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Tea Party Road Trip: Tagging along from Ohio to D.C.

Bill Donahue
Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 11:00 AM

What happens when a bus full of Tea Party supporters travels from Ohio to Washington, D.C., for Glenn Beck's August rally on the National Mall? A Left Coast writer tagged along to learn what the movement wants -- and why.

On Oct. 25, writer Bill Donahue took questions and comments about his experience with the Tea Partiers, which he wrote about for a Washington Post Magazine cover story, "The Calling.

The transcript is below.

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Bill Donahue: Hi, I'm Bill Donahue, and I wrote the Tea Party story that ran on the cover of this weekend's WP Magazine. I look forward to fielding your questions.

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Annapolis, MD: Maybe I'm obtuse but I still don't understand what the tea partiers want. I get that they love God and America, but so do a lot of Democrats and non-tea-party Republicans. I've never heard any of them argue for higher taxes, but I've also never seen a program of cuts. Do they want to cut Medicaid? Medicare? Social Security? Student loans? Pentagon spending? What's their foreign policy position? Should we be in Afghanistan? Should we be looking for an excuse to invade Iran? What's their position on abortion rights, gay marriage, and "don't ask don't tell"? What do they think needs to be done to create more jobs?

Bill Donahue: Well, I don't claim to be an expert on the Tea Party. I was merely riding the bus that weekend, and I don't think we can conclude that the people on that particular bus stand for the Tea Party as a whole. It's a decentralized movement that prides itself on being independent-minded. That said, there are views held by most Tea Partiers and yes, I'd agree, with you, those views can be fiscally inconsistent. How is that someone can be so ardently anti-tax and also pro-military, when the military is spending a million to keep each soldier in Afghanistan for a year? I don't know that any of them has logically answered their question. As for abortion rights, gay marriage, etc., I'd venture that most Tea Partiers are more Christians than they are libertarian.

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Weird: If anyone told me that they were running for office because God spoke directly to him, I'd be LESS likely to vote for him. Also, if it were true, who NEGOTIATES with God? Did he seem to really believe this?

Bill Donahue: He meant that he was speaking to God, literally and not metaphorically.

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Kansas City, MO: The Tea Partiers never seem troubled by the inherent contradictions in what they profess and how they live their lives. Big Gov bad, except for my disability/medicare/social security, and deficits are bad except when it comes to the paying for tax cuts for the wealthy. Underlying all of it seems to be borderline racism, blacks/hispanics/muslims all bad people to dealt with by 2nd amendment remedies. The fact that they are sweet/patriot old white men and women doesn't make the package any more appealing!

Bill Donahue: At bottom, I agree with you about the contradictions. But I'd have to say that in my own experience, traveling the world, no one is as ungenerous and stingy with their hospitality with East Coast liberals. I say this being one myself. :) The Tea Partiers I was with proved themselves to be genuinely kind and open-hearted--when dealing with me, I mean.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you heard back from any of the people you wrote about since the story came out? What was their reaction?

Bill Donahue: Oddly, I've heard from only one of them, and he said only that he was eager to see the story in print. He was having trouble reading it online. :)

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Arlington, Va.: You readily admit in the story that you're a liberal from Portland -- how do you think that affected your coverage of the bus trip and the way you interacted with Tea Party people?

Bill Donahue: Well, I think that "objective journalism" is a fallacy. Every reporter brings a bias to each story he reports. In this case, my left coast liberalism made me predisposed to be skeptical of the Tea Partiers' views. It also, in an odd way, made me more inclined to like them. We were bonding across a great political divide....

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Very Dangerous Washington, D.C.: What stood out to me from the story was a certain naivete in the Tea Partiers, especially about things that are perfectly normal in D.C. life -- the idea that Metro was a mess because they wanted to deter people from going to the rally (um, Metro is pretty much always like that), the scene where they go to Arlington Cemetary and are disturbed by the armed guards (who are always there), and that no one went to code red over the Tea Partier who put a bag down on the ground (seriously?). And Henthorn insisting that he needs to protect these innocents from the SEIU and Black Panther Party once they're in Washington? What? It just seems like another sign that the cornerstone of the Tea Party experience is fear.

