Speaking to a largely unfriendly — and often openly hostile — audience at The New Yorker Festival’s Tea Party panel on Saturday morning, former House Majority Leader and current FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey attempted to explain to those in attendance the true origins of the tea party and why so many people seem to be so angry right now. And, despite sharing the stage with Harvard history professor and author Jill Lepore, CNBC’s Rick Santelli and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), he openly attempted to rewrite more than a little history to fit his preferred narrative.
The panel opened with a review of Rick Santelli’s now infamous CNBC rant that kicked off the tea party movement in 2009, but it didn’t take long for Armey to deny that the tea party movement started in 2009. Just minutes into the panel, Armey told the audience that, in fact, the tea party movement started before the Obama Administration. He dated it instead to the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in October 2008, under the stewardship and at the behest of then-President George W. Bush.
However, the first organized tea party protests were February 27, 2009, just over a week after Santelli’s rant first aired. The major targets of the rant were the plans to help out mortgage holders unable to make their payments; it aired just two days after Obama signed into law the first stimulus bill. The Treasury Department released details on the Home Affordable Modification Program shortly after the first rallies, on March 4, 2009. The rallies that made the tea parties (and so-called “teabaggers”) a household word and cemented their place in the political debate took place on April 15, 2009 — and were designed to protest the stimulus spending, not the TARP.
It wouldn’t be the only time Armey attempted to re-write history at the event. When accused by Weiner of profiting off the tea party movement, Armey told Weiner and the audience that he’d given up a job that paid more than $750,000 a year to join the non-profit FreedomWorks. Records reflect, however, that between the 501(c)(3) FreedomWorks Foundation and the 501(c)(4) FreedomWorks Inc., Armey currently rakes in a $500,000 yearly salary, plus whatever advance and ongoing revenues he and co-author (and FreedomWorks President and CEO) Matt Kibbe continue to earn from their book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (which retails for $19.99). Plus, Armey is a paid motivation speaker who reportedly commands fees of $25,000 for keynote speeches (though he offers a $5,000 discount to non-profits). The combination of those three revenue sources would indicate that, if Armey does make less money than before, it likely isn’t terribly much less (and it would not have changed his tax bracket, for instance).
Then when asked specifically by moderator David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, from whom tea partiers want the country back, Armey took offense at the implication that the movement was focused on individuals — despite the typical presence at tea party rallies of anti-Obama signs, T-shirts and rhetoric. Armey argued that people in the tea party “want American back from Big Government, not personalities,” to more hissing from the audience.
In response to an audience question about the lack of racial diversity in the tea parties, Armey again denied that there was racism or that the movement was majority white. Instead, he argued that his black conservative friends face intolerance and hatred from the left but are able to find a voice and common cause within the tea parties. Historian Jill Lepore agreed, in part, pointing out that charges of racism in the majority-white movement had led the tea partly movement to forcefully denounce racism and remove from their ranks members caught engaging in racist rhetoric.
Armey, however, probably did more damage than good to his point about racism in the Democratic party and the pressures faced by African-American conservatives with the examples he used in support of his assertion. First, he highlighted the existence of racist quotes — which he got from Glenn Beck’s book — by President Woodrow Wilson, who died in 1924 (and did, indeed, have a deeply flawed view of segregation and race relations, to put it mildly). Then he highlighted the refusal of the Congressional Black Caucus to allow former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK) to join: while it’s true that Watts did not join, he told a reporter at the time that it was actually his decision, as he didn’t agree with many of the CBC’s policy positions. But his biggest problem came when he brought up Clarence Thomas, and accused Democrats of conducting a “high-tech lynching” of Thomas over claims by Anita Hill, who Armey said “just lied” about her allegations of sexual harassment. That earned Armey some gasps from the crowd, followed by more hissing and some outright boos.
More interesting, though, than Armey’s need to re-write history to support his claims about the tea party’s founding, the hostility of the left to African-American conservatives or his own income stream from being part of the professional right were the moments in which he took issue with the tea party movement he has embraced and staked a claim to speak for. When asked whether he, like many movement conservatives and tea party darlings, believes the Constitution was “divinely inspired” Armey mumbled a few nonsense syllables and then talked about the importance of the document, its amendment and how terrible Prohibition was — indicating that, unlike many on the right, he does not think that the documents that established this country are practically holy themselves. (He then declared that the idea that the Constitution is a living document is “a political construct” rather than reality; that claim was left to Lepore to debunk by pointing out that “Constitutional originalism does not date to 1787. It dates to 1967,” as a reaction to the feeling that the Warren and Burger courts had gone too far.)
In a short discussion about the recent Koch brothers article that appeared in The New Yorker, Armey reiterated comments he first made to conservative blogger Matt Lewis in a podcast in August: namely that his fellow conservatives (and potential competitors for tea party dominance) Americans for Prosperity “aren’t particularly influential.” Armey added that the Kochs “parked their money” in AFP in an attempt, like most businessmen, to “leverage” that into outcomes they deem helpful to their bottom line. Though the snide comments about AFP seemed to come out of nowhere, AFP’s deputy communications director Erik Telford has said that the “animosity” perhaps has its origins in the two groups’ shared origins (rather than, say, the right to claim the tea party mantle).