TAMPA—On the first night of the Republican National Convention, Grover Norquist attended a casino party at the Hard Rock Café. Afterward, while he was hunting for a cab in front of the club, a passenger in a white limo pulled up. “Take my limo—I’m a big fan of your work!” he cried. Norquist never got his name, but after the man jumped out, he took the limo.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist these days.
Norquist has been a star of the conservative movement for decades. Revered on the right, reviled on the left, the iconic lobbyist is the dominant force behind the Republican Party’s resolute stonewall against raising taxes. His “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”—which binds the lawmakers who sign it to never raising taxes—has been blamed as a direct cause of the nation’s soaring budget deficit, and of last summer’s debt-ceiling showdown between President Obama and congressional Republicans. In 1985, reportedly with the encouragement of Ronald Reagan, Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform, the think tank that The Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Grand Central Station” of American conservatism. In 1994, Norquist coauthored Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.
But over the past three years, as the tea party became a driving force in American politics, Norquist surged in prominence and influence, rocketing from being just a well-known Washington lobbyist to a national figure and a central player in the 2012 campaigns. The vitriol on the left has grown accordingly. The day that Paul Ryan became the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, Norquist’s phone began ringing at 6 in the morning, as media outlets—which saw his work as a key influence in Ryan’s controversial budget plan to dramatically cut government spending—begged him to weigh in. If anyone epitomizes the fiscally focused GOP of the now, with its emphasis on slashing taxes and reducing the size of government, it’s Norquist.
So at last month’s convention, he was treated like a rock star, as much as or even more so than Mitt Romney or Ryan. And compared with the famously clean-living Romney, Norquist practically parties like one.
On the second night of the convention, I met Norquist and his entourage in downtown Tampa to observe him in his element, amid the throngs of admirers. He had a packed schedule that night—a slew of receptions and TV interviews, a late-night appearance at HomoCon—a dance party celebrating gay Republicans at a bar called the HoneyPot—and a postmidnight gig in a “Funniest Celebrity” stand-up comedy event.
Wrangling Norquist and keeping him on schedule that evening were his staffer, John Kartch, and his wife, Samah. A Palestinian Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, Samah Norquist doesn’t fit the mold of a Republican power wife. At an event full of big hair, big heels, and lots of red dresses, Samah, who is tiny, wore just a little makeup and an all-black outfit—a simple top, long, flowing skirt, aqua scarf, beaded belt, and silver flats. Grover, meanwhile, looked more like a liberal-arts professor than a lobbyist: Although he wore a suit, it was accessorized by his salt-and-pepper beard and ever-present tote bag, in which he carries 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.”—Samah Norquist
Despite the modest demeanor, Norquist couldn’t walk down the street without being swarmed by fans. “Grover!” called a middle-aged man in shorts, running after him. He wanted to show Norquist his collection of conservative trading cards, featuring stars like Sarah Palin—and, of course, the man himself.
“When we got married, he was famous in conservative circles, but it wasn’t like this,” Samah told me.
She added, “With the fame comes some downsides—bomb threats, phone calls at 4 a.m. But it’s not about fame; it’s about putting the issue of taxes center stage. He wants to make sure the GOP will be branded as the party of, ‘You can talk to me about anything, but don’t talk to me about raising taxes.’ ”
Samah thought 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.”
ON THE CIRCUIT
We jumped into a cab, bound for our first party. Norquist warned his entourage: At some point, he would need to take a break to work on his stand-up routine. He was worried he hadn’t had time to practice his latest jokes. “I have the material, but I have to weave it all together.”
Norquist, a veteran of Washington celebrity comedy contests, talked about his competitors on the circuit. “Austan Goolsbee is really good,” he said of President Obama’s former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. What about Goolsbee’s economic policies? “I don’t think particularly highly of them. But he’s very funny. Maybe on economic policy, he’s being ironic.”
First stop: a National Review reception at the Tampa Yacht Club. Conservative pundit heaven. Norquist schmoozed with Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, and Jack Fowler, National Review’s publisher. “His importance to the conservative movement has been consistent for 25 years,” Fowler said. “And when one of the presidential candidates [Jon Huntsman] didn’t sign his pledge, Grover became a campaign issue.”
There was champagne, sushi, bruschetta with tapenade, citrus-cured salmon with avocado mousse—and at least three separate full bars. While Norquist held court, fans lined up to greet him, including Angela McDougail, a blond senior at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m so excited to meet him—it will be a great opportunity,” she said.
But Samah soon arrived to steer him away. “We have to leave here at 6,” she said, sweetly but firmly. “Where are we going next, baby?” he asked. “The party in honor of you,” she reminded him.
The Norquists and their entourage crammed into a cab. To help squeeze everyone in, Samah sat on Grover’s lap. As we drove by the pink houses and palm trees of Tampa Bay, Norquist talked rhapsodically about the Ryan budget plan.
Its implementation “would be as big a turning point in American history as Reagan on the Soviet Union. It’s a huge deal,” Norquist said. “That’s why this election is such a huge deal.”
Ryan, of course, was famously influenced by Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Norquist was excited about his small part in an upcoming film of 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 needed right now was a Diet Coke. “It’s my water,” he admitted. “Last night, we were at the Bloomberg [News] 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 supersized sodas.) “They had water and stocks of candy—I thought about dissolving candy into the water, just on principle.”
The cab dropped us off at the security perimeter for the Tampa Convention Center. Even though Norquist is considered a celebrity here, we still had to hike through the barricaded streets to reach the entrance, as choppers weaved overhead and occasional bursts of tropical rain—remnants of Hurricane Isaac—lashed the city.