Bill Donahue: I agree. Fear of the big city is an old thing....and, I'd argue, a particularly American thing. I don't think you'd find it so pronounced in Europe, say, or Africa....And of late this country is becoming ever more divided. It used to be that we all watched the same 3 TV stations. Now we each live in our own separate, self-congratulatory realms, interacting only with those who share our political views--and we're dead scared when we venture outside of it.

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West Coast: Did any Tea Partiers say why they were silent (didn't demonstrate) while Bush and Republicans controlled things from 2001-2006 and spent without limitation on the wars and adding the new Medicare Part D benefit without cutting spending?

Bill Donahue: No, they didn't say why they were silent. the story I heard from most was that, during that time, their discontent was slowly building--but had not yet reached the boiling point....

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Atlanta, GA: Do you think we will ever see a day when the Post, the Times or any of the mainstream media will send someone other than an overtly partisan liberal to cover the Tea Party? We all know what liberals think about people who dare not share their policy views. Can we get some insight from someone who does clearly have an axe to grind?

Bill Donahue: When it comes to an issue as controversial as the tea party, is there anyone out there who's not grinding an axe? Even your own "question" does its own axe-grinding...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What was your perception of the relative levels of religious activism versus political activism you noted among the Tea Party members you observed? I asked because I get a sense there are a lot who are more motivated by religious rather than political activism, and I wonder to what degree this religious appeal is bringing religious activists into the political realm>

Bill Donahue: I would say that most Tea Partiers embrace a brand of religion that is inherently political. So their activism is both religious and political at the same time.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Among the Tea Party members you observed, approximately how many appeared to be African American, of Hispanic descent, and of Asian descent?

Bill Donahue: On the bus, as far as I could tell, there were no people of color.

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Washington, DC: Would it be fair to say the most Tea Party activists are unaware of the actual contents of the US Constitution?

And would it be fair to say that most of them are more interested in establishing a right-wing "Christian" theocracy rather than reducing government or obeying the Constitution?

Bill Donahue: I'd venture that the average Tea Partier is better able than the average american to recite chapter and verse from the constitution. That said, yes, you're right--they're bending the constitution to their own agenda and are, most of them, intent on making this nation more theocratic.

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VT: I would like to know how this bus trip was funded.

Bill Donahue: A wealthy benefactress, a widow who lives in Dayton, rented the busses and in fact sent a couple of young guys, each 20 years old, on the trip on a scholarship basis. At the moment, alas, I cannot remember her name, or how she attained the money. She herself is a realtor; her late husband made more money than her, though. She also funded the website, onenationundergod.com, and is first and foremost an advocate for prayer--in schools, for instance.

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USA: If nothing else, I came away from the article seeing the Tea Partiers as less intentionally malicious than before. They just seem ill-informed and sheltered.

Bill Donahue: I'd agree. There's always been a censorial populist strain in America, and it usually involves a few cynical powerbrokers (e.g., anti-communist crusader Joe McCarthy) playing on the innocent fears of good people.

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Lexington and Concord: I think most people alive today grew up on a schoolbook of black-and-white history that teaches kids that, for example, the American revolutionaries were pure in their intent and faultless in action. As you grow up, you learn the story is more complex than that. I think people who grasp onto the Tea Party or these other groups are looking for an "easier" way to view history. We all want to think of ourselves as championing for good against all odds -- it makes us feel special, and right -- and that's easier to do if you're looking at the world through a simplistic lens that doesn't reflect the complexities of the political process or modern history.

Bill Donahue: Well, my daughter, who's 16, is studying US history right now, as part of her 11th grade curriculum, and I'd say that her teacher has an eye for shades of gray. He's probably an anomaly, though. We live in an impatient age, where news stories are ever shorter and dumber and more scintillating. Who wants to learn about troubling complexities--about, say, Thomas Jefferson's slave-owning ways--when we can instead read about Paris Hilton's latest nightclub adventures? Along the same lines, I'd argue that all stories have the whiff of advertising--or branding--about them now. Glenn Beck has expertly branded the American story. He's telling a fairy tale of a simpler, nobler time and everyone's buying it....

