Book Review: NYT Reporter Kate Zernike, Tea Party Book Author, Still Finding Racism

New York Times political reporter Kate Zernike's thin new book "Boiling Mad - Inside Tea Party America," is among the first of what will surely be a flood of related books by journalists.Like her reporting for the Times, "Boiling Mad" covers the movement from a mostly hostile perspective that only intermittently becomes something like empathy when she's talking to one of the invariably pleasant Tea Party citizens themselves.

Behind the (of course) red-as-a-Red State-cover lies a mere 194 pages of text, not including a 33-page reprint of an old, biased Times poll on the Tea Party. While not wholly a notebook dump, there's little new, and Zernike evinces little sympathy or feel for conservative concerns. Her expertise is instead finding racism everywhere she looks in Tea Party land.

Even such benign conservative boilerplate as opposition to the minimum wage is racially suspect in Zernike's eyes, as proven in her dispatch for the Times criticizing Glenn Beck's gathering on the National Mall on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington:

Still, the government programs that many Tea Party supporters call unconstitutional are the ones that have helped many black people emerge from poverty and discrimination....Even if Tea Party members are right that any racist signs are those of mischief-makers, even if Glenn Beck had chosen any other Saturday to hold his rally, it would be hard to quiet the argument about the Tea Party and race.

Zernike once wrote that Tea Party members "tend to be white and male, with a disproportionate number above 45, and above 65. Their memories are of a different time, when the country was less diverse."

And during the Conservative Political Action Conference in D.C. in February, Zernike falsely accused conservative author Jason Mattera of using a racist "Chris Rock" voice in a speech (turns out Mattera just has a thick Brooklyn accent).

So it's no surprise Zernike quickly reestablished her race obsession on page 3 of "Boiling Mad," reflecting on a Tea Party speaker "looking out at the sea of faces, almost all of them white." The book's index reveals that 23 pages worth of the book's slim content refer to"race and racism."

Unlike many mainstream journalists, Zernike grasps shades on the right, noting the Tea Party's social-media savvy young are "largely libertarian," and interestingly described the odd mix of young activists and retirees as a "May-to-September marriage of convenience."

But "Boiling Mad" lacks a cohesive narrative, which may be an accurate rendition of the decentralized, libertarian nature of the movement but doesn't make for a satisfying organic read. That's partly the function of a merciless pre-electoral book deadline leaving crucial questions unanswered. Will the movement lead the GOP to take back Congress or cause it to blow a historic opportunity? Besides her chapter on the Kentucky Republican primary won by Rand Paul, Zernike uncovers few clues about the political possibilities of the movement.

And Zernike's empathy only goes so far. Showing a touching (and Timesian) trust in government statistics, Zernike marveled at the Tea Party's ignorance, "impervious to reports from the Congressional Budget Office...that the federal stimulus had cut taxes and created millions of jobs and that the health care legislation passed in 2010 would reduce the federal deficit." If Zernike truly thinks the CBO is the last word on those issues, she is more gullible than any Tea Partier, especially with new indications health spending is on the rise since Obama-care was enacted.

Zernike reaches back to the California's anti-property tax movement of the 1970s for more racial subtext. "Race was more subtle in conservative populist movements like the tax revolts than began in California and spread across the country in the late 1970s." So subtle that only liberal journalists can spot it.

While loathing the movement's aims, Zernike genuinely seems to like her individual subjects, like Keri Carender, perhaps the first Tea Partier, a 29-year-old Seattle woman with a nose ring who Zernike called "an unlikely avatar of a movement that would come to derive most of its support from older white men." Zernike followed resident Jennifer Stefano's evolution from a random visit to a park in Bucks County, Pa., where she encountered a Tea Party rally in progress, to being nearly arrested barely a year later outside a polling place while trying to get Tea Party candidates on the Republican state committee. She allows activists to have their say, like two women at a rally "agitated that government could force you to wear a seatbelt but left it to women to 'choose' whether to have an abortion."

But whenever Zernike steps back to take in the movement as a whole, her observations can be gruesomely unfair. Zernike consistently portrays the movement as antediluvian and racially suspect:

To talk about states' rights in the way some Tea Partiers did was to pretend that the twentieth century and the latter half of the nineteenth century had never happened, that the country had not rejected this doctrine over and over. It was little wonder that people heard the echo of the slave era and decided that the movement had to be motivated by racism.

Little wonder indeed!

The most unfair section of the book, predictably, involves accusations of racism - the controversial claim that Obama-care protesters shouted racial slurs at John Lewis, black congressman and civil rights hero, during the heated debate before Congress voted on Obama-care. Zernike claimed the Tea Party had "organized the rally," then took advantage of its loose structure to blame the entire group for any possible bad behavior by any individual in the vicinity, something the Times has never done when covering the truly violent acts committed by some at loosely organized left-wing rallies:

It was difficult, if not disingenuous, for the Tea Party groups to try to disown the behavior. They had organized the rally, and under their model of self-policing, they were responsible for the behavior of people who were there. And after saying for months that anybody could be a Tea Party leader, they could not suddenly dismiss as faux Tea Partiers those protesters who made them look bad.

Oddly, Zernike's colleague at the Times, Carl Hulse, wrote an unsympathetic piece on the protesters the day afterward that didn't mention the Tea Party at all. And the paper actually corrected the same charge when made in its pages by political writer Matt Bai, saying he had "erroneously linked one example of a racially charged statement to the Tea Party movement. While Tea Party supporters have been connected to a number of such statements, there is no evidence that epithets reportedly directed in March at Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, outside the Capitol, came from Tea Party members."

Another recurring theme of "Boiling Mad" is anger: "The supporters were angry, but the activists were angrier." The April 15 rally on Capitol Hill was "a blend of jingoism and grievance," concerns which Zernike only occasionally attempted to explain. She spent just as much time pulling back her focus to chide the movement with civics lessons: "People might get frustrated with Congress or the federal bureaucracy. But they did not want to leave old people relying on the whims of the market or charity for health and security in their sunset years." Vulgar critics of the Tea Party movement ("tea-baggers," anyone?) are left out of her narrative, contributing to the sense of imbalance.

Even that back page poll, supposedly a true-to-life snapshot of the movement, is blurred in the paper's liberal prism. Here's Question 72: "In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?"

Besides the unsympathetic slant, the problem with "Boiling Mad" is that it's hard to draw conclusions about a political movement yet to test itself in a nationwide election. The subject needs time to steep. Months premature, "Boiling Mad" is all steam, no substance.

Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.