News & Politics

"Tea Party: The Documentary" -- Attending a Bizarre Movie Premiere for Right-Wingers in Washington

Presented by FreedomWorks, the front group that organized the 9/12 March, a new documentary on the tea parties attempts to suggest that the protests were spontaneous.

The movement's stars were out in force at the Washington D.C., premiere of "Tea Party: The Documentary." Before the Wednesday night screening, presentations by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Senator Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson of South Carolina, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Rep. Tom Price of Georgia -- all Republicans -- got the half-full auditorium in the Ronald Reagan Building humming.

Price, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, presented each of the film's "stars" -- five movement participants characterized as "regular citizens" by director Pritchett Cotten -- with a plaque bearing the text of a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives thanking Tea Party activists for their participation in the September 12th march on Washington.

The film conveys the stories of five activists chosen to represent the movement's everyman and everywoman -- the kind of people who were motivated by Washington D.C.-based lobbying groups to shout down members of Congress at town-hall meetings in their districts this summer. "I think it's a compelling story," Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told me after the screening. "Here's real people in it with real beliefs. It sort of debunks the whole astroturf thing."

What Astroturfing?

Kibbe apparently saw no irony in his comments, or in the fact that the premiere was sponsored by FreedomWorks, an organization chaired by Armey that's known as an astroturfing outfit for its campaign to foment discontent among those regular citizens nationwide. FreedomWorks was instrumental in orchestrating the disruption of town-hall meetings on health care reform called by members of Congress during the August recess. (You can find the FreedomWorks town-hall action kit here in a PDF file; this famous memo [PDF] on how to disrupt a town-hall meeting was distributed by the Tea Party Patriots Google Groups listserv, which was managed at the time by FreedomWorks staffer Florida State Chairman Tom Gaitens

Also involved in creating our summer of discontent was Americans For Prosperity, whose consultant, Joel Aaron Foster, wrote the script for the Tea Party documentary, and is listed as the press contact on the movie media kit [PDF]. Throughout the film, AFP's ubiquitous "Hands Off My Health-Care" signs, which feature a bloody handprint, bob up and down at Tea Party rallies. Despite circumstantial evidence that the two groups work together, I've never seen their two logos on the same event at the same time; they function like the alter-egos of some malevolent superhero. (UPDATE: FreedomWorks Press Secretary Adam Brandon told me that AFP was not invited to participate in the September 12 march because of AFP's support for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP.)

"Tea Party: The Documentary" may not earn a nod from Oscar, but it's a slickly produced piece of cinema that will likely serve as an effective organizing tool for FreedomWorks and other like-minded organizations -- and make a bit of dough for its producers, Ground Floor Video, the company owned by executive producer Luke Livingston, and Riddled With Bullets, director Cotten's production company. Ground Floor Video is selling DVDs of the film. When you consider that 70,000 people came to the march, and tens of thousands more are involved in the movement, DVD sales could yield a pretty penny. This is, after all, a movement that purports to be all about capitalism.

FreedomWorks' Kibbe is quick to say that the film is an enterprise separate from his organization, though FreedomWorks is listed as a "contributor" to the film, as are Americans For Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express.

The film's everyperson stars all hail from the Atlanta area, which is also home base to Americans For Prosperity President Tim Phillips, whose last gig was as a partner with Ralph Reed in the Atlanta-based Century Strategies, an astroturfing and lobbying group implicated in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. The main characters are identified on screen only by their first names. There's Jenny Beth -- that's Jenny Beth Martin, a former GOP consultant, who leads Tea Party Patriots, a group that names FreedomWorks as a partner on its Web site. Dr. Fred makes an appearance -- that's Dr. Fred Shessel, vice president of a group called Docs For Patient Care that opposes health care reform, and a partner in Georgia Urology. William Temple, an historical reenactor, provides what comic relief there is in the film. Temple was chosen to lead the 9/12 March dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia, which he also donned for the premiere.

