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'The Whites of Their Eyes': Tea party's fundamentalist streak

At the end of his acrimonious 2000 primary dustup with John McCain, George W. Bush magnanimously told reporters, "I think we agree, the past is over."

The Tea Party's Revolution
and the Battle Over American History

By Jill Lepore

Princeton University Press

207 pp. $19.95

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Reviewed by Stephan Salisbury

At the end of his acrimonious 2000 primary dustup with John McCain, George W. Bush magnanimously told reporters, "I think we agree, the past is over."

The former president had it wrong.

As Jill Lepore points out in her brief but lively portrait of our history-infected times, for folks like the tea party partisans, the past is not only not over, it's not even past. William Faulkner once made a similar observation in Requiem for a Nun. Tea partyers are right there with him.

Of course, every generation creates its own history and refashions the past to its own liking, and within each generation, multiple histories contend for preeminence. Nothing new about that.

What Lepore finds remarkable about history as told by the tea party is that it is history that has dispensed with time. Past and present are conflated. The founders are not back there, they are right here. They are phantasms marching in the streets against Obamacare. They are celebrities.

"Who's your favorite founder?" Glenn Beck once asked Sarah Palin. "Um, you know, well," she replied, "all of them."

Lepore argues that tea party history is akin to fundamentalist religion:

"People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know what the founders would do and, mostly, it comes to this: if only they could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves. We have failed to obey their sacred texts, holy writ. They suffered for us, and we have forsaken them. Come the day of judgment, they will damn us.

"That's not history. It's not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It's not originalism or even constitutionalism. That's fundamentalism."

Well, yes, that may be true, but bigger forces drive those tricorn hats and pious homages to the Constitution and Sam Adams: the long-handled spoons of corporate and conservative funders. And they're using all the powers of marketing at their command to put George Washington's seal of approval on tea party efforts.

This is not to say that the impulses motivating tea partyers are not genuine. Lots of tea party folks are angry: about taxes and welfare and federal power and many other things. But what has given the tea party visibility, put a public face on it, wrapped it in that "Don't Tread on Me" flag and put it on bus tours, has been conservative marketing, primarily driven by communications outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and by advocacy groups such as Dick Armey's FreedomWorks.

I certainly wish Lepore had explored this a bit further, but marketing and funding are not part of the story she wants to tell. We do learn that the Tea Party Express, which has a major role in her narrative, grew out of Our Country Deserves Better, an anti-Obama political action committee. But we never learn about the direct role of right-wing and Republican public relations and advertising operations in creating the Tea Party Express, nor do we learn the role of right-wing funders such as David Koch and Koch Industries in souping up the Tea Party Express message and methods.

This matters because it sheds some light on what has become known as "astroturfing" in political circles - the practice by corporate interests of using large amounts of money to subsidize and manipulate seemingly independent and spontaneous events and movements.

Does the tea party movement tap into legitimate, grassroots displeasure with the state of America? Absolutely. How that displeasure manifests itself, however, is often a function of corporate marketing money. Enter the Tea Party Express.

That said, Lepore, a Harvard University historian and writer for the New Yorker, has a good ol' time shooting fish in a barrel. But by far the most interesting and biting parts of her story come not from cleaning up messy and false tea party tales of the olden days, nor from her parallel account of the leftist history promoted by activists during the nation's bicentennial in the 1970s.

What Lepore does best is rescue forgotten people and moments from the Revolutionary era and remind us beautifully of the many-layered power of place.

In some ways, this little book is not so much about the tea party and American history as about richly knowing a city, in this case Boston. To know a city through time, to look at a spot and know what once stood there is among the most intense - and often ironic - urban pleasures. Lepore conveys this beautifully.

When former New York Gov. George Pataki arrived in Boston earlier this year (three days after the Tea Party Express bused out of town) while pondering a presidential run, he positioned himself in front of a statue of Paul Revere in the North End.

He was there, Lepore notes, to plump for his Revere America nonprofit, an organization "dedicated to advancing common-sense public policies rooted in our traditions of freedom and free markets."

Lepore knows that Revere statue well. She also knows that it stands on the spot where Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's much-loved sister, once lived - the sister who buried 10 of her children and tried to cope with widowhood and two sons gone mad.

Revere America's motto is "Respecting our history. Protecting our future," Lepore notes.

Jane Mecom had not much use for free markets, it seems. She was more concerned with staying out of debtor's prison and keeping her children away from death and madness.

In 1786, Mecom wrote to her brother from the very house that made way for Paul Revere's statue in the 1930s, the spot usurped by George Pataki, free marketer. The poor are "lost to the world," she quietly lamented, "and lived and died in Ignorance and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable Situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages."

She reminded Benjamin that "very few we know . . . is able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding."

Her brother understood her point well and did not argue, although Pataki, the heads of the Tea Party Express, and the billionaire heads of Koch Industries no doubt would shout Jane Mecom down: No government handouts!

But, alas, she is dead - as dead as her brother.