O Forgotten Hero: How CNBC's Rick Santelli Started the Tea Party Revolution

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For those who may not know, Santelli has been a CNBC on-air editor since 1999, reporting a dozen or so times a day live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade whenever the exchange is open. To this casual viewer, Santelli’s genial, down-to-earth Midwestern persona always seemed a refreshing homespun relief from the high-voltage, East Coast, guru-on-steroids style of CNBC superstar Jim “Booyah!” Cramer.

Full disclosure: I am a modest-earning playwright, not a rich hedge fund manager, and currently have no money in the stock market. I merely began following the market about 10 years ago out of theatrical curiosity–it seemed like the next best form of drama after Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. I never imagined names like Larry Kudlow, Maria Bartiromo, and Bertha Coombs would mean a damn thing to me, but soon like Miranda in The Tempest I found myself exclaiming “O brave new world, that hath such people in it!”

Back to Rick.

Rick Santelli delivered his now famous “Shout Heard ‘Round the World”–his impromptu suggestion that America needs a Boston Tea Party redux–on February 19, 2009. As a full-fledged CNBC geek, I happened to be watching “Squawk Box” that morning, my alternative to “The View.” (Not to take anything away from Babs and her bevy, but when it comes to looks and smarts, nobody can top CNBC morning money-honeys Melissa Francis and Trish Regan.)

This was an electrifying moment for cable television–but especially for the mostly genteel and always arcane CNBC. Even to a drama junkie like me, Santelli’s rant was instantly recognizable as pure, unadulterated, off-the-charts emotion. I mean, this was CNBC, dude! These guys get worked up about the LIBOR rates and global decoupling. But Tea Parties?

Here was a rare unscripted moment, a spontaneous economic cri de coeur. It didn’t hurt Santelli, whose straight-shooter affability is very infectious, that he had an army of like-minded traders behind him, with the modern-day equivalent of pitchforks–their BlackBerrys and iPhones–in hand ready to cheer on their modern day Paul Revere or Samuel Adams.

Back in the New York studio, “Squawk Box” co-hosts Joe Kernan, Beckie Quick and Carl Quintanilla gently mocked Santelli and downplayed the moment, perhaps embarrassed by the controversial nature of it, teasingly dubbing Rick a “rabble-rouser” and saying “Mayor Daley was calling in the National Guard.” But the unapologetic Santelli just kept ranting, suggesting the Tax Day Tea Party that would very soon come to be–and unwittingly inspiring a modern day grass-roots revolution that threatens to play a huge role in the midterm elections.

Did Santelli start the Tea Party movement? Technically speaking, yeah, he probably did. But it most likely would have happened anyway. Much the same way a California brush fire is inevitable, regardless of whether a carelessly discarded cigarette or lightning strike sets it ablaze.

Blazing fire

And most ironic and charming of all–Santelli seems now to be a largely forgotten figure in the whole thing. Most Tea Party members probably don’t know who Rick Santelli is. And he certainly doesn’t trumpet it. Which is how it should be. In the words of the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Take up the song–forget the epitaph.”

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