Tea party movement has anger, no dominant leaders

A protester uses a Nazi swastika to make a point at a Tea Party Express stop in Dallas, Texas.
From the stage, Deborah Johns is the angry conscience of the tea party movement.

“Question everything your government is doing,” she tells a crowd of about 100 from the bus’s stage in the parking lot of the Winners casino in Winnemucca, Nevada. Under a setting sun on the steps of the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, Johns says: “Our men and women took an oath when they put on the uniform to defend and protect this country from enemies both foreign and domestic. I think we’ve got some domestic enemies in the White House.” On a sunny afternoon in Louisville, Kentucky, Johns works the crowd of about 2,000 into a frenzy. “The men and women in our military didn’t fight and die for this country for a communist in the White House,” she says, and the crowd erupts in a chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” Watch rally participants converge on Washington On the bus, Johns slips off her heels and slips on a pair of ankle socks. She curls up under a quilt her grandmother made. She favors skirts and cardigans — a pit bull in cashmere. She leads the rallies in each city with Mark Williams, a former talk radio host who now writes books and makes the rounds on cable TV chat shows. Both work for Our Country Deserves Better, the conservative political action committee sponsoring the Tea Party Express bus tour. The tour concludes Saturday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington after a 34-stop tour that began August 28 in Sacramento, California. Williams is the showman of the bunch. His signature line when he gets the mic goes like this: “You can have our country when you pry it from our … cold … dead … fingers!” Again the crowd erupts. Watch scenes from Tea Party Express rallies Seldom seen on stage are the two gurus of the tea party movement, veteran politico Sal Russo and his protg, Joe Wierzbicki. They are charged with turning the passion on display at the tea parties into political action. They have three goals: Defeat President Obama’s health care reform efforts, win back the House and Senate in 2010 and take the White House in 2012.

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Russo grew up in a house full of working-class Democrats in Monterey, California, and nearly gave his father a heart attack when he became a Republican. His first paid gig in politics was working for Ronald Reagan’s 1966 California gubernatorial campaign, and he has worked in conservative politics ever since. Russo often watches the raucous tea party events from his perch in the bus. Besides Johns and Williams each event features several musical acts and featured speakers. The crowd is its own sideshow. Tea partyers are a creative lot, and many in the crowd express themselves by way of their clothing and signs. See some of the getups and signs “Obamacare Condense Cream of Crap soup” reads a sign in Sparks, Nevada. In Dallas, Texas, a darker mood prevails. A homemade sign with “Obama Lies” features a bold, black swastika. As the tour moves on, Nazi imagery becomes more prominent — and sometimes confused. One sign at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, has Obama’s portrait sandwiched between pictures of Adolf Hitler and communist philosopher Karl Marx. In Canton,Ohio, Obama and Hitler adorn a sign reading “Hitler made great speeches, too.” In Elko, Nevada, over a Basque supper of oxtail, lamb and sweetbreads, Russo assesses the tea party movement. “There are some people who are mad at everyone,” he says, “but there are others who say, ‘How do we move beyond this and turn it into action'” Rare is the conversation with Russo in which he doesn’t bring up the name of his idol and one-time boss, Ronald Reagan. But if there is a Reagan out there to take the reins of the tea party movement, Russo doesn’t know who that person is. “It’s opened for a leader. I don’t see anyone out there that can grab it,” he says. “I’ll be surprised if someone emerges. I don’t see who that is.” Many in the crowd hope former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will emerge as the leader of the movement, “but she has so many negatives,” Russo says. If the tea party movement has an architect, it is Joe Wierzbicki. Unassuming in wrinkled khakis and a polo shirt, he is in near perpetual motion. Hands gesturing wildly through the air, he describes his plan. “There are going to be stops along the way. The first stop is going to be the health care reform act,” he says. If the tea partyers can play a part in stopping the president’s health care efforts they will be poised for a much bigger challenge: taking control of Congress from the Democrats, he says. “Those politicians that aren’t responsive to this message are going to face a lot of trouble in their re-election bids in 2010,” he says. That the tea party movement has no leader at this point is just fine with Wierzbicki. He says right now the movement is centered on a few key issues: taxes, expansion and distrust of Obama. “If there was a leader there might be a divisive factor,” he says. In Wierzbicki’s plan, the movement doesn’t need a leader until after the 2010 election. “From then to 2012 is probably the period of time when you’ll find a big national leader that will emerge that the majority of the people in this movement will feel comfortable following,” he says. No one on the tea party express seems concerned with the vocal fringe of the crowds that come with offensive signs — besides Nazi imagery, a poster of Obama as an African witch doctor has become popular — or the numerous conspiracy theories that float around most tea parties. In Battle Creek, Michigan, a woman in her 60s says, “I really don’t want to be a guinea pig for the experiment they have with the population control.” In Canton, Ohio, a woman argues with an Obama supporter: “He’s going after our kids to try to indoctrinate them into a national defense army.” The Tea Party Express tour has been free of violence, but occasional outbursts of vitriolic hatred toward the president combined with some menacing outward appearances often overshadow the more moderate tea partyers. iReport.com: Weigh in on health care In Louisville, Kentucky, two young men in camouflage fatigues roamed the crowd trying to recruit new members for their militia called the Ohio Valley Freedom Fighters. They bear signs reading “AK-47s: today’s pitchfork” and “Quit worrying. Start your militia training today.” In Jackson, Michigan, a young man didn’t need a sign. He was carrying the real thing: A loaded AK-47 assault rifle and two loaded handguns. “I don’t want a revolution. I don’t want a civil war,” he said. “But it is a possibility. It’s there as an option, as a last resort.” From the stage, Deborah Johns and Mark Williams never interact with most of these characters. Russo shrugs it off, saying that the early stages of every political movement have people like this.

To Wierzbicki these troubling elements are just part of the price of a grassroots movement. He is convinced they will not derail the movement. “The message will be moderated by the time it gets to 2010,” he says.