A guy named Jack, a health insurance agent, plays the role of everydad in footage of him coaching his kids in baseball and dining with his family on spaghetti and Boston Tea Party lore. Then there's Dave, young and buff, described as a medical student and former fashion model.  (Yeah, I know a lot of guys like that.) And don't forget Nate, whose everyman character is better described as onlyblackman. In one scene, Nate speaks mournfully of his loneliness in the movement, but declares his mission is to speak to black people about what's at stake in this fight, which is vaguely framed as a threat to the Constitution. He admits he voted for Barack Obama, but in a display of his remorse he is seen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, amid a sea of white people, carrying an Obama-as-the-Joker sign. Nate was unable to make it to the premiere, we were told, because of an engagement at an Atlanta Tea Party event.

A Bomb Threat, a Bayonet and the Race Card

The film casts its characters as patriots, people buffeted by the whims of a powerful government. Making deft use of iconography, quick-cut editing and musical scoring, the film creates a narrative steeped in emotion. William speaks from a podium in his three-corner hat, a musket in his right hand capped by a gleaming bayonet. A scene of Jack weeping at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during his September 12th visit to Washington is truly moving, and the documentation of the police response to a bomb threat reportedly made on the FreedomWorks offices the day before the march -- that would be September 11th -- is riveting.

I asked Kibbe if police had ever gotten to the bottom of the threat. "No," he said, "which means that they didn't get any leads, I assume." There were "a bunch of activists" in the office at the time, he said. "They were makin' signs and stuff, and [executive producer ] Luke [Livingston] was interviewing me -- it looks phony; it looks like it was all set up. So Luke was interviewing me, and some guy who works in my office had said, 'We just got a bomb threat.' You know, frankly, I didn't take it seriously. I thought it was just an obnoxious tactic. But, you know, the lady who answered the phone -- the guy was really obnoxious. She's a black lady; they used racial epitaphs [sic], swearing at her, and all that stuff. So he freaked her out, and before I even know it, they were all debating this, and they were like, should they call the cops, and the cops said they have to take it seriously. So they brought the dogs in, but obviously, there wasn't a bomb."

Jenny Beth is presented as just a regular mom, fallen on hard times and radicalized by news of the bank bailout. We learn that in a single year her husband lost his business, she had a miscarriage, and the couple lost their home to foreclosure. It's hard not to feel for them. But we're not told that the Martins sought bankruptcy protection -- a government bailout of their own -- or that they owed half a million in back taxes. Nor is Jenny Beth's background as a Republican consultant mentioned.

Dr. Fred is shown among a group of doctors who appeared on Capitol Hill in white coats to hold a grass-rootsy rally and lobby their congressional representatives. At one point they happen in on an event presided over by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that features speakers advocating for a single-payer health care system. Conyers suspends the agenda of his event to allow the doctors to plead their case against government-run health care. All is going well, it seems, until we see footage of the doctors, a dozen or so of them, leaving the room en masse. Conyers, we're told, has "played the race card" in a comment about why Republicans won't vote for his single-payer bill. But there's no footage of the offending statement.

"No, it wasn't captured on the film," Dr. Fred Shessel told me after the screening. "But at the end of the -- at the point at which we left, he did sort of play the race card. And his comment was, the only reason the Republicans won't vote for his bill is because they want to embarrass the first African-American president. And we thought that was uncalled for, because this is really not about race. It's about people; it's about human beings, about patients and doctors. It has nothing to do with black, white, green, purple, yellow or any other color."

Yet one participant in the meeting, who asked not to be named, had no recollection of the doctors storming out of the event. In fact, he said, they hung around after the event was over, talking with Conyers and others.

But what of the movement's own race cards, I asked Shessel -- like some of the offensive signage seen at Tea Party events. "I personally have not seen anything that is racially motivated," Shessel replied. "All the signs I've seen have been about big government, about government interference in health care, about runaway spending. I've not seen -- if you have, I'd be happy to see that with you. But I've never seen one single thing that spoke of racism at all."

At a sign-making party shown in the movie that took place at the Hyatt Capitol Hill on the eve of the September 12th march, I personally saw handmade signs with sayings about Obama that featured a cartoonish monkey face. "Bad Change," one read. "Where's Your Birth Certificate?" asked another. These are not featured in "Tea Party: The Documentary." But displayed in one scene of the after-march rally at the Capitol building is a sign reading, "Long-Legged Mack Daddy" -- an apparent reference to a viral video of preacher James David Manning that, as AlterNet reported last summer, is a favorite among certain elements of the Tea Party crowd. Manning warns that "white folks are gonna riot in the streets, and I'm gonna join them." Throughout the video, the preacher, an African American, refers to Obama as a "half-breed Mack Daddy" and a "long-legged Mack Daddy" -- slang for a kind of megapimp.

