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Tea Party road trip: What the movement wants -- and why

By Bill Donahue
Sunday, October 24, 2010; W09

"I got some Dramamine that's supposed to knock me out," says the elderly woman sitting nearby. "And I've got some headphones, too."

Her husband, nose in a book about the minor prophets of the Old Testament, does not look up, and the bus rolls on, past Springfield, then past smaller communities on Ohio's green prairie: Limecrest, Brighton, Gillivan. Darkness falls, and the passengers begin chatting and passing little crinkly bags of Cheez-Its and miniature Oreos back and forth across the aisle. Now and again, laughter jingles over the steady blast of the air conditioner.

They met, all 51 of them, at dusk outside of Dayton, in the vast parking lot of the Washington Heights Baptist Church. Most are from Dayton's suburbs, but they started as strangers united by a common mission. Tomorrow, after their nine-hour journey, they will gather in the bright light of morning near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Precisely 47 years after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech at that vaunted monument, Glenn Beck, the populist Fox TV superstar, will join former Alaska governor Sarah Palin to address his Tea Party faithful at a rally of his own fervent making.

"Restoring Honor," it's called. Beck wants his fans to look past President Obama and what Beck calls the "most corrupt" administration ever, and to focus, instead, on the heroism of the nation's God-fearing founding fathers, who established an exceptional republic, "a shining city on the hill," by crafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The people on the bus all seem to share Beck's ardor for those hallowed sheets of parchment.

At the start of the trip, the tour leader gave each rider a souvenir copy of the Constitution and promised to show a film called "Fighting for Freedom: Revolution and Civil War" on the overhead video screens. But I wasn't quite clear why, exactly, these folks were traveling to Washington, or what they stood for. Until recently, I'd never met a Tea Party supporter. I live in Portland, Ore., amid acupuncture clinics and co-op groceries, in what may be the nation's most un-Tea Party neighborhood, and I knew only that these patriots composed a political force poised to change the outcome of November races nationwide.

On the bus, I would be embraced and welcomed as a shaggy dog cousin from the Left Coast. I would meet solicitous folks who would invite me into their homes back in Ohio. I'd ask hard questions about health care and taxes and race, and I would hear earnest declarations of religious faith.

Most of the bus riders I meet readily volunteer that they are, like Glenn Beck, devout Christians. The man sitting beside me right now is even built like Glenn Beck. Dale Unroe, a 41-year-old IT consultant for a Cincinnati telecom firm, is big and beefy, but he is also quite soul-searching as he describes his recent decision to spend $500 on a pistol, a .40-caliber Glock. "I'm not a gun person," he says. "I mean, I went out and shot in the woods in Cub Scouts or whatever, but I'd never taken that deep of an interest in owning a gun until I got involved last year in this whole thing about people being upset with the country. Then, I began thinking, 'Hey, we need be able to exercise our rights.' I just felt that, as a citizen, I needed to honor the vision of the founders and, you know, buy a gun. So I purchased the Glock, and I've used it once, at a firing range."

"So, how's your shot?" I ask.

Unroe laughs. "You know, that'll take time." Years, perhaps. Unroe doesn't like firing ranges. "They're kind of a little scary," he says. "Sometimes people misfire. Where we went, they've got all these holes in the ceiling, and that's because people just fired, accidentally, when they were getting their weapon ready." Unroe casts me an ominous, wigged-out look.

"So what are you going to do with this gun?" I ask.

"Right now," Unroe says, "I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to make it an effective tool in my life."

Soon we come to a rest area and pile out into the cool Ohio night. Nearby, there's another silver bus, thrumming and idling, and beside it, a young man who hails us: "Where ya guys from?"

"Dayton."

"Awesome! See ya on the Mall!"

***

The writer Greil Marcus anticipated the Tea Party in 2006, arguably, when he said, "America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion. ..." In his book "The Shape of Things to Come," Marcus, a culture critic and rock music historian, goes on to explain that unlike most nations -- which came together organically, over time, as a gathering of tribes -- America is cohered by ideals: "Its only legitimacy is found in a few pieces of paper. The promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution ... were so great that their betrayal was part of the promise."