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Delaware: Did any of them discuss Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle or any of the other Tea Party names out there? What were their impressions?

Bill Donahue: No, those minor players were not discussed. the bus ride was not a ride for intricate political analysis. It was more like a pep rally.

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Tea Party, oy vay!: Are there very many Jewish members of the Tea Party? At what point is a group so overwhelmingly Christian in not only its composition but also in its philosophy that it verges on being unhospitable to Jews?

Bill Donahue: Well, you're right: There's probably a scant Jewish presence in the Tea Party. That said, I think their gripes are more with Mexican immigrants, with Obama being "foreign-born," and with Arabs. I didn't hear anything explicitly anti-Semitic, and I'd venture they'd find common cause with Israeli Zionists....

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Washington, DC: One of the comments you posted stated: "Underlying all of it seems to be borderline racism, blacks/hispanics/muslims all bad people to dealt with by 2nd amendment remedies."

Have you, either in your experience with the bus ride, or in reading coverage of the movement as a whole, see any tendancy to endorse mass murder of people of other races and religions? Did, for example, the group you travel with recoil in horror at the black, native american, hispanic and jewish leaders who were featured/honored as part of the Restoring Honor event?

If no, do you think there's any danger in misascribing such views to one's political opponents? Does it say anything about us as a people, if any substantial number of people could toss around such accusations without foundation?

Bill Donahue: I'd agree that accusations of "racism" should be thrown around sparingly. If we treat the Tea Party as monolithic and dismiss them all as "stupid" and "racist," that is itself troublingly dismissive. Nevertheless, there are positions that Tea Partiers generally take--e.g., fence the Mexican border-that are highly exclusionary. Racism does not dwell merely in overt slurs.

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Washington, DC: So, when discussing the Constitution did any of tea partiers discuss Marbury v. Madison? Or the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the constitution? I have heard a lot about applying only the text itself, but little about the fact that it is a text meant to be interpreted and applied. The constitution is unworkably vague with gloss from the courts, and indulging in the notion it is possible to apply it without that gloss strikes me as unproductive fantasy.

Bill Donahue: I agree. The Constitution was written over 200 years ago, by fallible people who could not anticipate the world we live in today. And language is always slippery and in need of interpretation.

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Austin, TX: How much of this is generational? In my own (anecdotal) experience, there are may people 60+ who worked for big companies, retired early with pensions and company health care, and really don't understand that things are changing. And also who don't like some of the ways in which the country is changing (majority minority soon, visibility of gays, and, frankly, black president).

Am I wrong?

Bill Donahue: No, you're not wrong. Much of it is generational, I reckon.

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RE: Your Response to West Coast: How much of Tea Partiers' "boiling point" had to do with President Obama's race (i.e., references to take the country back)? Most Tea Party demonstrators I see seem to be overwhelmingly white.

Bill Donahue: I don't know that anyone can measure how much of it has to do with race, but yes, it's an overwhelmingly white movement and riffs of racial fear are abundant. For instance, at the rally in Washington I saw who hadn't traveled on the bus with us. He was wearing a t-shirt that bore a picture of Obama looking somewhat like a monkey. Beneath the picture were the words, "Somewhere in Kenya, a village is missing its idiot." Yes, during the George W. Bush presidency liberals wore shirts saying, "Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot." But Bush is actually FROM Texas. Obama is not from Kenya, and the cartoonish picture of him on that shirt echoed the dehumanization of blacks that has been a very scary part of American history.

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Downtown DC: When did we become such a fearful nation? Or, rather I guess the question is, when did the fearful start to take the reins? I grew up 30 years ago in a community full of the people you rode with and left because I couldn't stand the narrowness and the paranoia any more. so I don't think the answer is the current economic state. But back then, people at least understood that we were a small part of a bigger world. I don't think that awareness is there any more. There's an assumption that the entire world is like them, and anything else is so far out of the majority as to be deviant.

Bill Donahue: Well, it's become a point of pride for people to not have a passport; to eschew speaking French, and even to call French fries "freedom fries." That smug self-congratulatory outlook has an echo chamber effect: We're proud of our narrow worldview so we're going to make it even narrower.

