'Tea partiers' more wacky mavericks than extremist threat

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, April 18, 2010

I went to the "tea party" rally at the Washington Monument on Thursday to check out just how reactionary and potentially violent the movement truly was.

Answer: Not very.

Based on what I saw and heard, tea party members are not seething, ready-to-explode racists, as some liberal commentators have caricatured them.

Some are extremists and bigots, sure. The crowd was almost entirely white. I differ strenuously with the protesters on about 95 percent of the issues.

Nevertheless, on the whole, they struck me as passionate conservatives dedicated to working within the system rather than dangerous militia types or a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although shrinking government is their primary goal, many conceded that the country should keep Medicare and even Social Security. None was clamoring for civil disobedience, much less armed revolt.

"Someone said in the Revolutionary War, they fired bullets. This time, we're firing politicians," said Clinton Lee, 28, a wedding photographer from Tampa wearing a Thomas Jefferson T-shirt.

The rally, estimated in the tens of thousands, also displayed a wacky, irreverent spirit that I found endearing. I can't help but smile when paunchy small-business owners aged 50 and older don three-cornered hats and hoist rattlesnake flags in exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.

Buttons proclaimed "IRS: I Represent Satan" and "Obama: He makes you long for Jimmy Carter."

The mix of kookiness and mistrust of authority reminded me of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in which I participated four decades ago in the same spot. (Participants were appalled when I made the comparison. They hastened to say they weren't modern-day hippies.)

At the protest, I mostly ignored the speakers so I could probe what the participants wanted and how they viewed the world. I interviewed 19, picked at random, in three hours.

I found that I agreed heartily with the tea partiers on what is perhaps their single biggest concern: that America's swelling government debt seriously threatens our long-term prosperity.

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