"I am an American," Pat Boone belted out the other day to an adoring crowd. "Born to be a rootin', tootin', flag-waving citizen."
Boone looked young and fit at 76, with his perpetual tan and stay-press hairdo. As I approached the stage, he was singing the song he'd written for the occasion — the first-ever "Beverly Hills Tea Party" rally.
"I love the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation under God," Boone sang. "If you can't say it with me, you're free to leave, by God. Cuz I am an American. My blood's red, white and blue."
And he was just one of the roughly 200 patriots on hand, including a Revolutionary-themed drum and bugle corps, and two guys who waved a "No More Socialism" banner.
Most of the people in the crowd were middle-aged or older, white and very angry in a Libertarian way about taxes and government spending. Several speakers and attendees said the movement isn't a Republican or Democratic thing; it's about the fact that political leaders are out of touch elitists, and the political process is broken and bankrupt.
That last part is hard to disagree with. But I wasn't quite ready to sign up.
I was there out of curiosity, given the role the movement has had in national politics and the fits it's giving Republicans, who don't know whether to climb aboard or run for the hills. Besides, you have to admit there's something delicious about the sound of the words "Beverly Hills Tea Party."
Someone handed me a flier for Chelene Nightingale, a candidate for governor of California. Ever hear of her? I hadn't, but she's an immigration hard-liner, according to the literature, and lest you doubt it, there's a photo of her with a big smile and an even bigger gun.
Near the stage, I asked a man what drew him to the event. "I think there should be less government and more power to the people," said Robert Santner, who spoke for many.
Joe Clark complained about how the overtaxing, overreaching government is determined to decide what car we drive, what doctor we see and what foods we eat. He doesn't trust either party, he told me. But his sign left no doubts about his preference.
"Teach A Man to Fish, The Democrats Lose a Vote."
The level of discourse, in other words, was not always clever or scholarly. UCLA's Bruin Republicans had a refreshment stand with a life-size cutout of Ronald Reagan, a curious choice at a small-government shindig, given that spending grew astronomically under Reagan, and the deficit exploded.
Reagan was a tax cutter as president, but primarily for the wealthy at the expense of the middle and lower classes that are now so angry. So why hold an anti-tax rally in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world? I suppose it was more about staking a conservative claim in liberal Tinsel Town, but I had trouble confirming that with a woman I tried to interview.
"I canceled the Los Angeles Times!" she said, snarling.
"Because it's a piece of ..."
And she looked like such a nice church lady.
I asked, perhaps ill-advisedly, what drew her to the rally.
"I'm an American," she said, foaming. "I'm a patriot. I'm a constitutionalist. I believe in the Founding Fathers."
OK, I think I've got it. And dare I ask what went wrong in the country?
"The progressives," she said, claiming the country had been given over to socialists, communists and fascists.
Not since the Cold War have I heard such a preoccupation with communism. Also in the sights of the tea party revelers was the mainstream media, which I found confusing. Are Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, AM talk radio and many of the newspapers of the heartland not part of the mainstream media, and are they not solidly conservative?
Another thing I don't understand is how, if our individual liberties have been stolen, it's possible to stand in a public park and in the name of God call the black president of the United States a liar, a racist and a communist.
"I'm a beginner political activist," said former "Saturday Night Live" star Victoria Jackson, who took to the stage with a ukulele and sang "There's a Communist Living in the White House."
I thought either Jackson was satirizing the movement or that she was doing a Porky Pig impression. But I later saw video of her insisting on various occasions that President Obama is indeed a communist. She was topped on Sunday, though, by Boone's pal, African American reverend and radio show host Jesse Lee Peterson, who said white Americans need to get over the fear of being called racists.
"As a result of your fear, we now have the worst president this country has ever experienced. Barack Obama is a liar; he is a racist," Peterson said to cheers. He also said white people shouldn't have any qualms about using the "N" word.
"Let me just say, to free you up, that word don't mean anything to black people because if it did, they would stop saying it and the word would fade a way. It's just another way of controlling white Americans, but get over your fear," Peterson said.
OK, you rootin', tootin' Americans, altogether now:
"I love the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation under God …"