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Arlington, VA: What do you think the odds of Henthorn really running for the Senate? And what would he be like as a candidate?

Bill Donahue: He will run, I'm 95 percent certain of it. He'll be genial and outspoken, more folksy than angry, and a very small percentage of Ohioans will love him to death.

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Washington, DC: While I don't really identify myself as a member of the "tea party" movement, I do share some of the members' views. As such, I give you credit for trying to be fair to them and acknowledging your own point of view, rather than pretending to be objective. But I have to say that I see in your article the same kind of "gorillas in the mist" approach that liberals generally take with the tea party, that they are an oddity to be studied, rather than taken seriously (such as the NYT does with conservatives in general). Yes, there are inconsistencies in some of their views. Are liberals completely consistent? Of course not, and the left's attacks on Obama is proof of that. You seemed to sincerely want to learn about these people and their views, but you also seemed intent on exposing them as hypocrites and fools.

Bill Donahue: Thanks for acknowledging my earnest desire to learn about the Tea Party. The Tea Party is formidable and will help shape next month's election. I take the Tea Party seriously, and I'd venture that my editors do as well. They ran the piece on the cover, and gave me several pages inside the magazine. I don't really think I was intent on exposing them as hypocrites, but rather as colorful characters. My stories--which generally aren't as political as this one--tend to focus on the absurdities in all characters. I'd argue that its our absurdities that make us all endearing. Anyway, you can have a look at billdonahue.net....I tried to retain a removed tone and let the Tea Partiers' quotes speak for themselves.

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Austin, TX: If you had to pick one, is the Tea Party phenomenon ultimately more cultural (religion, immigrants, gays) or economic?

Bill Donahue: Interesting question. More cultural, I'd say.

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Woodbridge, VA: My biggest confusion about the Beck rally is why the focus on going "back" to God? Most of these people seem to be regular churchgoers so when did they move "away" from God? Or is their focus really on making ALL of us go back to (their) God?

Bill Donahue: They want us ALL to go back to God. "One nation under God," etc.

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Hartford, Conn.: I'm a reporter who lived in Dayton for six years. While this article is a good read, I think it will leave D.C. readers with a red state/blue state sense of superiority, and I worry they'll think this is representative of the political climate there. Even in 2004, when Bush won Ohio, Montgomery County was almost exactly 50/50 for Kerry and Bush. I think the poli sci professor was a bit unfair. The now displaced factory workers worked in very integrated environments, and blacks had positions of authority in the plants, too. While there certainly is racism in the Dayton region, I've interviewed Republican activists at Hannity and Cheney rallies in Dayton, and done politics woman- on-the-street interviews in majority white suburbs throughout the county, and I rarely heard the level of suspicion of blacks' patriotism and the Islamophobia quoted in this piece. So, either Republican activists have gotten much more paranoid in the last five years, or this group is not representative. What did ring really true was the preaching on the bus directed at the reporter. That happened to me, too, when I rode a bus from Mansfield, Ohio to D.C. for the Promise Keepers rally.

Bill Donahue: I'd agree that we can't take the people on the bus as representative of greater Dayton as a whole. They are probably extreme within their community. But there are likely more Tea Partiers there in the Dayton area than there are in, say, Portland, Oregon, or Hartford (where I grew up, incidentally).

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Washington, DC: A recent Gallup poll found that the Tea Party supporters were "mainstream" in its demographics--roughly the same make-up in race, age, education, etc. as the American public generally. Why do you think so many people have written in asking about the composition of Tea Party supporters? Genuine ignorance of this fact? Social isolaiton from people who believe differently from them? Or conscious effort to dismiss as racist people who don't agree, rather than open their minds and engage the Other?

Bill Donahue: I have not seen this Gallup poll, and am not quite clear as to the definition of "mainstream," but I believe there's general consensus that the Tea Party movement consists primarily of older, affluent, and predominately white Americans. As that demographic is already largely empowered, those who don't belong to the Tea Party movement are, I think, rightfully worried about their clamorous demands for more power.

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Bill Donahue: I guess we're out of time. Thanks for all your questions!

Best,

Bill Donahue

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