The Tea Party is bound by a deep sense of betrayal, and my adventures with it began on a Friday afternoon, when the group's leader picked me up at my hotel. Chuck Henthorn, 63, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is leathery and compact, with toned pecs and a jaunty, can-do manner. The son of an alcoholic father, he enlisted at 17 because he needed a home. He served in the Air Force for 25 years and made his first-ever foray into political action last year. Henthorn was disgusted with the "extreme left-wing thought process" that he says underlies Obama's bailout of General Motors; in protest, Henthorn attended a Tea Party rally in Dayton.

For the past few months, he has been coordinating Tea Party buses to Washington for an ad hoc Dayton group, the Freedom Institute, whose Web site, WethePeopleUnderGod.com, features an essay titled "Why the American Flag is Folded 13 Times."

As we drove around Dayton gathering provisions, Henthorn said he has guided four citizens groups to Washington for rallies. "A lot of these people," he said, "have never been to Washington before. I teach them a little bit about riding the Metro, about how to stay safe. They're apprehensive about who they're going to encounter -- the SEIU [Service Employees International Union], the Black Panthers or what have you. I've encountered those people before. To me, it's no big deal. I've lived in 11 foreign countries. Islamic extremists killed one of my deputies at his desk in Istanbul. I've had a bounty on my own head. I know what it's like to be a hunted man."

Henthorn spent most of his career in the Air Force's "services" division. He ran mess halls, golf courses and gyms, and administrated over winding roads past bunkers and airstrips. He learned to focus on the safety and well-being of others. When we came across a motorcyclist wearing a flimsy T-shirt, Henthorn was disapproving. "I've scraped enough accidents off the highway to know that that guy ought to be wearing leather," he said.

By his own reckoning, Henthorn is a "born leader." On the bus, he announces, "I am running for U.S. Senate in 2012."

There is a joyous burst of applause. People holler "Oh, yes!" and "Yee ha!" Then Henthorn continues. "And you may or may not think I'm crazy," he says, "but five months ago, I got woken up in the middle of the night. The good Lord woke me up when I was sound asleep, folks, and he said, 'You're running for office.' And I said no, and he said yes. We argued for three weeks, folks. Then I said, 'Okay, I'll run for township.' And then we had another two-week fight, over what I was gonna run for. And, finally, we were up to senator or president."

There's a soft awestruck murmur from the back of the bus: "Wow!"

"And I said, 'I'm not going to run for the U.S. presidency,' " Henthorn continues. "I'm running for Senate." He lays out his platform: "I believe that elected officials on the Hill should govern from the state that elected them. They shouldn't be up there holding hands singing 'Kumbaya' in D.C. I believe that we don't need the Department of Education or the Department of Energy."

"Or the IRS!" someone shouts.

"Well, I do believe in the flat tax," Henthorn rejoinders gently. "And, golly, what else? I can't even remember."

"I've got an extremely different platform," he'll tell me later. "Most politicians would see my platform as the kiss of death."

"So you don't expect to win?" I say.

"No, no, no. I'm going to win. I'm just not going to be a career politician."

Henthorn may get many votes. In the current race for Ohio's open Senate seat, Republican Rob Portman is trouncing Democrat Lee Fisher, perhaps because Portman's ads savage his foe for his ties to Obama. And the area around Dayton is a Tea Party stronghold. The South Montgomery County Liberty Group can lure 300 people to a meeting. I'll hear varying assessments as to why this is so.

Henthorn thinks that greater Dayton is patriotic, in part, because sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is there. One middle-age bus rider, Sue Nannarone, a teacher, remembers hearing the fighter jets flying over her childhood home, cracking the sound barrier. "It made you feel proud," she says.

Donna Schlagheck, the political science department chair at Dayton's Wright State University, has a different explanation. "Southwestern Ohio culture is extremely conservative, Bible-belt, patriotic and stunned by globalization's impact," Schlagheck will say in an e-mail, noting the closure of several Dayton-area GM plants during the past decade. "And there is no discounting the racism in this Mason-Dixon region. I suspect we're seeing a convergence of culture, economy and fear of a future represented by a black president."

On the bus, I ask Ann Hucke, a 57-year-old ambulance billing specialist, about the accusations of racism frequently lofted at the Tea Party. She bristles. "I grew up in Oakland, California, which is probably the most diversified city in the United States," she says, "and it's not like I live in a lily-white neighborhood now. There's Section 8 housing right near me."

