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.