Special Report

Mardi Gras for the Right

CPAC puts the "party" back in the Republican Party.               

By 2.25.09

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 Jesse the hotel security man was at the door, and Jesse was not happy. Our suite at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel was crammed with journalists, bloggers, activists, publicists, think-tank wonks and sundry other guests, and by 10 p.m. perhaps we were becoming a bit loud.

What had originally been planned by myself and investigative journalist Matthew Vadum as a small get-together for VIPs at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had turned into a monster party. Guests had invited friends, other people had gotten wind of the event and invited themselves, and the soiree had overflowed from the suite out onto the balcony outside.

Half an hour before Jesse showed up, a talk-radio producer had climbed atop a sofa and led the crowd in a boisterous singalong. When the security man knocked at the door, Vadum answered and promised to try to keep things quiet henceforth. Jesse, however, was adamant: The party was over, and all the guests would have to leave.

I was called to the door to attempt to reach a reasonable compromise, but Jesse -- a man the size of a professional football linebacker -- was not interested in compromise, reasonable or otherwise. Then Bob Barr showed up.

Barr, the former Republican congressman from Georgia who eventually became the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential candidate, joined the negotiations. But not even an erstwhile member of the House Judiciary Committee could persuade Jesse to let the party continue. "Everybody out," the security man insisted.

Some conspiracy theorists blamed the premature end of the VIP party on liberal bias, suggesting that perhaps Jesse was a Democrat who resented conservatives having fun.

Myself, I blame Mitt Romney.

Eight hours before the VIP party convened in our suite, Romney had announced to a packed crowd in the hotel's Regency Ballroom that he was suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In effect, Romney's withdrawal meant that Arizona Sen. John McCain -- or as I had begun calling him, "Crazy Cousin John" -- would be the GOP nominee.

Conservatives were profoundly disappointed by this development. Romney hadn't been first choice for many of them, but after Newt Gingrich's flirtation with a primary campaign had turned out to be a tease, and after the Fred Thompson bandwagon fizzled, the former Massachusetts governor had been the last best hope of the ABM (Anybody But McCain) movement.

When Mitt quit, some of his heartbroken supporters made a beeline to the lobby bar seeking solace for their sorrows, and by the time the VIP party convened at 8 p.m., a few of the guests had been drinking since noon. Fun? Brother, you haven't lived until you've seen a "family values" advocate after her sixth margarita.

CPAC is, of course, the world's largest gathering of conservative activists, and a great deal of serious activism is on the agenda when the three-day conference begins Thursday morning with a welcome speech by David Keene of the sponsoring American Conservative Union. CPAC director Lisa De Pasquale has once again organized a splendid schedule of speeches, seminars and other events, with a record attendance of more than 5,000 expected.

Yet for all wonderful events on the official agenda -- including speeches by Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele -- much of the fun at CPAC is unscheduled and unofficial.

When I try to describe it to friends who've never attended, I tell them CPAC is like Mardi Gras for right-wingers. Or as Wendy Sullivan says, "It's like what you see on MTV's Spring Break, but with pearls and navy blue suits."

Perhaps we exaggerate somewhat. It's not a decadent bacchanalia, but neither is it a meeting of the Southern Baptist Sunday School board. There are some people who think the phrase "conservative" is a synonym for such words as uptight, boring and repressed. But most of those people are liberals who get these stereotypes from "Saturday Night Live" sketches or Frankfurt School propaganda.

One such liberal, apparently, was Stephen Glass of the New Republic, who in a notorious 1997 article viciously portrayed College Republicans at CPAC as sadistic louts -- "drunk, dejected and angry" -- engaged in drug-fueled orgies. Once Glass was exposed as a fraud, Brent Bozell III wrote: "Everyone now knows what the CPAC organizers knew all along: it was unbelievable because it was invented."

Although some College Republican kids who attend CPAC have been known to enjoy the nightclubs of D.C.'s Adams Morgan district to excess -- they are, after all, college kids -- I've never met one who was "dejected and angry." Even after Mitt the Quitter broke their hearts last year, young conservatives quickly bounced back from their disappointment.

The Stephen Glass smear, false though it was, points out the vicious double standard that conservatives confront. On the one hand, conservatives who oppose abortion and gay rights are derided as puritanical fuddy-duddies who are "anti-sex." On the other hand, if College Republicans visit a nightclub in Washington, they're depicted as moral degenerates.

By contrast, no incident in the careers of Democratic icons like Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd and Bill Clinton is ever deemed sufficiently scandalous to demote them from the heroic pantheon of liberal statesmen. Yet so far as we know, no College Republican attending CPAC has ever driven into the Potomac and left a girl to drown in the car. (And if he did, his chances of being elected to the Senate would be nil, unless he moved to Massachusetts and ran as a Democrat.)

Angry drug-addled decadence at CPAC? No. Optimistic good cheer? Plenty. And if some conservatives take the opportunity to put the "party" back in the Republican Party, that's a Change We Can Believe In.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.