U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham began his meeting with the Charleston Tea Party by asking members of the news media to leave.
"We had an understanding that this would be a private meeting," Graham, R-S.C., told the crowd of more than 100 people tonight in North Charleston City Hall. To the departing media, he said, "You can see me outside."
The ground rules for the 90-minute meeting -- arranged by Graham with input from the tea party -- said media could remain as citizens but not as working journalists. Local WTMA-AM radio host Rocky D said, "I'm a Tea Partier!" and remained in the room.
Other media members initially escorted out by Graham's communications director, Kevin Bishop, later trickled back in.
What they heard was an often lively exchange between Graham and the audience that focused on taxes, the national debt, immigration, the bank bailout, energy policy as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
On immigration, one issue where Graham's willingness to compromise has angered some conservatives, Graham said it won't be possible to get enough Senate votes on a bill that would jail or deport the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
He told one questioner his solution is not going to work, but the questioner replied, "You haven't heard my solution."
K.C. Meyer, a Mount Pleasant engineer, said he is considering running against Graham in 2014. "I'm just hearing the same old stuff," he said of Graham's performance. "I just wish I heard a little more fight there."
Graham recently predicted that the tea party movement will "die out," but he said tonight that so will the Republican Party if it doesn't come up with a coherent vision to rally around. He said Republicans mainly are doing well now because Democrats are failing.
While the meeting included both applause and some verbal jousting, it was more civil than some town halls held last year. When one man claimed he was a Vietnam vet "unlike (Sen.) John Kerry (D-Mass.)," Graham stopped him, saying, "John Kerry and I disagree, but he was in Vietnam, and you know what? President Obama is not a Muslim. He's a liberal."
Graham's staff never alerted the media to the event, though at least a few media members received the tea party's mass e-mail, which indicated seating would be limited to 150 on a first-come, first-serve basis and personal recording devices would not be allowed. It didn't mention the media would be excluded.
K.C. Lombard, a Johns Island roofer and tea party member, said Graham called the meeting and set the rules. Lombard questioned whether the media should have been asked to leave.
"The whole tea party movement has been downplayed by the media, and here y'all are taking notes," he said.
Graham, who is well known for his many appearances on national news talk shows, later explained that he wanted the meeting private so tea party members would feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts.
"When you have the press there, sometimes it doesn't go as you would like," he said. "There are a lot of people who do not want to be in the newspaper."
The crowd was far from hostile -- or media shy. Several spoke to reporters outside, including Deborah Riegel, wife of Charleston City Councilman Dean Riegel. She described Graham's appearance was "same old, same old," adding that she likes Graham but doesn't always agree with him. "We respectfully disagree on some things, but that's politics," she said.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member with the Poynter Institute and co-leader of Poynter Ethics Fellows, said the media should attend the event. While it's not uncommon for political figures to try to restrict media access, those restrictions are tougher to enforce in an era when anyone with a blog or cellphone camera can reach a large audience.
"This stuff does happen, and it's stupid," McBride said. "Who isn't a reporter these days?"
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at email@example.com.