Grover Norquist went to a casino party at the Hard Rock Cafe on the first night of the Republican National Convention. Afterward, while he was hunting for a cab, a man pulled up in a white limo to the party. “Take my limo — I’m a big fan of your work!” he said. Norquist never got his name, but he took the limo.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist here.
Norquist has long been a star of the conservative movement. The iconic antitax crusader’s group Americans for Tax Reform has been credited with driving the GOP’s hard-line fiscal policy. His Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which binds lawmakers who sign it to never raising taxes, has been blamed for causing the congressional budget standoff. Over the past three years, as the tea party has become a driving force in American politics, Norquist has surged in prominence and influence. He’s now a national figure and a central figure in the 2012 campaigns.
In Tampa, Norquist was almost as much of a rock star as the presidential nominee. But unlike the famously clean-living Mitt Romney, Norquist actually parties like one.
His schedule one night included a slew of receptions and interviews; a late-night appearance at HomoCon, a dance party celebrating gay Republicans; and a gig in a “Funniest Celebrity” stand-up comedy event.
The job of keeping Norquist on schedule falls to his wife, Samah Norquist. At an event full of big hair, big heels, and lots of red dresses, Samah, a Palestinian Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, is tiny, with just a little makeup, dressed in black — simple top, flowing skirt, aqua scarf, beaded belt, and silver flats. Norquist looks a little more like a liberal-arts professor than a lobbyist — although he wears a suit, he’s got a beard and an ever-present tote bag to carry papers he’s writing and galoshes in case of rain.
“When we got married, he was famous in conservative circles — but it wasn’t like this,” she says. “Welcome to Groverland!”
Samah thinks about how to describe what drives her husband. “The way my 3-year-old and 4-year-old daughters feel about Disney princesses — that’s how Grover feels about cutting taxes,” she says.
As the evening starts, Norquist warns his entourage that at some point he’ll need to take a break to work on his stand-up routine. He’s worried he hasn’t had time to practice his latest jokes. “I have the material, but I have to weave it all together,” he says.
This is his night:
5:20 p.m. At a National Review reception in the Tampa Yacht Club, Norquist schmoozes with Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life. There’s champagne, sushi, bruschetta with tapenade, citrus-cured salmon with avocado mousse. And at least three full bars.
While Norquist chats, fans line up to pay homage, including a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m so excited to meet him, it will be a great opportunity,” she says.
Samah comes up to steer her husband away. “We have to leave here at 6,” she says, sweetly but firmly.
“Where are we going next, baby?” Norquist asks.
“The party in honor of you,” she reminds him.
6:19 p.m. Norquist, Samah, and entourage pile into a cab to get to the next party. There are five people, and Samah sits on her husband’s lap. As they pass pink houses and palm trees, Norquist talks about the Ryan budget plan.
“That would be as big a turning point in American history as Reagan on the Soviet Union,” he says.
Ryan, of course, was famously influenced by Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Norquist is excited about his small part in an upcoming film based on the book. “I play a hobo! I’m sitting on a park bench, drinking wine, half drunk. The heroes of the book walk by, talking about the decline of civilization, and I’m Exhibit A.”
In real life, Norquist enjoys a drink or two, but what he really needs right now is a Diet Coke. “It’s my water,” he admits. “Last night, we were at the Bloomberg party. Bloomberg has the best food — chicken pot pie, great roast beef — but what you can’t get is a Diet Coke.” (New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed banning convenience stores from selling super-sized sodas after all.) “They had water and stocks of candy — I thought about dissolving candy into the water, just on principle.”
6:58 p.m. Despite celebrity status, Norquist and entourage hike through the barricaded streets of Tampa to reach the entrance of the Tampa Convention Center. Helicopters weave overhead and occasional bursts of rain, a remnant from Hurricane Isaac, lash the air. The streets are mostly empty, except for armed security troops and Secret Service agents.
Only one place is open: a fish taco joint, where sweaty guys in tank tops are drinking beer on the patio. They see Norquist and woot like they’ve seen Tim Tebow.
