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Spouting off for the Tea Party

Williams draws fans, critics with fiery rhetoric

Mark Williams Mark Williams
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 22, 2010

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As chairman of the Tea Party Express, the traveling voice of the insurgent political group, Mark Williams has thrust himself onto the national stage with fiery, polarizing rhetoric that has won him both adoration and scorn, even in his own party.

The 54-year-old Massachusetts native regularly lambastes President Obama as a communist bent on undermining the Constitution, and last week likened him to such dictators as Stalin and Pol Pot. On his blog and elsewhere, he rails against Obama as an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug,’’ and “racist in chief’’ for his comments about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his own home.

His incendiary remarks, which include long-discredited assertions, have alienated some Republicans and fellow Tea Party members, and raised fears that such extreme rhetoric will marginalize the movement and undercut its momentum as a political force.

“He says some things that are definitely inflammatory, but I think the comments of one person are just that, and don’t reflect the feelings of the whole group,’’ said Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican party.

Nassour herself is among Williams’s recent targets. He laid into her on his blog after she told the Globe last week that she planned to attend the Tea Party rally as “an observer.’’ He called her a “poster child for everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.’’

Other officials have received rougher treatment: Williams has called former President Jimmy Carter a “slithering worm of a man,’’ and claimed Carter’s support for Arab leaders indicated that he “longs for an oven of fresh baked Jews.’’

Williams told the Tea Party rally on Boston Common on April 14 that political correctness was a “societal HIV’’ that had given the country “a full-blown case of AIDS.’’ The comments rippled across the blogosphere, and were seized on as proof the movement is hate-filled and bigoted.

But Williams, a conservative talk radio host, author, and frequent guest on cable news, said he is only “speaking the truth’’ and describes himself as a “true conservative’’ who is fighting to protect the country from slipping into statism.

“I refuse to cater to the lowest common denominator,’’ he said. “We need to restore our constitutional balance.’’

In response to criticism, including some from within Tea Party ranks, that his rhetoric could hurt the movement’s credibility, Williams is unapologetic, saying his opinions represent one set in a political uprising that “is the antithesis of groupthink.’’

“We have been indoctrinated into the lie that we must all agree on every detail of everything,’’ he said. “Wrong. Dissent is a good thing.’’

At rallies and on his blog, Williams has consistently raised doubts about Obama’s citizenship, once telling a rally it was “even money’’ Obama was born in somewhere other than America.

When asked why he invokes the long-debunked smear, Williams said he sometimes exaggerates for effect to spur on the audience, and conceded that Obama was “probably’’ a natural-born citizen. But in the next breath, he claims public documents raise the possibility that Obama is both foreign-born and Muslim.

Williams said he uses strong language to bolster his arguments and animate audiences, and that his forceful rhetoric, even if it skirts the truth, is appropriate to fight the threats presented by the Obama administration.

“The Constitution has been abandoned as a standard,’’ said Williams, who lives in Sacramento, Calif. “Right now, the government has all the rights, and they bestow them to citizens as they choose. That’s flat out wrong.’’

He cast the Tea Party movement as a “battle for the soul of America,’’ and denounces leaders of both parties for expanding the federal government at the expense of individual rights.

But some Tea Party supporters, aware of Williams’s penchant for controversy, are quick to distance themselves from his most radical views and dramatic delivery.

“Those are show business people, putting on a traveling road show,’’ Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, said of the Tea Party Express personalities. “We are a nonprofit, public policy group. That’s not our mission.’’

Varley and others noted that the Tea Party Express, which on Thursday completed a series of rallies across the country, is only one facet of a broad, diverse movement.

She said she was only vaguely aware of Williams’s comments, but said “extreme rhetoric’’ detracts from the movement’s goals.

“It’s not worthwhile,’’ she said.

Williams grew up in Attleboro in a working-class household — his father worked in a paper mill, his mother in a jewelry factory. Smitten with radio from an early age, he entered the business right out of high school, working the overnight shift on a talk radio show.

“A little bit of everything,’’ he recalled. “Not even the general manager was listening.’’

Williams went on to work with legendary radio personality Jerry Williams, who led a successful campaign against a mandatory seat-belt law. After leaving Boston in the mid-1980s, he hosted talk-radio programs in a number of major markets, including Sacramento, where he earned a reputation for voicing outlandish opinions.

In 2005, Williams stirred controversy when he said in a televised interview that residents of New Orleans “didn’t have the necessary brains and common sense to get out of the way’’ of Hurricane Katrina because they expected the government to “do absolutely everything for them.’’ He also said Kanye West, a rap star who had recently said that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people,’’ was a “Klansman in black face,’’ according to a CNN transcript.

The same year, while a fill-in host on a Washington, D.C., station, Williams called a proposed day-laborer site a “day-care center for illegal criminal aliens.’’

Williams was fired from a Sacramento station in 2006, and later sued its parent company for defamation. Williams says he was fired for his political commentary, which included harsh criticism of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and staunch opposition for giving amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Williams said Tea Party supporters are eager to see moderate Republicans (known by some who are further right on the spectrum as RINOS, or Republicans In Name Only) voted out of office. The party is “polluted with Chamberlains,’’ he said, referring to the British leader Neville Chamberlain, known for his appeasement of Germany before World War II.

“That’s one of the biggest problems with America,’’ he said.

Still, he reserves his wrath for Obama, whom he often refers to as Barack Hussein Obama. He said he mentions his middle name to underscore what he considers Obama’s un-American views.

“Culturally, he is anything but an American,’’ he said. “He doesn’t like Americans, and he treats us like garbage.’’

Criticism of Tea Party activists as bigots, Williams said, was a media creation. On social issues, most members are libertarian, he said. “What do I care if two guys named Bruce prance down to City Hall and get married?’’ he asked rhetorically.

Chip Ford, of Citizens for Limited Taxation, knew Williams in the 1980s through their mutual friend Jerry Williams, but hadn’t seen him in the intervening years, until last week. He attributed Williams’s fiery comments to the pressures of his profession.

“If you’re a boring talk show host, you won’t be one for long,’’ he said. “You have to keep the pot stirred. He’s a promoter, that’s all.’’

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