Dick Armey's father, the operator of a North Dakota grain elevator, liked to fish with his son in Canada.
As they drove, the boy noticed painted barns "straight from a Norman Rockwell canvas."
But at the border, as Armey writes in Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, the scenery changed:
The barns were unpainted. I wondered why Canadian farmers would allow their barns to degrade from exposure to the elements. The answer, I discovered, was government. At the time, Canada taxed painted buildings, so farmers left their structures exposed to avoid the penalty. These things make quite an impression on a child.
Yes, but what if it's the wrong impression?
My fact-checking suggests it is. Large unpainted barns were often erected in Southern Canada in the late 19th century -- and the custom seems to have continued. The Canadian government had nothing to do with the decor of those barns. The reasons the barns were unpainted were culture and esthetics.
A childhood misimpression casts a long shadow. At some point, Armey might have run across a different explanation. But this one neatly fits his politics. And now he passes that misinformation on.
Misperceptions can be useful. In the early '90s, the economics professor cast his lot with Conservative Republicans at exactly the right time, beating the drums in the House of Representatives against Bill Clinton's efforts to reduce the deficit the old-fashioned way -- by raising taxes. Later, when Armey's side was in charge, he was one of the Republican leaders who delighted in cutting taxes and growing the federal budget.
Consistency was never Armey's strongest suit. His view of the Clinton sex scandal: "If I were in the President's place, I would not have gotten a chance to resign. I would be lying in a pool of my own blood, hearing Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, 'How do I reload this damn thing?'" This quip backfired -- it inspired some of his former students to recall episodes of sexual harassment by Professor Armey. (There is now a second Mrs. Armey.)
In 2003, after eight years as Speaker of the House, Armey resigned and joined the Washington law firm now known as DLA Piper as a senior policy advisor, or, in plain English, as a lobbyist. The job paid well -- a reported $750,000 a year. But lobbyists are not in the public eye, so he also became co-chairman of Citizens for A Sound Economy, which, the following year, became FreedomWorks. The cause grew rapidly, and, by 2008, FreedomWorks was paying Armey a salary of $550,000.
Better believe he's visible now.
The philosophy of FreedomWorks is straightforward: "Lower Taxes. Less Government. More Freedom." It is, if you've tried to trace its ideas, a hopelessly self-contradictory program. The Tea Party folks want to cut the deficit, but insist on lower taxes. They hate national health care, but love Medicaid. [In his book, Armey and his collaborator, Matt Kibbe, write that "the government should be concerned with protecting my liberty, not my liver." ] They want freedom -- mostly from government -- but also want the Feds to do more to punish illegal immigrants. They are, in short, an ignorant army, pumped up by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and FreedomWorks to campaign for programs that would benefit them not at all. No matter. Their ideas are of less consequence than their numbers and the shrillness of their voices.
A funny thing happened to Dick Armey on the way to mega-prominence -- his employer and his cause turned out to be on opposite sides of several issues. DLA Piper represented drug companies that, at least initially, supported health care reform. And the firm represented General Motors, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. FreedomWorks opposed TARP.
Conservative bloggers noted these conflicts and attacked. Armey said he was the victim of a conspiracy -- 'I wouldn't be surprised if it stemmed from information put out by allies of the Obama administration" -- but in August of 2009, he resigned from DLA Piper.
"I hated to walk away from that kind of money," he said. "How many times in your life, or anybody's life, do they have an opportunity to earn that kind of money when they are 69 years old?"
These days money is not his problem. His movement is. In the courts, the Tea Party is losing (U.S. vs. Arizona), and Proposition 8 has been overturned. And another liberal woman is on the Supreme Court. With every decision that "they" lose, you can picture their rage spiking. Meanwhile, Armey and Fox and the right wing bloggers have been screaming "Take back America" for so long that they will almost surely incite some event that sets "real" America against illegals, deviants, liberals and, mostly and especially, the President.
At a Tea Party event, someone will turn on an idiot protester. Or a Tea Party member will decide to right some wrong. A gun will go off. And there, along with blood and death, will be the media's useless and overdue finger-pointing.
On August 28 --- the anniversary of Martin Luther King's gathering --- Glenn Beck is leading his second March on Washington. This is worrisome. Since January 19th, 2009, Beck attacked the little-known Tides Foundation on his show 29 times; in July, one of his fans was arrested after a shootout with the California Highway Patrol. His plan: "to start a revolution" by attacking the American Civil Liberties Union and -- you guessed it -- the Tides Foundation. Beck, of course, saw no connection. But he has called for marchers at his rally to sign an oath of non-violence: Bring your gun if you must -- it's your constitutional right -- but don't pull the trigger.
Glenn Beck is not the only friend of the Tea Party set who's working hard to make sure he cannot be held responsible for any violence --- Armey uses the final 65 pages of his 245-page book to make it clear that FreedomWorks is not a leader of the Tea Party movement. Nobody is. It's local. Grassroots. FreedomWorks exists simply to support those groups and give them tips on organizing their events and meetings. Talking points, rallies, slogans -- all that comes, spontaneously, from patriots whose names we wouldn't recognize.
These pages, like the first 244 pages, are not terribly illuminating. They are very likely untrue. But to talk about them in journalistic or literary terms is to miss their purpose. "Give Us Liberty" may bear a publisher's imprint (surprise, it's Rupert Murdoch!) but it is not a book.
Dick Armey has, cleverly, published his legal defense.
[This post also appears on JUST BOOKS at the Brennan Center]