterdemonstrators with whistles interrupted; Norquist scolded the "loud brownshirts." Alan Keyes, another headliner, railed against the "orgy of selfishness," the "orgy of debt" and "the scourge of immigration." Americans for Prosperity's Phil Kerpen directed his anger at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: "The tax cheat got our permit revoked." And Fox's Smith colorfully described Congress as "the only whorehouse in the world that fails to make a profit."
Talk-show host Mike Church treated the crowd to a mock fascist salute and said that "it's time to have a little revolution, I think. We don't have to fire weapons. You should own them, you should have a lot of ammo to go with them, but you don't have to shoot them."
"Unless we have to!" somebody called out.
"No, you're not going to have to," Church answered.
That's because these rebels, unlike the patriots of 1773, have Fox News.