Hucke has grown skeptical, though, especially at work. "We see outrageous abuse," she says. "It's the people on Medicaid who cause the problems. These jackasses stub their toe and then call an ambulance. They have such a sense of entitlement."

Hucke is a Christian who has spent years evangelizing at shopping malls, and by her lights, our once-godly nation has become so decayed -- so crime-ridden and secular -- that it's time to draw lines. She supports racial profiling, for instance. "We've got Mexican people streaming across the border, and we can't profile that?" she says. "And who's flying airplanes into buildings? Muslims! You know how they treat Muslims over in Israel? They stop and search them. Because they're the ones who are doing it."

***

When we pull into the Wardman Park Marriott in Woodley Park, I scramble off first and watch the passengers trundle down the steps. There are 26 men here from Ohio and 25 women. Two-thirds appear to be older than 55. I do not see a person of color among them. There is an elderly couple with their 11-year-old grandson, who is wearing a T-shirt from Emmanuel Christian School, where he is a fifth-grader. There is a heavyset and contemplative man wearing a blue T-shirt that says "American Patriot." It is 5 in the morning, and they are here in the nation's capital to take a stand.

After a nap, we meet, per the lieutenant colonel's instructions, in the lobby at 7:30. We make our way to the Metro stop en masse. Quickly, though, our neatly bunched group falls apart. The underground corridors are choked with Tea Party ralliers, and they are hot and fetid with human scent. The crowd is so compressed that it seems on the verge of a stampede, and at Foggy Bottom, it takes nearly half an hour to shuffle toward the exit. Two of the three long escalators are broken, and when a sole traveler moves toward one, he's halted by a shrill voice in the crowd: "Stay away from that thing! It's dangerous!"

Noah Weaver, here with his grandparents, is scared. "I felt like I was going to suffocate," he says later.

"And the sad thing," adds his grandfather, Paul Weaver, "is that it was totally unnecessary. The city didn't need to let it happen like that. They weren't doing their jobs, and I think it was deliberate. They wanted to deter people from going to the rally." The Weavers will encounter another Metro jam later in the day, at Arlington Cemetery.

"There were police at the entry with assault weapons," Noah says.

"And I set down a bag on the sidewalk, and they didn't say anything," his granddad says. "I could have been a terrorist setting off a bomb."

Now, at Foggy Bottom, an African American Metro worker comes along and fiddles with one broken escalator. It lurches into motion. The crowd erupts with delight. The Metro guy grins.

And then the lieutenant colonel glides skyward. When he hits street level, there are two peppy young green-shirted volunteer marshals standing at the mouth of the escalator. Henthorn high-fives them both, simultaneously.

***

At the rally, my seatmate, Dale Unroe, unfurls an immense blue flag reading "Don't Give up the Ship." It's a replica of a banner flown by a victorious Naval commodore, Oliver Hazard Perry, on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and Unroe is in patriotic pique. "Maybe they'll be flying Beck in a helicopter," he speculates gleefully. "That'd be really wild to see him just drop down to the stage on a rope."

There is no helicopter and no rope, however, and the rally itself is rather anticlimactic for the Ohioans. By the time they reach the Mall, at 9:30, it is so swarmed they're relegated to a spot amid trees, with no view of the stage or the giant video screens. Beck's opening prayer comes over the loudspeakers pretty well, but for much of the next three hours, it sounds as if the voices have been dunked underwater.

A woman named Kathryn Koehler is especially peeved. A retired Ohio State immunology instructor, Koehler is white-haired and chirpy. As she waits out the rally in a lawn chair, she says: "I can't hear a word they're saying. This is kind of bad, isn't it? And if we have to go back in the heat of that Metro, I'll die. We won't do this every weekend, now will we?"

Henthorn busies himself by walking the perimeter of the entire crowd, roughly three miles, in search of portable toilets to which he can direct his charges. The toilets are precious few, with excruciatingly long queues, and when Henthorn comes back, he declaims, "Whoever planned this thing was no logistician." He stands and listens to the amplified murk for a few minutes, but soon his knees and his feet are killing him.

We retreat from the crowd and sit down under a tree, where Henthorn tells me that when he was an airplane mechanic in An Khe, Vietnam, in 1966, he was exposed to Agent Orange for four months. "I was sprayed every day," he says. His joints have ached ever since.

The Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize Agent Orange as a cause of Henthorn's joint pain, he says, adding that VA still gave him an 80 percent disability rating. "I accept that," he says.

"But when you're really hurting," I ask, "does your patriotism ever wane?"

Henthorn purses his lips, regarding the question as fair. Then he goes long. "I took an oath, and if this nation calls on me to give my life at the age of 63 or 65 or 70, so be it. I'd go to Afghanistan today, in a microsecond. It'd hurt a lot, but I'd do it."

By the time the rally is over, the Ohioans have scattered so that Henthorn is alone on the streets of Washington with Dale Unroe. The two men are close friends. Unroe is Henthorn's communications director and the acting chief of staff for his campaign. Unroe frequently drives up to Dayton from his home in Cincinnati, an hour south, to crash at the comfortable ranch home Henthorn shares with his wife, their youngest son, and three tiny pugs. He maintains Henthorn's computers, and Henthorn, a father of four, regards him as a wayward fifth child. Unroe giddily phones him after he works out with his personal trainer, a onetime tennis ace from Sweden, and Henthorn, in turn, fondly feigns exasperation. "Yes, Dale," he drones when Unroe calls. "Okay, Dale. Sure, Dale."

The two men wander onto Constitution Avenue, and then, they'll both report later, they run into their political foes. Marching toward them are thousands of anti-Tea Party protesters led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The vast preponderance are black, and they seem angry that Glenn Beck has come to town on Dr. King's day. They're chanting slogans such as, "Martin's dream is under attack," and Henthorn and Unroe are aghast.

"They had only one American flag that I could find," Henthorn will say later, "but they had a huge, huge African American flag."

As Unroe sees it, one of the protesters' signs is egregiously impolite in its treatment of Alaska's foremost celebrity. "It just called her 'Palin,' " he tells me afterward. "It didn't say 'Governor Palin' or 'Mrs. Palin' or even 'Sarah Palin.' Just 'Palin.' It seems they were trying to signify insult."

"I have a rough-streets kind of instinct," Unroe continues, "so I didn't engage the bully."

But Henthorn pitches a single question to the man with the looming red, black and green flag. "I asked him, 'Are you an American, too?'" Henthorn says. "I have a problem with people who say, 'I'm African.' I think we're all Americans first. And I think that, if you want to be here as a citizen, you need to participate as a citizen. But I didn't say all that to him -- I'm not that kind of person."

***

On the ride home Sunday, I sit beside Unroe again. We talk about bicycling and the nasty crashes we've had. When Henthorn stands to make a campaign promise over the PA -- "I'll come and speak to any group that invites me" -- Unroe cops a high, fluty voice and trills, "Even the Girl Scouts?"

Everyone seems to be in good spirits now, after a full night's sleep, and Kathryn Koehler, the immunologist, is especially perky. "That was one of the most wonderful weekends I've had in a long time," she says, having revised her earlier assessment. She raves about the killer deal Henthorn scored at the Marriott. "Ninety-nine dollars for a room like that? That Chuck, he knows how to travel!"

Eventually, we stop to eat, and standing outside the bus, I overhear a tall, 50-ish man with a salt-and-pepper mustache talking to Ann Hucke, the ambulance biller. "I was at some liberal church in Maryland," he says, "and the pastor called the Pilgrims drunkards. So I stood up, right there in the pews, and I pointed my finger at him, and I said, 'You are a liar!' They called the cops on me, but I don't care. The Pilgrims were godly people!"

Hucke has been listening with an admiring grin. She hugs the man intently, and I follow him inside. He continues, apocalyptic and wrought. "This country is under God's wrath," he says. "When a nation turns from God, God brings judgment. Look at Katrina, in New Orleans. Look at California and all the sodomy they have there. Why do you think they had those wildfires?"

The man says he is a beekeeper by trade but won't give his name. His voice is steady and cool, and as he speaks, he looks away from me, out the window, gnawing a toothpick. Beside him is his father-in-law, a man named Herbert Joyner, who now turns to me: "If you were to die today, if you were to die today, do you know where you would spend eternity?"

The beekeeper answers the question for me by conjoining two verses from Revelation. "If your name is not written in the Lamb's book of life," he says, "you will be cast into the lake of fire."