Schmoozing With the Stars: Armey Speaks

After the screening, I caught a moment with Dick Armey, and asked him to answer the charges of astroturfing to which FreedomWorks has long been subjected. "It's just plain silly," he said. "I mean, first of all, it's ridiculous."

"But you guys have organized these folks, right?" I asked.

"No, it -- we never organized -- we organized the event here," he said, referring to the September 12th march. "But we did not make arrangements for a single individual to get here. We paid for the stage, we applied for the permits, we sent the word out that we're gonna have this event."

But what about the FreedomWorks Web site?

"Well, sure," he replied, "to let people know about it. But, you know, the astroturf malarkey that's coming from Speaker Pelosi is that we're hiring buses and that we're putting people on buses; we never paid for a single bus, nor assisted anybody gettin' on a single bus. It's absolutely ridiculous. I mean, I don't know what else, what other words I could say. I mean, the same thing at town-hall meetings, and up and down the line. You saw the documentation tonight, how the people are communicating with one another."

The movie shows Jenny Beth using Google applications to organize her Tea Party Patriots contingent, but her Google Groups listserv, according to TPM's Brian Beutler, was managed by a FreedomWorks staffer field organizer. And Pelosi's comments about astroturfers busing in protesters were directed at Americans For Prosperity's busloads of protesters at Michele Bachmann's anti-health care reform rally of November 5th, not the September 12th march.

Armey's contention that FreedomWorks wasn't organizing rallies was refuted unwittingly by one of the movie's stars. Explaining how he found his way to the Tea Party movement, Dr. Fred Shessel told me, "We first organized an organization in Atlanta called Docs For Patient Care, and as we began to extend out and network, we found out about Tea Party, we found out about FreedomWorks, and we organized a rally in Washington. FreedomWorks helped us organize that rally. So that's how we got hooked into the whole...network."

William Temple showed up at the Tea Party Patriots' Tax Day rally on April 15th, and he seems to have become an instant star, not least because of his 18th-century garb, and the complementary neo-British accent in which he speaks when portraying members of the Continental Army in historical reenactments. But once he arrived at Atlanta's Golden Dome, he said, he was truly moved by the numbers of people there, whom he characterized as both Democrat and Republican. Temple hails from a military family, and fought in Vietnam. Like many veterans of that war, he says he was literally spat upon when he returned stateside at the Oakland Airport.

He got a job with the Secret Service as a graphic designer, and went on to serve in two other agencies, retiring from the government in 2005. As a federal retiree, he receives his health care through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, a cafeteria plan not unlike the insurance exchanges now proposed for the rest of America in the health care bills he opposes. Tall and striking, Temple is a charmer, yet seemingly earnest in his beliefs. An elder in his non-denominational church, which is predominately African American, he considers himself a student of the end-times. "I'm ready for the Upper-taker, not the undertaker," said, referring to the Rapture. "It could happen at any moment."

"Tea Party" star Jack the insurance agent is a small, fit, tightly wound man with a quick smile, who conveys emotional intensity. In the trailer for the movie, he says that he just wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't do something about the nation's terrible state of affairs. When I asked him for a comment for AlterNet, he asked if the site was conservative or liberal.

"Liberal," I replied.

"Great. Let's go, babe," he said. "Let's tear it up."

I asked him how he found his way into the Tea Party movement. "Originally, I don't know how I found out about the rally in--" He stopped. "I can't remember how I found out about the first rally that I went to," he said.

He contends that his career as an insurance agent has nothing to do with his opposition to health care reform. "I've been disgusted by what's going on in the government right now," he said. "I've been disgusted for a long time. Like I said earlier, I don't care if it's Bush or Clinton or the other Bush or Obama, or any of them."

He was reserving judgment he said, even for members of Congress who are allied with the Tea Party movement. "We'll see how they vote," he said.

