NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Ask Gail Hathaway, a warm, 61-year-old retired nurse from Vonore, Tenn., what she wants out of the “tea party” movement and she returns the quizzical look of someone worried she’s been asked a trick question.
“What do I want? Well, I want it all to stop,” she said late Thursday night from the floor of the National Tea Party Convention, an event billed as the first major conference for the conservative movement currently reshaping America’s political landscape. “Our way of life is under attack. I truly believe they are trying to destroy this country. It’s just hard to say who ‘they’ is.”
While tea party leaders recently have tried to redefine the movement as focused on limiting government growth in the age of big Wall Street bailouts and stimulus packages, Hathaway’s remarks and others like them reflect frustrations that spring from a much bigger pool of concerns.
Some conference attendees said they worry about religious freedom and immigration. They said they sensed a withering pride in American ideals and the country’s place in the world.
Education was a frequent source of outrage among the tea party advocates, who say too little attention is paid to the Founding Fathers and “first principles” of constitutional government. The Revolutionary War often is invoked as a guiding image for the movement.
Some advocates want to require citizens to pass a civics test before being allowed to vote, a proposal reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws used to keep blacks away from the voting booth.
Former Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, the convention’s opening speaker, raised the issue to enthusiastic applause.
“People who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House – name is Barack Hussein Obama,” Tancredo said.
The remarks didn’t go over well with everyone.
“I don’t think that’s the way to unite people. You might have thoughts about some things, but some things are better left unsaid,” said Lisa Mei Norton, a defense contractor by day who moonlights as a singer and songwriter of tea party pop inspired by talk radio.
Norton opted to perform her song “A Revolution’s Brewing” on Thursday night, instead of her “Where Were You Born?” a country-infused song questioning the president’s birthplace.
Roughly 600 people have come to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville for two days of workshops and pep talks to be capped off with an appearance today by a tea party favorite, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.