“Hey guys!” Norquist responds with a wave.
He still hasn’t practiced his comedy set.
7:50 p.m. At Liberty Plaza, the temporary party pavilion erected for the convention, Norquist and entourage are ushered into a party held in his honor, hosted by the conservative think tank Frontiers of Freedom. It’s in a tent with plastic floors and dim, blue lighting. Norquist fans in Harley Davidson T-shirts and jean shorts mill around. In the background play videos detailing the evils of Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Laid out on folding tables are plates of pulled pork from Jimmy John’s, beef tacos, Chex mix, and Rice Krispies treats. At the bar, there’s Bud Light — and to Norquist’s relief, Diet Coke.
Tampa lawyer Bob Nader (no relation to Ralph, he insists), approaches Norquist and the two discuss Fox News. “When you say Fox News, I want to genuflect,” says Nader.
Norquist gives a short speech. “There are 100 different doors to come into the conservative movement,” he said. “You can disagree with 99 of them, as long as you agree on one: more-limited government.”
8:23 p.m. Norquist has moved to the convention floor, where he is set to shoot an interview with CBS. The halls outside are swarming with friends and fellow GOP stars. On the way, Norquist spots the owner of a barbecue place in Georgia, Oscar Poole, decked out in a yellow suit and giant Uncle Sam hat (pictured right). “I want that outfit,” Norquist says. “When I retire, I want to walk around in that all day.”
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and one-time GOP presidential hopeful, stops to chat. He says Norquist is a party animal at every level.
“He’s got some rap moves that I think people don’t fully appreciate,” Pawlenty says. “He’s a big fan of 50 Cent and Lady Gaga.”
9:45 p.m. Norquist is starting to get nervous. It’s getting late, he still has to hit HomoCon, and he hasn’t had time to go over his comedy routine.
The Norquists cab it to a fancy bar in downtown Ybor City. While Samah watches Ann Romney’s speech, Grover walks around the block, practicing his routine. “You’re going to look like a crazy person, Grovy,” Samah warns.
“I’ll put the phone earbud in,” says Norquist. “People will think I’m someone important.”
11 p.m. Arriving at HomoCon, there’s no more time to practice. The party is at a club called the Honey Pot. At the entrance, Norquist does interviews about his stance on gay rights, for which he’s been criticized by social conservatives in his party. “I get yelled at a lot,” Norquist says. “But these guys are just conservatives who happen to be gay.”
Inside the club are disco balls, pink and blue Japanese lanterns, and vases of white orchids. A man in a glittery silver suit and cowboy hat is dancing, and “Call Me Maybe” is blasting. Norquist sweeps up to the VIP lounge, does more interviews, and quickly makes his retreat. He’s been there an hour and now his set at the Tampa Improv is coming up.
12:45 a.m. Norquist takes the Improv stage. His delivery is deadpan, in the style of his comic hero, Steven Wright. “My wife and I have what’s known as mixed marriage. I am a Methodist, she is a Muslim. So we’re keeping it in the M's. We’re thinking that for the kids, we could go with the Mennonites or the Mormons. The Mennonites have this really nice low-carbon footprint. But the Mormons—I have two daughters—I think if I work this out right, I only have to pay for one wedding.”
Obviously, political humor is on the menu: “I do want to warn some of my conservative friends who like to bring up questions about where Barack Obama was born, and birth certificates, and stuff, I wouldn’t go too far down that road. We’re about to nominate a guy who lived in Utah and was governor of Massachusetts. He’s never technically lived in this country.”
“I tease,” Norquist adds. “I grew up in Massachusetts before emigrating to the States.”
The audience loves it.
Samah is visibly relieved.
1 a.m. Norquist and Samah are back on the street, looking for a cab. There’s none to be found. A young couple — he in sport coat and Mitt Romney coif, she in a teal cocktail dress and matching pumps — approaches Norquist. “We have a car and driver,” they say. “We’ll take you home, wherever you want to go.”
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist here.