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Dick Armey's 'tea party' history is a strange brew

Former House majority leader Dick Armey, holding forth on the socialist settlement at Jamestown.
Former House majority leader Dick Armey, holding forth on the socialist settlement at Jamestown. (Gerald Herbert/associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dick Armey is intellectually versatile: The former leader of House Republicans went from being a rainmaker for a Washington lobbying firm to being the unofficial leader of the anti-Washington "tea party" movement.

But his latest avocation, historian of early America, may be his most intriguing role yet. As head of FreedomWorks, the group that helps to fund and coordinate tea party activists, Armey went to the National Press Club on Monday afternoon in advance of Tuesday's tea party protest in Washington, to present some of his historical findings.

"Jamestown colony, when it was first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and dying in the snow," Armey reported in his luncheon address.

Who knew they had socialists in 1607?

But there was no time to dwell on Armey's fun fact; he had moved on to a new century.

"The small-government conservative movement, which includes people who call themselves the tea party patriots and so forth, is about the principles of liberty as embodied in the Constitution, the understanding of which is fleshed out if you read things like the Federalist Papers," Armey explained. The problem with Democrats and other "people here who do not cherish America the way we do," he explained, is "they did not read the Federalist Papers."

And this oversight makes the tea partiers mad. "Who the heck do these people think they are to try to sit in this town with their audacity and second-guess the greatest genius, most creative genius, in the history of the world?" Armey demanded.

A member of the audience passed a question to the moderator, who read it to Armey: How can the Federalist Papers be an inspiration for the tea party, when their principal author, Alexander Hamilton, "was widely regarded then and now as an advocate of a strong central government"?

Historian Armey was flummoxed by this new information. "Widely regarded by whom?" he challenged, suspiciously. "Today's modern ill-informed political science professors? . . . I just doubt that was the case in fact about Hamilton."

Alas, for Armey, it was the case. Hamilton favored a national bank, presidents and senators who served for life and state governors appointed by the president.

As a historian, Armey was all hat and no cattle. But at least he had a good hat -- a "downright stylish and manly" Stetson 200X beaver, which he donned for the audience. He also continued his practice of dropping the names of country-western songs, this time saying that Jesse Ventura makes him think of the song "My Heart Just Cannot Take Another You."

If there's a country tune that Washington would sing to Armey, it would probably be: "How Can I Miss You if You Won't Go Away?" For a guy who did his share of Washington- bashing while serving as House majority leader during the Clinton years, he did pretty well by Washington when he worked at the big lobbying firm DLA Piper. He quit that gig last year to return to full-time Washington-bashing with FreedomWorks.

Armey's two worlds came together nicely on Monday, when he was introduced by C. Boyden Gray, the Washington establishment lawyer who is a co-chairman of FreedomWorks. After listening to Armey's populist address, Gray went downstairs and got into his chauffeur-driven Lexus.

Armey spoke off the cuff, perhaps too much so. He asked if people "agree with, with uh, with uh, help me out, uh, the great prime minister, English prime minister -- Churchill." He required similar assistance identifying Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas ("uh, bless his heart, from Texas, great, wonderful, dean of the Texas delegation, no, no . . . it'll come to me tomorrow"). He also became muddled in metaphor as he likened members of Congress to lemmings: "Somebody's going to jump and holler 'fire,' and they're going to rush right off the cliff."

But the tea party leader regained his focus when he spoke of the wrongs of the Republican Party, which has been drinking "backslider's wine by the gallon," is "of course politically inept," is "trying to be like Democrats," and has "got to get off this goofiness."

A questioner asked if the GOP had forfeited its credibility on budget deficits. "Dang, yes they did," he replied, accusing his former colleagues of doing a "disservice to this country." By comparison, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got off relatively easy; she was described as "inept" but "not as mean as people think."

But what to make of the tea party patriots, of whom Armey is an unofficial leader? "These are not kooky birds," Armey posited. But minutes later, he allowed that some LaRouchies and other "fruitcakes" might be found at a tea party event. "When you have a big tent like this," he reasoned, "you have some kooky birds."

So fruitcakes and kooky birds are in. Alexander Hamilton is in. Just watch out for those socialists from Jamestown.


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