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Journalists may write the first draft of history, but the chapter on the tea party has already gone through more than a few revisions.
In the 14 months or so since the tea party burst onto the political horizon, it was first ignored by the mainstream media, then written off as Astroturf, before being breathlessly chronicled, and finally given a mixed report card on its actual political effectiveness.
And now the institutions in charge of history’s second draft — big-time publishing houses, documentary filmmakers and academia — are promising to make sense of it all in a series of books, conferences and documentaries in the months just before and after the critical 2010 midterm elections.
If early indications are any guide, though, tea partiers might be just as displeased with the tone of most of the coming analyses as they were with the mainstream media coverage of their movement, which many contend has unfairly cast them as angry and extremist, not to mention racist, homophobic, misogynistic and paranoid.
Of the four tea party books scheduled for release between August and next spring, all except one — “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto,” by movement leaders Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe — appear likely to take a less-than-flattering approach. The other three are by authors whose prior dispatches on the tea party have come under criticism from conservatives: Kate Zernike of The New York Times, Thomas Frank, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer.
Frank, a self-described liberal whose 2004 best-seller “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” chronicled the rise of conservative populism, is the first to acknowledge that some of the criticism of liberal writing on the tea party might be justified.
“The fact is that a lot of liberal commentary on the right is rubbish, let’s be straightforward here,” Frank said. “It frustrates me to hear other people on the left just brush all this off as so much racism — it’s such a huge misunderstanding.”
Frank described his untitled book, which is expected to be released next spring by Henry Holt and Company’s Metropolitan imprint, as something of a window into the new right for liberals. He said that “one of the things that I’ve always aimed to do in my writing is to actually read the conservative magazines and the websites and the books.”
The blurb circulating in the publishing world describing Frank’s book says it will analyze “the resurgence of conservatism in 2010, explaining how the right positioned itself to profit from the economic crisis, why it has flourished despite its discredited ideology, and what its revival means for America's future.”
Lepore — who studies the history of colonial, Revolutionary and antebellum America — said her book, to be published in October by Princeton University Press, takes a “more historical than political” perspective. It examines “the long tradition ... of political movements and political candidates cloaking themselves in the Revolution — why people do this, how it works, and whether there's anything new about what's going on now,” she explained. The tea party movement has not faithfully applied the language and symbols of the Revolution, she said, “But what would a faithful application be, anyway?”
Zernike — who covered the movement for the Times before taking vacation time to write “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America” (for September publication by Times Books, another Henry Holt imprint) – described her perspective as “curious, which is what I think and hope readers will be.”
Though she conceded that “some conservatives are always going to assume that The New York Times won't be fair to them,” she added. “I've had many people in the movement tell me they think my coverage has been fair.” And she said her book is not intended as a warning about any potentially pernicious impacts of the tea party movement on American politics, but rather as an examination of “what it's about and how it's organizing, because it reflects sentiments that have been with us for a long time and that are not going to go away quickly.”
An ominous tone does run through a documentary called “Rise of the New Right” from MSNBC’s “Hardball,” set to air Wednesday, which concludes with a “warning” from host Chris Matthews.
“What’s scary today is the language thrown about. Words have consequences,” Matthews says in the documentary’s conclusion. “You cannot call a president’s policies ‘un-American’ as Sarah Palin has done, or refer to the elected government as a ‘regime’ as Rush Limbaugh persists in doing, or the president as a foreign usurper as the birthers do, without giving license on some day to real trouble”
Though it includes interviews with leading tea party leaders such as Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul and Armey, and sympathetic profiles of two suburban tea party activists, it also weaves in segments featuring fringe figures whose activities pre-date or are mostly unconnected to the tea party movement, such as New World Order conspiracist Alex Jones and a group of Michigan militiamen, as well as an interview with Birther champion Orly Taitz.
In an e-mail to POLITICO, Matthews said the tea party has helped convey a sense that “the American government is somehow attacking the American people.”
Such a world view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of federal government, he wrote, asserting “anyone who knows how things work in Washington knows that there is not some monolith ‘the government.’ ... The new right seems to argue that this is a battle between the American people and their own government, which suggests you can't reform it, you can't change leaders or representatives, that there is something wrong with the ‘government’ itself.”
A planned documentary for the PBS public affairs series “Frontline” was put on hold after producers conducted a month of research, including traveling to the self-titled National Tea Party Convention in February in Nashville to tape interviews with reporters covering the movement (including this one) and activists.
“We thought that after the election, when we see what happens, we may even have a stronger film that looks at the behind the scenes of what went on to motivate this movement in a really thought-provoking way,” said Frontline senior producer Raney Aronson.
Academia, which moves even more deliberately, has also turned its attention to the movement, with an October conference planned by the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements at the University of California at Berkeley.
The conference includes a panel called “Tapping into Fear, Anger and Resentment: The Tea Party and the Climate of Threat,” and one called “New Forms of Activism on the Right: The Tea Party — Emergence of a Movement?” featuring Christopher Parker, a University of Washington political science professor who helped lead a massive poll this year that got a lot of buzz for its finding of a high correlation between tea party sympathies and resentment toward racial minorities.
Parker, who is in talks with Princeton University Press about a book deal, predicted his project “is probably going to reinforce what liberals — people who watch Maddow and Olbermann — already think.”
His book proposal, which Parker is hoping will result in publication in the summer of 2012, “is not going to be what people who support the tea party want to hear,” he said. “But for people in the middle — people who are moderate or independent — I want to give them a better idea of what the tea party supporters are about, using really good data that’s done really methodologically.
Perhaps the tea party book with the best chance to post big sales is Armey and Kibbe’s “Give Us Liberty,” set to be published in August by HarperCollins's William Morrow imprint.
Armey, who kicked off his book promotion efforts Wednesday at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, is the most marketable author of the bunch. But perhaps more significantly, the nonprofit group run by Armey and Kibbe, FreedomWorks, has perhaps unparalleled connections in the tea party that could help it sell books. The group, which will receive all proceeds from the book, has already sent e-mails promoting it to a 550,000-address email list. It also is a paying sponsor of the syndicated radio show of fiery right-wing talker Glenn Beck, a hero in the tea party movement whose promotions have catapulted many conservative books up the best-seller lists.
At the lunch, Armey said his book “seeks to explain this movement — where it came from, how it came to be, what it does, who these folks are. And it dispels a lot of the fiction and the misperception regarding these people and what they’re up to.”
Kibbe, the FreedomWorks president, said liberals may not be as inclined to buy it, or any other book on the tea party, unless it presented tea partiers as “a bunch of knuckle-dragging racists.”
However, the tea party phenomenon is a subject ripe for serious books, according to Sam Tanenhaus, senior editor of The New York Times Book Review and himself the author of a critical analysis of the right, 2009’s “Death of Conservatism.”
The tea party is “the latest chapter in the insurgency that defined movement conservatism,” Tanenhaus said, explaining that the Times Book Review would likely “preview” most of the batch of upcoming books and decide which ones are worth a full review “on the basis of the merits and interest of each book ... If it’s a serious important book on a topic of interest, then our readers deserve to know about it.”