NASHVILLE, Tenn. – She had them even before she said hello. And she had them before she prefaced her much-awaited speech by paying homage to conservative hero Ronald Reagan on what would have been his 99th
birthday. By the time Sarah Palin took the stage on Saturday, the last night of the first National Tea Party Convention, the room was already with her, anticipating each dig at the "liberal left" and shout-out to "everyday people" -- and rewarding her with repeated ovations.
Palin was mocking, asking, "How's that hope-y, change-y stuff working out for you?" and she was serious, especially while criticizing what she judged to be President Obama's too-measured approach to national security. A country at war, she said, needs "a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law."
Palin was folksy. Sticking our kids with the bill for deficit spending is a form of "generational theft" that makes us less secure, makes us less free, "and that should tick us off." Sure, solving the country's problems is tough, she added, but "If you can't ride two horses at once you shouldn't be in the circus."
Palin was emotional. She choked up as she summoned the spirit of Reagan, which lives on in an America where "children with special needs are welcome."
Most important to the 1,100 people who filled the ballroom at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, she was, they said, herself. She directly confronted criticism of her rumored $100,000-plus speaking fee by pledging to plow it back into the movement. Even if she hadn't made that vow this audience wouldn't have cared: digs like that will never stick to someone judged so appealing and authentic by the very people who put "Going Rogue" on The New York Times best-seller list. (The New York Times. They love that.)
"She's so wholesome," said Donna Fike, 72, of Greenbriar, Tenn., "such a real person, a housewife, a mother who's worked for a living. She's good at everything, the epitome of what every woman wants to be." Fike, who wore a sparkly flag-decorated cap and a button advertising Vets4Sarah.net, had never before seen Palin in person -- and was hardly disappointed: "There's an energy she brings to everybody."
What Fike said wasn't a surprise. Those who question Palin's knowledge of world issues miss the point. Pike hopes Palin runs for president in 2012 to "show the citizenry that a person who comes from the grassroots can do it, that anybody can do anything. ... The things she says I know she believes."
Throughout the three-day conference, Tea Party speakers divided their world into victims and villains, the sacred and the profane, patriots and everybody else. That leaves a lot of citizens out of Palin's America, as some of them conceded. Pike admitted that Tea Party activists can "get caught up in painting everybody with a broad brush." But there's comfort in certainty.
Palin is certain. "I do believe that God shed his grace on thee," she said in her speech.
Those were the words Thomas Chanteloup of Cincinnati wanted to hear. "Our rights come from God," he said. Unlike Pike, Chanteloup had seen Palin before – six times before, he thinks. The first time was Nov. 1, 2008, he remembered, at a rally in Polk City, Fla. There was Evansville, Ind., and Auburn, N.Y. He's met Palin's husband and mom. Chanteloup totes around two large posters, one with Palin holding her son, Trig, who has Down's syndrome. "Her courage sets her above any Republican politician," he said. "She'll have to be brave enough to tell the American people we can't spend this much" if she's elected in 2012, which is Chanteloup's wish.
Sarah Palin herself said on Saturday night, "This isn't about a title," although she could have been elected queen of the Tea Party, no problem. She praised the absence of a single designated leader at this convention, and she advised her follow Republicans to latch on to the cause -- quickly. "This movement is the future of politics in America," she proclaimed.
"Run, Sarah, run," the room shouted in response, as she rushed to whatever comes next – the one uncertainty, for now, in Palin's world.