Tea Party Convention marks coming out for a movement

NASHVILLE — In the weeks leading up to the National Tea Party Convention, Judson Phillips didn’t do much talking to the media. The founder of Tea Party Nation, the chief organizer of the conference alongside his wife Shelley, was buffeted by attacks from Tea Party activists who accused him of staging a costly, “elite” convention, and dirtying the reputation of the movement by paying Sarah Palin $100,000 to speak there. On January 14, Tea Party Nation put out word that only five conservative media outlets would get full access to the convention. On January 30, they issued an email to their internal list pushing back against “baseless accusations and criticism” from angry Tea Party activists.

National Tea Party Convention organizer Judson Phillips (David Weigel)

National Tea Party Convention organizer Judson Phillips (David Weigel)

But on the floor of his convention, the paranoid, mysterious Judson Phillips was nowhere to be seen. The real Phillips, a jovial defense attorney, bounded in and out of sessions, across the stage of the Gaylord Opryland Hotel’s Tennessee Ballroom, and from interview to interview. Hardly 15 minutes could go by without Phillips, sporting a rumpled tan suit and day-old shave, shaking the hand of a grateful attendee or being miked for a new interview.

“I’m talking to them,” he said, pointing at a video crew from Time magazine, and asking if he could wait a few minutes to answer questions. “Then I’m talking to them.” He pointed to CNN’s set-up box in the corner of the small convention hall. “Then I have another interview in a half hour. But I will talk to you!”

As this three-day event wrapped up with an hourlong address by and Q&A with Sarah Palin — broadcast live on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and C-Span — it was clear that Phillips’s massive and controversial gamble had mostly paid off. More than 200 members of the media had descended on Nashville to write probing stories on the Tea Party Movement. In the end, said Phillips, the convention would turn a small profit — a step down from his initial hopes to make enough of a profit to launch a 527 that would back conservative candidates, but when compared to the rumors that led up to the convention, a smashing success.

“We’re going to break even, maybe a little bit into the black,” Phillips said. And just as he did from the main stage, Phillips went a little further and ribbed his critics with a joke. “I’m not planning to declare bankruptcy. I had to do that one time–it really sucks when you have to do that.”

To the delight of attendees, the National Tea Party Convention became a coming-out party for a movement that’s always had an oppositional relationship to the press. It was a small event — around half the size of the inaugural YearlyKos convention of liberal bloggers in 2006 — and The Gaylord Opryland location served to make it look even smaller. The entire weekend was contained in a ballroom and three breakout rooms adjacent to a short lobby with media check-in on one end and a raft of cameras on the other, with pundits like The Daily Beast’s John Avlon and RedState’s Erick Erickson doing quick live bits. Getting to the convention floor meant walking through one of two indoor shopping malls, one of them inside a massive dome decked out with greenery and artificial lakes. “I imagined one day I’d meet [Palin],” said conservative media pioneer Andrew Breitbart in his introduction of the former governor. “I just never knew that it would be in the middle of Tennessee, in a biosphere. Or is it an international space station? Or is it the set of Avatar?”

Inside the main hall, and inside the breakout sessions, there was one member of the media for every three Tea Partiers. During the troubled run-up to the convention, those sessions (and Palin’s speech) were scheduled to be closed to the media, and only a few cloaked-in-mystery “availabilities” would be opened up.

“I think they were the dog that caught the car,” said Erickson, who had been an early critic of the convention. “They got Palin. Who thought they were going to get Palin? They didn’t know what to do next.”

In the final stretch, as coverage of the “intra-Tea Party infighting” reached fever pitch, Phillips put Memphis TEA Party founder Mark Skoda in charge of media outreach. (”I just didn’t want to deal with it,” Phillips told TWI.) It was Skoda, a bombastic radio host and consultant, who started keeping in touch and on top of media requests and letting the world in.

“I jumped in when all the negative press was coming,” Skoda said, “because I don’t have a lot of tolerance for people who want to be bullies. My focus was getting as much video press in here as possible, that show that we’re not a bunch of crazies, OK? So there was a necessity to look at international press. We wanted to give them access because this is truly American. Our president may not believe in American exceptionalism, but I do. And if you look at most of the U.S. press, there’s a national audience — there’s a lot of videography going on. My sense was: Nobody here is wearing crazy outfits, there’s no little pointy hats, no screaming mimis, no signs.”

Skoda’s calculation paid off. The few people in “crazy outfits” did draw cameras toward them as if they were magnetized. One was William Temple, a pastor who donned the revolutionary war garb and British accent he’d broken out at every Tea Party. During speeches, Temple would wave his hat and lead cheers of “Hip, hip, huzzah!” Outside of the main room, he was interviewed with every step he took. But Tea Partiers hardly had anything to fear from the quotable and polite man who co-starred in “Tea Party: The Documentary Film” and led the 9/12 march on Washington.

“Gone were the placards that protesters carried [at Tea Parties] last year with Mr. Obama’s face wearing a Hitler mustache or superimposed on the Joker,” wrote Kate Zernike in a New York Times piece representative of the convention coverage. Many questions to organizers were about the firey speech by former congressman Tom Tancredo that opened the convention; many questions to attendees were about Palin, and whether they’d back her if she ran for president. The controversy surrounding the convention and its speakers led to media coverage of the convention as a mainstream political event, a stop along the road to the rebuilding of the GOP. One sign of how happy Tea Partiers were to see the media there came after Anthony Reese, who’d left the organizing committee of the convention in a huff, staged a press conference with three other angry activists critical of what happened–and then asked Fox’s Carl Cameron for a photo together. Cameron obliged.

“I think the media convinced the media to cover this by playing up the early stories,” said Glenn Reynolds, the libertarian Instapundit blogger who drove to the convention from his home in Knoxville. He was conducting interviews for PajamasTV, the conservative web network that ran some of the earliest coverage of the Tea Party movement, and was allowed to livestream most of this convention. “If I wanted to give Judson Phillips more credit than he deserves, I’d claim he was actually a genius who manipulated the media into giving this more coverage. I mean, this was the front-page, headline story in the Knoxville paper yesterday!”

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David Weigel

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