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The Tea Party Bares All In Playboy

This month’s Playboy has a stunningly unusual and potentially disruptive article: an expose, purporting to be from an established Republican consultant, discussing how Washington hacks are controlling the political advances of the Tea Party.

We’ll take a quick break here for those interested in making an “only read it for the articles” joke.

Penned anonymously, the article, “Confessions of a Tea Party Consultant”, strikes the reader at first blush as representing the antithesis of what the Tea Party espouses. The author is insider-y, cynical, and obviously relishes the perverse “dark arts” of winning elections. He – it’s safe to assume it’s a man – takes credit for what he himself calls “downright evil” campaign tactics:

In my years as a campaign hack and then as a consultant, I’ve created more than my share of fake grassroots organizations. Some were downright evil but effective beyond expectations. Did you get an automated call from the sister of a 9/11 victim asking you to reelect President Bush in 2004? That was me. Did you get a piece of mail with the phrase supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control? That may have been me too.

Charming. Understanding the irony of applying such practices to the anti-government, anti-institution Tea Party, the author seeks to explain why he is so excited about what the Partiers bring to the political table, and how he’s working to see that they succeed.

It’s jarring – and must be hugely embarrassing to the ad hoc leadership of the Partiers. But, for some reason, the piece is flying under the radar. The Huffington Post picked it up, as have other outlets, but most of the major political sites haven’t touched it. It’s experiencing what can only be called National Enquirer syndrome – Playboy‘s lack of journalistic credibility and the fact that the piece has an anonymous byline make it hard to take at face value.

The core questions are two-fold: who wrote the piece, and why? Answering (or attempting to answer) those questions could add a critical angle to consideration of the Tea Party’s future – or expose a clumsy attempt to delegitimize it.

So who wrote it? There are clues peppered throughout the piece that probably make it obvious in certain circles who the author is. “Anonymous” claims to have worked on Bush’s re-election (directly or indirectly) and has a one-year-old child. He’s clearly young – the piece reeks of the same cocky bravado and superlatives of a guy who just got off a new roller coaster. He spends a lot of time, he claims, in the St. Regis hotel just north of the White House, bragging about how its luxurious environs makes his Tanqueray taste better. That’s some hotel.

The author has one obvious tie: he’s got some reasonably prominent connection to Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government community.

This doesn’t take much detective work. “Anonymous” describes how, a month before the story broke, he was told about James O’Keefe’s ACORN expose – a timeframe that syncs precisely with Breitbart’s own. The story broke in the early part of September, 2009; that month, Breitbart described meeting O’Keefe when he “came to [Breitbart’s] door in August.”

“Anonymous” has personal accounts of Breitbart (“intense”), O’Keefe, and his two co-conspirators in the Landrieu incident – at least one of whom is quoted. These four people, at least, know who wrote this piece. He writes:

Conservatives had been trying to take down ACORN for three decades. Where they failed, and my friends succeeded.

The Playboy piece was picked up by Big Government on Thursday, posted by “Publius,” the appellation used by the site’s editorial board. In that post, Publius describes the “awesome” feature story, notes that it is “by Anonymous,” and that they bring the reader “our first installment below.” (Emphasis added.) That’s an unusual amount of ownership for an anonymous piece.

There’s little to suggest that the piece isn’t authentic – a bit overblown, maybe, but an accurate representation of the murky politics bolstering the Tea Party. For Breitbart’s site to claim it so strongly is to give it its imprimatur. Nor is it surprising that the GOP should allocate resources in an effort to redirect the flow of the Tea Party towards electoral success for the Republican Party. There’s no reason, in other words, to doubt that the piece is real.

But why write it? Why expose machinations that run so counter to core reasons people join the Tea Party?

One likely reason: vanity. As in the Wikileaks case, the desire for recognition is a powerful one. “Anonymous” describes how, as a behind-the-scenes operative, he can’t take credit for the work he does – but that’s the nut of the article. Mentioning things he did six years ago is the author seeking recognition for everything he has done, asking for validation in the context of revealing hidden truths.

The piece should also serve to reassure those for whom the Wild West mentality of the visible Tea Party is unnerving. Don’t worry, “Anonymous” implies, we’re still steering this train, whether the passengers like it or not. “Anonymous” notes a growing interest among Republican elected officials:

Various Republican congressional leaders met for hours with our leadership and our finance team in the Richard Nixon suite at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. Never in my career had I had a congressman look me in the eyes behind closed doors and say with such sincerity, “Give me a list of what you need me to do.” The second meeting drew 10 congressmen. There we sat, inside the Capitol Hill Club (which shares the building that houses the Republican National Committee), sharing ideas on how we can work together. The third meeting drew 17 congressmen.

The author says, explicitly, that “the Tea Party as we know it will cease to exist within an election cycle.” That’s likely true – and makes clear how the author and his allies seek to build a longer term movement through existing institutions.

Perhaps the strongest rationale at play is to serve the interests of Andrew Breitbart. The piece leads with a meeting between “Anonymous” and “an old friend who has a knack for black-bag operations” in which the ACORN videos are discussed. (I myself have any number of friends with a knack for such operations. Who doesn’t?) It was then, the author says, that he realized “this isn’t an average fringe movement.”

I doubt many in the Tea Party would recognize the ACORN sting as part of their movement. Predicating the argument in this way does only one thing: tying O’Keefe (and, by extension, Breitbart and Big Government) to the Tea Party. The piece seeks to wrap a rope around the “Party”, O’Keefe and Big Government and draw them together.

In their expansive profile of Breitbart last month, the New Yorker notes that “Breitbart is obsessed with wresting control of the political narrative from the established media organizations.” For those familiar with his work, this isn’t a surprise. What better way to control that narrative that to claim some ownership over the most prominent political story of the past twelve months?

The author deserves some credit. The article wasn’t meant to be splashed across the front of The New York Times. Burying it in Playboy assures that casual observers will eye it skeptically; the details in the piece send enough signals to those in the know to get the message across.

Sure, the middle-aged men holding signs and wearing tricorne hats won’t be happy when they read this, but the odds are they never will.

Unless, of course, they subscribe to Playboy. Only for the articles.

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