Norquist takes unorthodox path to find his comedy

Anti-tax activist’s gruff exterior belies a ‘dude’ vying to be ‘the funniest celebrity in Washington’

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OK, Washington joke: Grover Norquist walks into his downtown office. There’s a bronze bust of Ronald Reagan, a towering stack of books, and on the windowsill of the nation’s most powerful anti-tax activist rests an oversized front page from the Onion, a satirical newspaper.

The page sports a photo of President George W. Bush. The accompanying headline reads: “Bush: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over.”

Actually, only the last part is a gag.

“Oh yeah, this is cool,” Mr. Norquist said. “I got this at the Onion’s welcome-to-D.C. party. They asked me to co-host.”

To the Great American Annals of Who Knew? (No. 415: Martha Stewart apparently likes rap music) add this: Mr. Norquist — conservative stalwart, liberal bete noire — has a sense of humor. In fact, Mr. Norquist — the provocateur Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently suggested be “impeached” for torpedoing the congressional debt-reduction supercommittee (despite never holding elected office) — will be performing in the 18th annual Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest Wednesday night at the D.C. Improv in Northwest Washington.

Photo illustration Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times

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The 55-year-old president of Americans for Tax Reform, Mr. Norquist has also performed at Washington’s Warner Theater and New York’s New School University. He has an entire set of self-written jokes, not all of them political. He’s a fan of comedians Steven Wright and Eddie Izzard and can hold an intelligent conversation about being edgy without working blue.

Mr. Norquist is a regular participant in the Washington contest, an event previously won by media mogul Arianna Huffington, former White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

“I worked with Grover [in 2008], and I think he was better than Huckabee,” said Baratunde Thurston, a comedy writer and performer who has judged and performed at the contest. “Dude is surprisingly funny.”

A Web editor for the Onion and politically liberal, Mr. Thurston expected Mr. Norquist to be much as conservative pundit Tucker Carlson once described him: mean-spirited and humorless.

Instead, Mr. Thurston found himself chuckling. Charmed, even.

“Oh, Grover is hilarious,” said Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chairwoman of the Steamboat Institute, a Colorado-based conservative think tank.“Have lunch or sit down and have a quick talk with him, and it’s part of who he is. If you’ve only seen him in little sound bites talking about tax policy, you’re missing out.”

A surprising side

Mr. Norquist isn’t the last person in Washington you’d expect to be witty. That would be Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. But given Mr. Norquist’s partisan reputation, he probably qualifies as a strong runner-up.

The son of a Polaroid executive, Mr. Norquist grew up outside Boston, volunteering for Richard Nixon while attending middle school. In 1985, he founded Americans for Tax Reform at President Reagan’s behest. His “Wednesday meetings” — weekly conservative skull sessions — are a Beltway institution. He serves on the boards of the National Rifle Association and the Nixon Center and sports an attitude toward government aptly summarized by the title of his most recent book: “Leave Us Alone.”

Of course, Mr. Norquist is best known for his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which essentially puts former President George H.W. Bush’s famous “read my lips” promise in writing. Ninety-five percent of Congressional Republicans reportedly have signed it, along with hundreds of state legislators and a number of governors.

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