A reporter who can't find crazy at a tea party rally is like a farmer who can't find pig urine in a sty. Yet I confess I came up empty in my search for crazy at today's tea party rally on the Capitol Square.
I think I'd have found some had I taken a less aggressive approach. Instead, I blew my chance by actually talking to the people who I thought fit the bill.
My strategy was simple: Look for crazy handheld signs, and assume they are attached to crazy people. Instead, in the end, they all belonged to decent folks who seem to have not grasped that Fox News' "fair and balanced" slogan is meant ironically.
Take the first person I approached -- a woman with a sign saying, "Say No to Voter Fraud." This and many similar signs at the rally were in response to a bill now before the state Legislature to make it easier to register voters, like doing this when people apply for driver's licenses.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has come out against this measure, saying it increases the risk of voter fraud. The woman I spoke to -- "Laurel" was her name -- was worried about the same thing. "They're going to be using a national organization to verify registrants," she told me. "That sounds like ACORN."
Sound crazy to you? I'm just not sure. Maybe ACORN will indeed come back from the dead to verify the voter registration forms of people who get driver's licenses in Wisconsin, and use this opportunity to commit wholesale fraud. Maybe it won't. The point is, Laurel wants elections to be fair. Nothing crazy about that. Besides, she was very nice.
I talked to a guy holding a sign that said, "Liberty Not Tyranny." I asked him what tyranny he meant. He explained he was referring to what's happened lately in the United States -- you know, the "takeover by a totalitarian dictator."
This confused me. What totalitarian acts have occurred? He had a ready example: "The bandwagon for health care." But wasn't this passed by a majority of the elected representatives of Congress? That was his point exactly. "We're not a democracy," he told me.
We're not? "We should be a republic," he informed me. "Democracy just means there are more people you can strong-arm."
I never thought of it like that. And yes, at various times in my life, I've had my own doubts about the wisdom of democracy. So who am I to call him crazy?
Next I spoke with a guy whose sign said, "Disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God," a statement he attributed to "Ben Franklin and/or Thomas Jefferson." Doesn't he know which it was? "No," he assured me. "Nobody does. I thought it was Patrick Henry."
This was the only person I spoke to who gave me his full name: Chuck Rauschenberger of Lake Geneva. I thought for sure he was crazy -- until I got back to the office and Googled this quote. The first thing that comes up is a Wikipedia entry: "This statement has often been attributed to Jefferson, as well as to Benjamin Franklin."
Lots of signs used the word "socialist" to refer to Obama and his policies. I spoke to a woman named Nancy from the village of Oregon outside Madison who had a sign saying, "If it walks like a socialist and talks like a socialist..."
Does she really think the Obama administration is socialist?
"They're engaging in socialistic activities," she told me, explaining how she feels the American ideal of being able to work hard and keep what you earn is being eroded. "I was raised in the military," Nancy told me. "I've watched soldiers give their lives only to see their freedoms whittled away little by little."
Like how? Like health care. Nancy was upset that the reform package that just passed means "some panel or committee of bureaucrats will decide what I will be eligible for based on my [perceived] worth to the community." She even fretted that these bureaucrats might disallow treatment because they consider it experimental.
But don't insurance companies do this already? Nancy agreed there are problems with the status quo but felt the changes went too far. So did the guy standing next to her, Jim from Milwaukee, who said the reform will even stop people from paying out of their own pockets for care the government disallows.
"What if she has the money to pay for some surgery or medicine and the government says no?" Jim wondered. "I believe that's in the bill."
If it is, there's nothing crazy about wanting it out.
The craziest sign I saw was brandished by a guy from Walworth County who wouldn't even give me a first name. The sign said "Obama" with two lines of text: "2009 gun salesman of the year / 2010 terrorist of the year."
Okay, I told Walworth. I get why Obama is the gun salesman of the year. Gun sales did skyrocket last year because people feared he might restrict gun ownership, which he hasn't done. But terrorist? How is Barack Obama a terrorist?
Walworth didn't have a clue. "He's kind of ruining the whole country," he told me. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a terrorist."
Like what has Obama done that smacks of terrorism? Health care was Walworth's only example. Sweat was breaking out on his brow. "It looks as though he's against American values," he told me. "He's trampling on the Constitution. The way he's running Congress and the Senate. His czars. This is not what America is about." Give this guy a show on Fox.
A guy standing within earshot came to Walworth's defense. Obama is a terrorist, he explained, because a terrorist is by definition someone who instills fear, and that's what Obama has done by agreeing with Russia to a modest reduction in the size of both countries' nuclear arsenals.
I told this second guy, who would say only that he is from Rock County, that I knew people who were scared to pieces to have George W. Bush as president, or his father, or even Ronald "We will begin bombing in five minutes" Reagan. Did that make all of these presidents terrorists too?
Rock thanked me for making a good point, then returned to his main one: "If a large portion of the country fears the depletion of our nuclear arsenal by this president, that's the very definition of terrorism. I'm not saying that Ronald Reagan wasn't."
There you have it. A tea partier who thinks Obama and Reagan are both terrorists. Crazy? You may think so, but this guy was a peach. "You're a good reporter," he told me, thumping my back. "Thank you for what you do." Aw, shucks.
There were others I spoke to, like Tom from Antioch, Illinois, with a sign that said, "Serve Jesus, not Gov." Isn't Obama a Christian? "I just don't see that," he told me. "I hardly ever hear him bring up Jesus in a worshipful sense."
Or Tom from Kenosha, who carried a huge sign saying, "On the 8th day, God created capitalism." I asked him about a car company that would ignore a defect that killed people because it was cheaper to pay lawsuits and fines than fix the problem. "That's not capitalism," he assured me. "That's greed. Just like the Wall Street collapse. That is not capitalism." It's hard to argue with logic like that.
The speeches were getting louder and it was hard to talk. I stopped looking for signs and started looking for black people. I figured they would be there, because the event organizer, Mark Block, was quoted yesterday calling the event "a salute to the Tea Party movement. We're real people: rich, poor, black and white."
I looked and I looked, but all I saw was a sea of white faces, except for a uniformed black police officer, and, at the edge of the gathering, a single black couple. I walked toward them and was going to strike up a conversation when -- hand to God -- the woman turned to the man and said, "Why are we here?"
A moment later, they turned and left. And so did I.