LOS ANGELES -- My favorite Tea Party guy is Merle Firestone from Rainbow, Miss., who left home at 4 a.m. last Saturday morning to drive to Nashville. He left a note on the coffeepot for his wife saying he wanted to hear Sarah Palin at the "National Convention" of the "Tea Party." He could not afford a $300 ticket to get into the auditorium at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, but he thought he might get a glimpse of the former Alaska governor.
He didn't see her, but he did get to hang around the hotel and met a lot of other interesting folk, including a Los Angeles Times reporter, Kathleen Hennessy, who asked him what he liked about Palin. He said he was a bow-hunter, and he particularly liked her support for the sport. Well, that touched me because my father was a bow-hunter, too, though I don't remember it affecting his politics. I don't know how many there are now, but more power to them.
Firestone fit the profile: 72 years old, white, a Southerner and a retired small-business man worried about the damned recession.
Palin, it seems, was worth her fee, $100,000 or whatever it was. Bit of a secret there. But Tea Partyers are not against a girl making an honest dollar, particularly when she's willing to die for them. She put it this way:
"I am happy, honored, proud to take any speaking fee and turn it right back around for the cause. It is about the people. I will live, I will die for the people of America."
Now there's a real American thought. Palin is fun -- a regular Aimee Semple McPherson, if anyone remembers the sexy evangelist from California at its most unhinged.
Or to update things a bit, Palin is a regular Ross Perot -- a rich guy who in his own garbled way voiced the frustrations of vanishing Americans. And the Tea Party looks like that kind of populism, a happy haven for angry vanishing Americans. It provides a place and voice for bow-hunters and such, who see their lives and their way of life threatened by all these new things, these new people.
Although the partyers' obvious target is President Obama, and they are doing him real damage, the whole thing strikes me as more demographic than political. Republican politicians will try to take advantage of the energy of the movement because they share the anti-Obama agenda, but they had better be careful because true partyers are against everyone in power, including Republicans too comfortable or too understanding of the new things and the new America.
The Tea Party's real strength is that people are living longer and no one is sure what to do about that. There are simply more old people. To put it bluntly: They want their kind of health care, with government money but without government regulation, and they don't much care anymore about paying local taxes for the education of other people's children, particularly if those other people are darker or speak with accents.
It is convenient that the fears and frustrations of the fading white majority happen to coincide with the difficult tenure of the first black president. (The same could be said of the visibilty of the new scut workers from Latin America and Asia.) Racism you will always have with you, but that is not the fundamental cause, or even a fundamental cause, for their obvious hatred of that man in the White House. The state of the economy is more important right now than the race of the president giving the State of the Union address. The same demographic forces would be there if the president were white or a woman or both.
There is no role now in the society for many of these people. Their work is not needed, so they are turning to the power of their numbers and of their citizenship. Tea Partyers wave copies of the Constitution around as if (or because) they believe it was written for them. They don't believe it is for or even can be understood by these new others.
But no matter how well we understand the Constitution, it is obviously still a living document which gives the fading and the fearful the space to shout out their anger in the open.