att Kibbe is the tea party movement’s soft-spoken assassin; its wolf in tie-dyed clothing. “I don’t want to run for anything,” the FreedomWorks president and CEO tells Newsmax. “I’m not particularly good on the podium. I’m not a public spokesperson kind of guy.”
Maybe so. But since last year’s midterm elections, few can argue that Kibbe is the sort of guy who gets things done in a dangerous kind of way. Just ask the scores of Democrats who lost their seats in Congress thanks in part to the organization Kibbe runs.
FreedomWorks trains conservative operatives, distributes yard signs galore, and handles permitting for the tea party’s vast rallies on the national mall. Basically, it kept the furniture out of the way as the tea party found its legs and ransacked the political establishment.
FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, the former GOP majority leader, is the de facto spokesman of the tea-party movement. It’s doubtful he ever met a microphone he couldn’t charm. Kibbe acts as strategist while Armey dazzles the media. In Armey’s TV interviews, you’ll occasionally see Kibbe. He’s the bespectacled, 40-something fellow standing just out of the way in jeans, T-shirt, and a jacket. At first blush he might seem the nerdy, pocket-protector type. But on closer inspection, Kibbe shows all the marks of a counterculture rebel with a conservative cause. Right down to the Grateful Dead fixation.
There’s an Ayn Rand poster on the office wall near a picture of hirsute guitar virtuoso Jerry Garcia. A coffee mug on Kibbe’s desk sports a blue and red skull, a lightning bolt shooting through it. And then there are Kibbe’s sideburns. “I am a Dead fan,” Kibbe concedes. “My wife, Terry, and I used to go to Grateful Dead concerts for fun. We would build a trip around it.”
or decades, The Grateful Dead band was known for mind-bending, improvisational riffs that danced with chaos and rediscovered order just in time to prevent total anarchy. The band’s name came from an old English fable. Pay for someone’s funeral, the tale goes, and their grateful soul would return the favor by bringing you good fortune.
When Barack Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, a lot of pundits considered the conservative movement dead and buried. So it is only appropriate that when Kibbe and his grass-roots colleagues sought to resurrect the GOP, they turned to the Grateful Dead. Kibbe likes to compare tea party protests to the parking lot outside a Grateful Dead concert. And Kibbe ought to know.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Kibbe was a little-known policy wonk in Washington who wrote a lot of policy papers reflecting his libertarian perspective.
Washington was a hard place for a devoted conservative back then. “He’s a very highly principled guy,” Don Todd, Kibbe’s former boss at the RNC, told Time magazine recently. “He left us when [George H.W.] Bush went back on his ‘no new taxes’ pledge. I never held it against [him]. I understood it. It was against his principles when somebody broke his word like that.”
When he wasn’t working, Kibbe was attending Dead concerts and hanging out in parking lots with his fellow Dead Heads.
At such venues, he may have been alone in his obsession with Austrian School economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
But the rock solid concepts of those economic masters were far from foreign to the psychedelic rock crowd. Concepts such as the spontaneous organizing power of free markets and the creative idea that if you leave folks alone, they’ll find a way to work things out.
Kibbe noticed that the Dead Head community was self-organizing. No one was in charge. Yet vendors spontaneously emerged to sell whatever fans wanted — bandanas, bumper stickers, hats, scarves, apparel, you name it. Long before there were grass-roots organized conservatives, it seems, there were grass-roots organized hippies. The goals might be different, but the underlying principles were the same.
“The comparison may sound shocking, but it’s actually true,” Kibbe tells Newsmax. “They self-organized. They were very much capitalists — and I’m not talking about the band. I’m talking about the people that went to the shows.”
Kibbe was amazed at the sense of community: “It was a community organized around their love for the band, obviously. But contrary to the reputation, there was also a great respect for property rights there, for capitalism, and community. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.” A decade later, with the Grand Old Party on life support, Kibbe turned to that model to pull off his grass-roots revival.
Kibbe’s drive gave conservative activists the tools they needed. He then stood back to let them do their thing. The tea party rallies captivated the nation and mesmerized a befuddled media, capturing a raw energy. Such was the recipe Kibbe tapped into to make the bracing brew that many of Washington’s pols are now reluctantly imbibing. Two years later, the reports of conservatives’ demise appear greatly exaggerated. And it seems the dead really are grateful.
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.