On Tuesday when I'd usually stay home and make dinner for the family, we all found ourselves heading down to a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Austin for a special event. Well, special for me anyway, maybe not so special for the kids. My wife was late meeting us, so I sent our 14-year-old to the kids' section with her 4-year-old sister and instructions to read her Skippyjon Jones books until further notice.
I headed for the middle of the store to hear a presentation and get a brand new copy of Somebody's Gotta Say It signed by the author, notorious libertarian, Texas Aggie, and radio talk-show host Neal Boortz.
I haven't been to a huge number of book signings, but this one was quite different from what I've encountered before. Usually – even with fairly popular authors – you get a nice little line of a few handfuls of people replenished periodically as new arrivals wander up over the course of a few hours. The biggest one I've been to was with Michael Moore, where maybe 50 people sat around and asked questions and then got their books signed and the line stayed at 20-30 people for the next couple of hours.
This was a different bag of fish. When I got to the center of the store a half-hour before the start of the event, a nice lady handed me a little slip of paper with the letter 'd' on it and a set of instructions. Printed instructions? That was a new one. They explained that we'd be lined up by letter groups with 100 people per letter and that to keep the line moving Neal would only be able to sign the books – no personal messages – and if we wanted a photo with him we had to hand our camera to designated bookstore staff who were presumably specially trained in high speed photography.
I quickly saw why all the regimentation was necessary. There were about 100 chairs set up facing the signing table and they were already filled, and the staff kept handing out lettered slips of paper to a growing throng of people who eventually lined the railing of the upper level of the store and crowded into all the areas between the stacks around the center of the store. I asked someone in management and they estimated that there were 800 attendees based on handing out slips through the letter 'h'. That's one hell of a turnout for a book signing.
After a bit of a wait, Neal Boortz arrived through a side door and took the stage. He was a bit older and a bit leaner than I expected from publicity photos, but the deep, resonant voice was familiar. Before the signing he spoke for about 20 minutes, hitting on various topics and telling some humorous stories (see video and apologies for the cell-phone camera quality), but most of the presentation focused on two topics, his new book – which is basically an amusing and insightful collection of observational essays on politics and human behavior – and the Fair Tax, which is what really got the audience excited.
In addition to co-authoring the Fair Tax Book with Rep. John Linder, Boortz has taken on the role of media point-man for the campaign to take the Fair Tax from a tax-reform pipe dream to a viable piece of national policy. In his presentation he laid out a pretty ambitious plan to use the presidential campaign to raise awareness of the Fair Tax on the national level.
He's going to be making appearances at rallies at the major early events in the primary season. This includes a big rally at the Koger center in at the University of South Carolina on May 15th, coordinated with the candidate debate that evening, and another big rally in Ames, Iowa on August 10th, the day before the Republican Straw Poll there. More events are planned for New Hampshire and other early primary states. They hope to draw thousands of rally participants from surrounding states to the rallies.
The idea is to use the media already gathered for these events to raise awareness of the Fair Tax. They'll all be wandering around looking for something to cover and a big rally will be hard to ignore. This will make sure that the Fair Tax is the first thing that comes to mind when reporters start asking candidates questions, serving the dual purpose of making both the candidates and the public more aware of the issue than ever before, maybe even making it the central issue of the campaign season. To add an interesting twist, visitors to Iowa from other states can apparently vote in the straw poll, which might add an interesting boost for any GOP candidate who endorses the Fair Tax and attracts the votes of thousands of rally participants.
Based on the number of people Neal Boortz drew to a book signing in Austin – and Fair Tax t-shirts were much in evidence – if they get all of the major Fair Tax figures including Rep. Linder, Boortz and fellow talker Herman Cain promoting the events and making appearances, the turnout could be pretty impressive and hard for the media and the candidates to ignore.
Efforts on this level to mobilize a grassroots movement in support of a single issue are almost unprecedented, especially with the level of involvement of political figures and major talk radio personalities. There's clearly some money and a lot of thought behind the campaign to catapult the Fair Tax into the national spotlight. This might be exactly what supporters of the Fairness Doctrine are afraid of.
Back to my reminiscences of the signing…
After the presentation we all lined up by letter group like good little citizens, and the line moved surprisingly fast. Within 40 minutes I was face-to-face with Neal Boortz. We exchanged a few words whose import I may explore later, and I was off to rejoin my family with a signed book in hand. Neal is still flying around the country in his personal plane, signing books and promoting the Fair Tax movement and their plans for the primary season. I'm back home trying to figure out how I can justify a trip to Iowa in the Summer.