By Geoff Schumacher
"This is the Woodstock you'll remember!" a Tea Party leader shouted at the first in a series of rallies the upstart conservative movement is organizing in more than 40 cities across the country. But for me, and no doubt for many of the estimated 9,000 people in attendance, Saturday's "Showdown in Searchlight" was better off forgotten.
The event was staged roughly two miles outside the town of Searchlight, home of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Along with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reid is the Tea Party's poster boy for everything that's wrong with Washington. Holding the first event there was a clever idea -- taunting the enemy on his home turf -- but actually pulling it off turned out to be challenging.
Just getting there was a challenge. Some 50 miles south of Las Vegas, Searchlight is a very small town with very few amenities. Its mining boom peaked in 1910, and the town's been pretty slow ever since. Its sole motel has 21 rooms.
Compounding that problem, organizers staged the event about half a mile off the highway, in a secluded ravine accessible only via one dirt road. With thousands of people forced through a single choke point, the traffic jams before and after the event were ridiculous. I rode with three other Las Vegas journalists. We left the city at 8 a.m. It was smooth sailing until 8:52, when we joined the line of vehicles on the highway's shoulder. We finally parked, in a sea of pickup trucks, SUVs and RVs, at 11:04.
Fortunately, this two-hour crawl offered its share of entertainment, as all manner of characters paraded past our car. There was a man with a carefully crafted sign that read, "The Plague: Obama, Reid, Pelosi," with the names of the Democratic leaders surrounding the familiar skull-and-crossbones symbol for poison. We noted that he probably meant to use the biohazard symbol.
There also was a teenage boy playing patriotic tunes on the bagpipes. I appreciated his skill with this difficult instrument, if not the fact that his talents were being wasted on the side of a dusty highway in the middle of nowhere.
"Don't Tread on Me" is a popular slogan among the Tea Party faithful. A pedestrian who stopped to chat with us wore a T-shirt displaying this slogan handwritten below a logo for the Rampart Casino in Las Vegas.
One exotic character along the road was an African-American man selling various buttons sporting Sarah Palin's picture. The fact that the guy was trying to make a buck was not unusual. People were selling souvenirs all over the place. But his skin color was very unusual -- I only saw two other African-Americans at the event, a Nevada highway patrolman and a Las Vegas radio host. The lone black man who graced the Tea Party stage insisted he was not "African-American," he was simply "American."
There also were few, if any, Hispanics or Asians in the crowd. The one Asian woman I saw was the girlfriend of the black radio host. He told us he was there in a reportorial capacity only.
Handmade signs were the stars of the rally. Everybody seemed to have scrounged up a permanent marker and some poster board so they could express their views. Some slogans were clever. My two favorites: "Michael Moore Ate Osama bin Laden" and "Stop the Marx Madness." Another one I give an A for effort: "Harry Reid you suck big time. We are going to vote your pathetic socialist ass out!!! Go back to Searchlight and run for dogcatcher."
But most of the signs and T-shirt slogans were lacking in creativity and suffered from glaring spelling and grammar errors. Some were on the scary side, such as the sign in the back window of a Hummer that read, "Beelzebub Obama," and another with the now-familiar depiction of Obama as Adolf Hitler. One nativist proudly held up his literary handiwork: "Yes we can kick you out."
The weather was terrible, unusually chilly for late March and very windy. The masses of tires and feet shuffling through the desert quickly built up a dusty, gritty haze.
Along with the grime, the quality of the warmup speakers quickly ebbed the crowd's initial excitement. One unknown Republican after another took the microphone and tried to fire up the crowd with routine quips and broadsides, all with limited success. It was clear the crowd was interested only in the headliner.
Cheers erupted when Sarah Palin walked onstage, trying not to let the wind rip away the pages of her speech. Given the conditions, she would have been wiser to write her one-liners on her hand.
But the wind wasn't Palin's only problem. Because she was focused on reading from her windblown speech, she didn't speak directly into the microphone. And between the wind and the helicopters hovering overhead, Palin was often drowned out. "We can't hear you!" many admirers shouted in vain. Palin pressed on, chiding the mainstream media for its "lies" about the boorish behavior of some Tea Party members and predicting the end of Reid's political career in November. Then she was gone, and people started folding up their lawn chairs and heading for their cars.
The main problem with the speeches wasn't really the lack of depth. It's pretty hard to delve into the details of any issue when each speaker is given just a minute or two at the mic. The problem was the absence of ideas. Based on Saturday's rally, the Tea Party seems to know what it's against -- socialism, taxes, health care reform -- but it has no clue what it's for. The people are angry, but they struggle to articulate why. For many, it seems, the Tea Party provides a welcoming umbrella for whatever single issue they're fired up about, whether it's immigration, terrorism or the bank bailout.
Some Tea Party officials have said they're fed up with both parties, but as the 2010 election approaches, that sentiment has been squelched, at least in Nevada. Party leaders have shunned a Tea Party candidate, Jon Scott Ashjian, who is running against Harry Reid. The notion of splitting the conservative vote, and thereby allowing Reid to slide into another term, is too much to bear.
Leaving the rally was even more excruciating than our arrival. It took us three mind-numbing hours just to get back to the highway. It seemed like it took forever to pass the port-a-potty festooned with a sign that read, "Harry Reid Donation Center." The most important lesson from the "Showdown in Searchlight" rally was this: If the Tea Party can't show a modicum of competence in controlling traffic, we sure as hell don't want them running the country.
Geoff Schumacher is publisher of CityLife, the alternative newsweekly in Las Vegas, and a political columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.