The streets were mostly empty but for armed troops and Secret Service agents. Only one place was open—a fish-and-taco joint, where sweaty men in tank tops were drinking beer on the patio. Seeing Norquist, they hooted like they had seen Tim Tebow. Norquist waved. We skirted the barricade and finally reached the security checkpoint for Liberty Plaza, the temporary party pavilion outside the convention center.
There was no need for anyone to check a list to enter; the women at the entrance recognized Norquist with a shout of delight, and ushered him and his entourage to the front of the line. As we swept through, a security guard whispered, “Who is that?”
Liberty Plaza was a clutch of hastily assembled tents that flapped in the tropical wind. Outside, to help beat the heat, the Heritage Foundation was handing out red, white, and blue Popsicles. Inside the biggest tent, the temporary plastic floors were muddy and slippery. The lighting was dim and blue.
The party was being given in Norquist’s honor by Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative think tank that’s been especially active in crusading against the science of global warming. His fans, dressed in Harley Davidson T-shirts and jean shorts, milled about. Arrayed on folding tables were plates of pulled pork from Jimmy John’s, beef tacos, Chex Mix, and Rice Krispies treats. At the bar, there was Bud Light and, to Norquist’s relief, Diet Coke. He swigged one down and looked around for a quiet corner—he still hadn’t practiced his comedy set.
Bob Nader, a Tampa lawyer, approached Norquist. (No relation to Ralph, Nader assured.) The two talked about Fox News. “When you say ‘Fox News,’ I want to genuflect,” Nader said.
Norquist gave a short speech to the crowd: “The movement is doing well. In the last 20 to 30 years, things have changed. We’re breaking through and creating new freedoms for people. There are 100 different doors to come into the conservative movement. You can disagree with 99 of them, as long as you agree on one: more-limited government.”
Then it was off to the convention floor, where Norquist was set to shoot an interview with CBS. The halls were swarming with friends and fellow GOP luminaries. We ran into Oscar Poole, who owns a small barbecue joint in Georgia—one of Norquist’s favorite spots. Poole was decked out in a yellow suit and giant Uncle Sam hat. “I want that outfit,” Norquist said. “When I retire, I want to walk around in that all day.”
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who lost to Mitt Romney in the primaries, stopped to chat. He told me that Norquist is a party animal at every level. “He’s got some rap moves that I think people don’t fully appreciate. He’s a big fan of 50 Cent and Lady Gaga.”
We made our way through a concrete warren and layers of security. Norquist did a stand-up interview with CBS correspondent John Dickerson, while behind him onstage, country star Lane Turner played “Blood, Sweat, and Freedom.”
Heading back through the packed delegate hall, the Norquists ran into Aric Nesbitt, who once interned at Americans for Tax Reform and is now running for state representative in Michigan. Hugs all around—Norquist loves running into his former staffers, who are now rising conservative revolutionaries, carrying his message throughout the GOP. “He was a little munchkin,” Samah recalled. “And now he’s all grown up!”
Norquist was growing ever more nervous. It was late, he had to hit HomoCon, and he still hadn’t had time to go over his act. We cabbed it to downtown Ybor City, ending up at a bar near the HoneyPot. While Samah and I watched Ann Romney’s speech on TV, Norquist walked around the block, practicing his routine. “You’re going to look like a crazy person, Grovy,” Samah warned. “I’ll put the phone earbud in,” Norquist replied. “People will think I’m someone important.”
Ann Romney finished her speech. It was time for HomoCon—no more time to practice.
A STAND-UP GUY
Outside the HoneyPot, the line stretched down the block; but, per usual, the velvet rope was unclipped for Norquist and his friends. Everyone got VIP badges.
Norquist stopped to give interviews at the entrance. Social conservatives in his party have long hammered him for his stance on gay rights, but as the primal fiscally conservative power player, Norquist has the heft to hold whatever positions he wants on social policy.
“I get yelled at a lot. They give me crap about talking to the Log Cabin Republicans,” he said. “But these guys are just conservatives who happen to be gay.”
Inside the club: disco balls, pink and blue Japanese lanterns, vases of white orchids. A man in a glittery silver suit and cowboy hat was dancing, and “Call Me Maybe” was blasting. Norquist swept up to the VIP lounge for more interviews, but it was already time to go. It was midnight, and his set at the Improv was coming up.
The streets outside the HoneyPot were crawling with gay men, along with security forces in fatigues. “In this neighborhood, the gays dress as soldiers!” Norquist joked. “It’s like “Y.M.C.A.” or something.”
We pressed through the crowd to reach the Improv. At 12:45 a.m., Grover took to the stage. His delivery was deadpan, in the style of his comic hero, Steven Wright. “My wife and I have what’s known as a mixed marriage. I am a Methodist, she is a Muslim. So we’re keeping it in the Ms. We’re thinking, 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.”
Political humor was obviously the order of the night: “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 added. “I grew up in Massachusetts before emigrating to the States.”
The audience loved it; Samah, watching, was visibly relieved. Norquist stepped off the stage, joined us at the table, and we watched a few more acts before he and Samah tapped me. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I think we’re going to turn into pumpkins.”
It was 1 a.m., and we were back on the street, scanning for a cab. None was to be found.
A young couple—he in a sport coat and a Mitt Romney coif; she in a teal cocktail dress and matching pumps—approached Norquist. “We have a car and driver,” they said. “We’ll take you home, wherever you want to go.”
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist—in this part of the world, anyway.
This article appears in the Sep. 15, 2012, edition of National Journal.