I feel a tap on my shoulder. Paul Weaver, the grandfather, has tears running down his face. He is weeping so profusely he cannot speak.

Ann Hucke leans toward him and gently touches his knee. "Go ahead," she says.

What Weaver wants to talk about is how he found Christ. Working on the line at the International Harvester plant in Springfield, Ohio, 30-odd years ago, Weaver felt an urge at break time to step into an empty room by himself. "I started praying," he says. "I asked God for forgiveness, and then it was almost like a movie: I could see that shimmering light. And it changed my life!" Weaver looks directly at me, his hands quivering as they urgently carve at the air. "We're not trying to make you uncomfortable here," he says. "I'm really sorry if it feels like that. We just want to help you."

***

In the days that follow, as I linger in Dayton, I keep thinking of how caring Paul Weaver was, and I keep being treated to the same sort of earnest caring. One morning, Henthorn takes me out to Wright-Patterson and shows me where the Air Force's B-52 crews once slept, in an underground bunker he calls a "mole hill." Later, we dine with his 22-year-old son, Zack, who works at Staples. Zack aspires to serve his dad as a security officer, once Henthorn is elected as senator. "I'm excited about what my dad's done for this country," Zack says. "He cares for its people, and I'm proud of him. He's my dad."

Eventually, I get a clandestine call from a 62-year-old retiree I met on the bus. John Holdren once worked for the Air Force as a civilian, in a division that bought special ops airplanes. Now, he raises pet rats. Holdren keeps 10 rats in cages in a spare bedroom and devotes two hours a day tending to them. He wants to show them to me. Problem is, his wife doesn't want a reporter in the house.

"Can we be a little sneaky here?" he asks over the phone. "My wife's about to go out, and when she does, I'll leave the porch light on. That'll be your signal that it's okay to knock."

I rush to Holdren's neighborhood, but as I'm killing time strolling past stately homes and well-manicured lawns while I wait for the porch light, a woman drives by, staring me down. A minute later, Holdren calls. "Here's the thing," he says gamely. "You've been spotted, but it's my house, too. Why don't you come on over?"

The rats are in the living room, scampering about in a cardboard box set amid a few dark blue leather chairs. In tender detail, Holdren describes how he ministers to the animals' injuries and illnesses. "I give them antibiotics," he says. "If they have bronchial problems, I work with a nebulizer. I take them to the vet for surgery sometimes."

"Sounds like the Obama health plan," I crack.

"Well," Holdren says, smirking, "it's paternalistic. They're rats."

Holdren is an eager-eyed man who trades in ideas. He grew up in an "all-white town," he says: Westerville, Ohio. He was such a fan of Barry Goldwater and his libertarian allies that during a 1962 election, Holdren wore holes into a new pair of shoes in a single evening skipping up and down porch steps, delivering leaflets. Today, he spends four hours a day tuning into conservative media: Fox News, Drudge Report and NationalReview.com. He voices his political views with precision, as though they were mathematical theorems.

"I'm not particularly oriented toward embracing other cultures. I like American culture," he says before adding, "Sharia law is not compatible with the Constitution. For starters, under sharia law, it's legal to stone a woman to death. And the intent of Islam is world domination. If allowed, they will bomb and butcher their way to success. Their goal is to either convert you or tax you into submission or kill you." Soon, Holdren says that back in the '70s, at the University of Kentucky, he had Muslim friends. "Two brothers studying pharmacy," he says. "They were Palestinians, and they used to joke about how they carried bombs in their back pockets."

"What were their names?"

"Oh, I don't know," Holdren says, chuckling. "They all have, like, five names. We need to control immigration," he continues. "If you're willing to say you're Muslim, you need to leave. We are going to fight them in a big way, and we need to strike them in a way that's memorable. Myself, I wanted us to make a nuclear strike after 9/11."

Before I leave, I use Holdren's bathroom. It's immaculate, and on the wall by the toilet, there's a small, oval-shaped wooden sign decorated with painted flowers. It says, "Be ye kind one to another."

Bill Donahue is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., and a contributor to the Magazine. He last wrote about American Indian Russell Means. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com. Join him for a live discussion about this story on Monday, Oct. 25, at 11 a.m. ET.

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