He said he thinks he voted for Clinton, but his political thinking changed after his children were born. It was concern for their futures that prompted his ideological evolution, he said, and "things like the need for discipline."

After I shut off my recorder and turned away, he said, "Write something nice about me, Adele, or I'll stalk you." Then he smiled.

The Birth of a Movement -- and a Movie

The way the Tea Partiers tell it, the movement was born in February, with just a handful of tax-revolt "tea parties" convened in protest of President Obama's stimulus package. By March, FreedomWorks was applying for permits for the September 12th march, said Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks' grassroots non-organizer, who is credited with the idea. (I can't call him an organizer if, as Chairman Armey says, they don't organize.)

"What I saw was hundreds of people like the five who were chronicled tonight," Steinhauser said, "and I saw them in D.C. and Atlanta and I saw them in various cities, and I saw the sentiment was there, they were all on the same page. They didn't know each other, but they were all moving in the same direction, and I think what we did is gave focus. We said, once we organize these first round of tea parties, I know everyone's gonna want to come to Washington."

Steinhauser is young and enthusiastic. "Everyone remembers the 1963 march on Washington -- Martin Luther King's famous march, where they had a quarter of a million people," he said. "And they went through the same stuff that we went through, in terms of the different organizations trying to figure out how to do this and that. And they'd all done their thing in their local communities, and they were ready to come to D.C. and make a very public statement." The press kit for "Tea Party: The Documentary" asserts that 1.5 million people showed up for the September 12th march; mainstream media put the number at 70,000 -- which is still quite impressive -- based on an estimate, according to this ABC News report, from the Washington D.C. Fire Department. (UPDATE:Although the ABC News report to which this link goes clearly states ABC's estimate as based on one from the D.C. Fire Department, nine days later, the Fire Department issued a statement saying it did not make that estimate.)

He says that the first "protest of the Obama administration," as he termed it, was a Tea Party in Ft. Meyers, Florida, on February 9th, which drew about a dozen people. Yet by March he was applying for permits for a massive march on Washington. Either he was extremely prescient about a groundswell of opposition to the newly elected president, or already had an organizing network in place -- or both.

It wasn't much more than a month after Steinhauser applied for his permits that filmmakers Livingston and Cotten began shooting footage. Livingston, the production company owner, knew Jenny Beth Martin, who organized the Tax Day protest in Atlanta that drew some 20,000 people to Atlanta's Golden Dome on April 15th -- the one that drew William Temple. Cotten and Livingston volunteered to shoot the event and run the Jumbotrons, Cotten told me, and from that moment on, they were already scouting talent for what would become "Tea Party: The Documentary." Between the April 15th event, and a rally against health care reform sponsored by Americans For Prosperity in Atlanta on August 15th, Cotten and Livingston found their talent. The forlorn Nate, the movement's emissary to black people, was found in the crowd at the August event. Dr. Fred Shessel was one of the speakers at the August rally (as were Dick Armey and Ralph Reed).

Pritchett Cotten, a fair-skinned man in his 30s who wears a narrow-rimmed felt hat, has worked with Luke Livingston and his Ground Floor video for about two years, he said, but until the Tea Party movie undertaking, the two teamed up only on commercials and corporate video for clients including Coca-Cola, Fox Theater, The Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, Cotten said. He said the Tea Party movie offered him the opportunity to apply his skills as a narrative filmmaker to the documentary form.

"We really tried hard to make it kind of fit within the regular screenplay structural, three-act formula," Cotten explained, "which a lot of it has to do with keeping people engaged... it needs to have these things, character arcs and a dramatic structure."

FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe has high hopes for the film's success in his organizing plans. "[M]oving forward," he said, "we want to connect people on more of a social basis. We want to create community. We want to make it fun to be active, and I think the left has done a much better job of this. Our side was always quite two-dimensional. We're like, 'Call your congressman; stop this health care plan.'  Or, 'Show up and vote against that guy.' The problem with that is, the day after the vote people go home. There's no community in that."

Sounds like they plan to stick around.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the last name of the executive producer of "Tea Party: The Documentary." His name is Luke Livingston, not Littleton.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.