It was the closest I will ever come to being hounded by the paparazzi.
On Oct. 22, I briefed foreign journalists at the National Press Club in Washington on the Tea Party and how it is upending the midterm elections. My book about the Tea Party, Boiling Mad, came out in September, and I had been covering the movement for the past year for the New York Times. After I spent a full hour answering questions, the staff of the Foreign Press Center pronounced the session over, leaving several journalists in the room and on the satellite feed from New York with their hands still raised. The cameras began to rush my way, prompting the staff to form a protective huddle around me. "She's already answered enough questions," scolded one of my attendants, shuttling me through the corridors with one hand on my elbow, the other pushing away television crews from Portugal, Japan, and Denmark.
"We have lots of interest in the Tea Party," she told me by way of apology -- and understatement.
For months, I have been observing the foreign fascination with the Tea Party movement -- a fascination as bemused as it is bewildered, as self-satisfied as it is horrified. On rare occasion, it reflects an understandable self-interest -- a reporter from Hong Kong wanted to know whether Tea Party sentiment might push the Republicans toward protectionist trade policies. Some have practical questions: How big is the movement? Who are its leaders? Others are struggling -- just like many Americans -- to put the Tea Party movement in context. A French reporter wanted to know, for example, whether you could compare the Tea Party to the conservative moralizing and strident anti-immigration platform of that country's Front National. And for many others, the question is simply: Is it really as extreme as it seems?
You can detect a note of hopefulness in the last question, which helps explain the central obsession with the Tea Party overseas: It has affirmed the love-hate relationship the rest of the world has with the United States. The questions foreigners ask and the assumptions they make often reveal a desire to affirm their biases about Americans -- their presumed lack of sophistication, their reflexive jingoism. The Tea Party, to them, is a sign that Americans could be really be as hopeless as they thought all along.
All those biases had been officially affirmed for eight years in the person of President George W. Bush, and then relieved by President Barack Obama, who quickly became the object of international infatuation. Obama got in trouble with the Tea Party types for going to Europe early in his presidency and, in the phrase of conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, "apologizing for America." (Like much of what the president said when he arrived promising to change the culture of Washington, the nuance got lost; while he allowed that the United States often "failed to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," he also chided Europeans for their reflexive anti-Americanism.)
But to many in the rest of the world, a stylish young president was a sign that there might be hope for Americans after all. As Daniel Alling, a Swedish radio reporter, told me, "People want the U.S. to be [like] Obama: He's not overly patriotic, he's not talking about his Christian faith all the time, he talks about science." The Tea Party, on the other hand, "is the U.S. we don't want the U.S. to be," Alling said.
Having fallen so hard for Obama, foreigners now want to know, as a French reporter asked me in Washington, "How do you explain the downfall of the president?"
How could a man everyone around the world saw as a breath of fresh air be facing such opposition?
For many abroad, the answer comes down to an elitist sense of the American grotesque, something reinforced by the Tea Party movement's crazier fringes. Foreign audiences seem particularly interested in Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware Senate candidate who is best known for dabbling in witchcraft and public statements against masturbation. They care less that she has run for office before and that she is not so much a Tea Party creation as a vehicle for the movement to express its anger at the Republican establishment. They want to know about the "billionaires behind the Tea Party" -- an overly simplified view of the role of funders like the Koch brothers that suggests a wizard behind the curtain controlling the minds of Americans too stupid to think for themselves. Then there's the Tea Party candidate in Ohio, Rich Iott, who has spent weekends of the last several years dressing up as a Nazi with his friends. Really, who can resist?
"This finger-pointing at the kooky Americans, they love that," says Sebastian Moll, a German newspaper correspondent based in New York. "To Europeans, the Tea Party thing is evidence of cultural inferiority, which is one of those old deeply rooted anti-American sentiments: that the Americans have no political culture and are unsophisticated."
As Moll notes, what many foreigners believe about the Tea Party movement are the same "knee-jerk liberal clichés" embraced by its many critics in the United States. As an Australian reader confessed in an email to me, "I assumed the Tea Party was just a combination of Glenn Beck's tearful conspiracy tirades and various small groups of extremists and oddballs that provided entertainment for outlets like Fox News and the Daily Show.