BOOK REVIEW: How they came to the cause

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BOILING MAD: INSIDE TEA PARTY AMERICA
By Kate Zernike
Times Books, $25, 243 pages

Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for the New York Times, is, according to her publisher, “exceptional among mainstream reporters in portraying the Tea Party without the preconceived notions employed by others in her profession.” True enough, and by that standard (and its implicit criticism of her own newspaper) “Boiling Mad” represents a highly readable and successful exercise in objectivity.

Among the rapidly growing pile of Tea Party books, it may lack the breadth and political depth of “Mad as Hell” by Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen, or “Give Us Liberty” by Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe. Nor is it always in step with the rush of current events, fashioned as it is out of stories previously covered by the author on assignment for her newspaper.

Rand Paul, whose candidacy, while inherently interesting, is no longer at the top of the news, gets what might be a disproportionate amount of space. And although Sen. Scott Brown’s Massachusetts victory represents a crucial turning point in contemporary political history, its feature-story treatment makes it seem dated.

But that’s a common problem among journalists making books out of expanded features. It in no way lessens the validity of Ms. Zernike’s insights or the genuine empathy shown for the people she covered, especially the early activists - the young teacher with a pierced nose, Keli Carender, who read National Review and Thomas Sowell and set out to bring an awareness of conservative principles to Seattle; young mother Jennifer Stefano, who stumbled onto the Tea Party and set out to remake her local Republican Party in a swing district outside Philadelphia, prompting the party to take legal action against her.

In a preview of coming attractions, as acted out most recently in Delaware, Ms. Stefano told the author: “I am not the enemy, I am not looking to overthrow [the Republican Party] or anything like that. People like me in the Tea Party, why wouldn’t you make us your allies?”

Why indeed, Christine O’Donnell might add. As she put it in her victory speech in Delaware: “A lot of people said we couldn’t win the general election; yes we can. It will be hard work, but we can win if those same people who fought against me work just as hard for me.”

Additionally, writes the author, Ms. Stefano was “emblematic of a striking trend. A significant portion of the Tea Party organizers were women, in a movement that nearly every poll suggested was supported mainly by men.”

Interesting that when something like a genuine women’s movement finally hit national politics, it came not from the left, as expected, but from the right - from Alaska to California to Delaware, with numerous stops in between.

Although Ms. Zernike’s book was published before the most recent primaries, she foresaw many of the internal conflicts now beginning to boil as a result of Tea Party successes. Her reporting is detailed and evocative, with sympathetic portraits of movement activists - how they came to the cause, what they’ve found in it, how they’ve made it work.

In the process, she captures their personalities, characters and enthusiasms and is always respectful, whether she’s talking to kids or elders like Mr. Armey, recognizing their seriousness and sincerity of purpose. As Mr. Armey once put it, “Washington is a city of young idealists and old cynics.”

If so, Ms. Zernike concludes, “The men and women of the Tea Party, this coalition of young and old, [are] the new young idealists in town,” whose goals are “less invasive government, lower taxes, and fealty to the view of the nation the founders enshrined in the Constitution.”

If so, then it’s just what its members say it is - a genuine grass-roots (and not Astroturf, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strained metaphor has it) American political movement - young, principled and energetic - and coming straight from the right.

That’s something the old cynics - the bulls and grandees of both parties - are going to have to deal with.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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