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Sandpoint woman represents best face of tea party movement

Pam Stout of the Sandpoint Tea Party talks with people during a rally at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls on Nov. 11, 2009. (Rajah Bose / Special to The Spokesman-Review)
Pam Stout of the Sandpoint Tea Party talks with people during a rally at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls on Nov. 11, 2009. (Rajah Bose / Special to The Spokesman-Review)

Pam Stout is not what you might expect from the most famous tea partier in the land.

She talks proudly of helping people through a couple social programs she worked for in California. She says it would be “insane” to eliminate government programs and services. She’s even got a beef with Fox News.

“When O’Reilly called me a loon, and my picture’s up there on the screen, I was so angry,” said Stout, president of the Sandpoint Tea Party. “What’s fair and balanced about that? He never, ever spoke to me.”

And – oh, yeah – she’s nice. Stout is a 66-year-old Sandpoint resident, retired grandmother, U.S. citizen and native of Great Britain whose political fires were stoked by the government’s massive spending in response to the financial collapse.

She was featured prominently in a long New York Times piece in February about the tea parties, and she landed on “The Late Show with David Letterman” last week.

Since then, the geniuses of the Internet have chewed her over from every angle. She’s a “sweet little old lady from Idaho.” She’s a “racist.” She’s “well-spoken” and “middle-aged.” (“I really thought I was old,” she said.) She’s naïve and ill-informed. She’s a hero. She’s a villain.

When Fox News bloviator Bill O’Reilly referred to tea partiers as loons, a picture of Stout was displayed behind him.

Stout rises above it.

“When people say hurtful things about you,” she said, “they generally come from their own pain.”

If the tea partiers know what’s good for them, they’ll put Pam Stout before the public as much as they can, with her friendly manner and British lilt and reasonable notions. Because some of the other faces of the movement are less appealing.

My impressions of the movement come almost entirely from news coverage, unedited video and reading blogs and other commentary. At least among some people at the bigger rallies, there seems to be a surfeit of anger and steady militaristic framing of political issues. Threat talk runs rampant – the government is a threat, health care reform is a threat, higher taxes are a threat.

Worse, of course, are the racism and violent rhetoric from the fringes. It’s not fair to paint the whole movement with that brush – most of these people, like Stout, are primarily in favor of smaller, more fiscally responsible government. But tea partiers protest too much when they claim there’s no connection. When you let a guy carrying a moronic racist sign into your party – and there are many recorded examples of this – you cannot pretend he’s not there.

I told Pam I feared that the movement, with all its martial urgency, could be fertile ground for the Travis Bickles among us.

She said my characterization didn’t sound at all like the tea parties she’s attended, including the big rally on the Capitol Mall on Sept. 12.

“The majority of us are really sane, sensible, common-sense people who see violence as abhorrent,” she said.

She says she hates racism, and I believe her. She says anger is not the defining emotion of the movement, and says she feels it represents “the best of America” – discussions about the founders, the Constitution, the principles of democracy.

Her primary concern is fiscal responsibility, and she wants the government to stop deficit spending. She opposes health care reform because she believes the free market – combined with tort reform – would create a system where “very few” people fell through the cracks. Those social programs she mentions? They left her convinced that government waste and mismanagement are rampant.

When she was invited to appear on Letterman, she was apprehensive. He’d just been in the news for mocking tea party darling Sarah Palin, after all.

“I just thought, you know what, I can hold my own,” she said. “I wanted to present what I believe is the true picture of the tea party.”

In the event, Letterman was courtly and deferential, and Stout may have sealed her status as the most telegenic tea partier. CNN has already scheduled her for an interview about taxes on April 15.

I hope Stout is right. I hope that the true picture of the tea party is friendly, pleasant neighbor who just happens to worry about the collapse of the monetary system – and not an angry, ill-informed goon carrying a sign calling the president the antichrist, or worse.

Someone you could talk to, and be glad you did.

Video of Pam Stout on David Letterman

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Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@
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