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.”