Three Cheers for CPAC - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Three Cheers for CPAC
Donald Trump at CPAC, February 29, 2019 (The White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Neither cancel culture nor COVID can shut down CPAC.

The venerable Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), now a robust 47 years old, is gathering this weekend as it always does at this time of year.

Yes, the conference has moved from its home at Maryland’s COVID-shuttered National Harbor to Orlando, Florida. And yes, I am informed, all the appropriate COVID-related protocols will be observed.

There will be one other aspect of CPAC normal: The closing speech, to the exasperation of his critics, will star former President Donald J. Trump. Trump appearances, like the long-ago Reagan appearances, have become CPAC favorites. And with reason. More of which in a moment.

But first: I was unable to be at CPAC this year, to my sorrow. Yet I have been able to read or hear its liberal critics pile on for letting Trump speak. It appears they have absolutely no idea of CPAC’s history.

CPAC was founded by the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom in 1974. And, I must confess, I was there along with 400 other registrants. But by the time we showed up, my conservative elders had been at work for some time.

In 2003, Human Events reporter Jim Roberts wrote a lengthy profile of CPAC and its history. The title:

CPAC Over 30 Years: Conservatives Have Come a Long Way

Here are a few excerpts:

Following [Arizona Senator and conservative champion Barry] Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, a group of conservative leaders met in Washington to ponder the future of the conservative movement that appeared shattered by the Arizonan’s crushing loss…. Out of this meeting, the American Conservative Union (ACU) was born…. It was in 1973, however, that the ACU board, at the urging of Chairman M. Stanton Evans, voted to hold the first CPAC, setting the date of January 1974. Chairman Evans secured the agreement of California Gov. Ronald Reagan to speak.

And with that, CPAC was off and running.

The list of conservative luminaries involved in all of this over time reads like a who’s who of conservatism. Roberts mentions

William F. Buckley, Jr. Rep. Donald Bruce (R.-Ind.), Rep. John Ashbrook (R.-Ohio), Rep. Katherine St. George (R.-N.Y.), William A. Rusher, Frank Meyer, Thomas S. Winter, John A. Howard and L. Brent Bozell.

Also involved were Ronald B. Dear and Frank J. Donatelli, Tom Winter, Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Morton Blackwell.

Roberts writes:

Blackwell and other activists involved in the planning of the first conference argued passionately that the young conservative movement cadres badly need organizational skills and because of this the first CPAC — and a number thereafter — gave prominence to political workshops, “double tracking” sessions on foreign and domestic policy with practical panels on direct mail fundraising, campaign techniques and the like.

In January 1974, the nation was in the middle of the Watergate scandal, and this meant a topic of the day was whether President Nixon should or should not resign. There was also considerable opposition by some conservatives to some of what were seen as Nixon’s liberal policies, particularly his imposition of wage and price controls and détente with the Soviet Union.

Roberts again:

With this background of conservative disarray and disenchantment, Gov. Reagan sounded out a number of conservative leaders about what should be the theme of his address. Some of them advised him to elevate the eyes of his audience above the scandal of Watergate to the principles that inspired the conservative movement — and indeed the nation — in the first place. The governor responded with a lyrical, powerful address that 30 years later stands as one of his finest oratorical achievements. He began by introducing three special guests — U.S. military officers Ed Martin, Bill Lawrence and John McCain, who had recently been released a year earlier from brutal imprisonment in North Vietnam. The men were the latest in a long tradition of American heroes evoked by Reagan — heroes who had fought and suffered and, in many cases, died for a country that Reagan saw as placed “by divine plan between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed by an abiding love of freedom and special kind of courage.” The speech was Reagan at his finest, containing humor, pungent statements of principle, moving stories, invocations of heroes of the past, stark acknowledgement of problems facing the nation, but full of optimism for the future. It was a combination that six years later would win over the American people and carry Reagan to the White House.

Notably, Roberts says this:

Immediately following the concluding banquet, a private reception for Reagan was held by conservative leaders. Frank Donatelli, then executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, recalls warning Reagan that under Gerald Ford the liberals were intent on taking over the Republican Party. “Well,” Reagan replied, “we’re not going to let them do that.”

Indeed. It was at CPAC 1975 that Reagan drew a line in the sand with the GOP Establishment and liberals. He said this:

Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people?

Reagan believed in the “bold colors” approach. He made up his mind to challenge the liberal and Establishment President Ford for the 1976 nomination and came within an eyelash of winning. Four years later Reagan did win — in a 44-state landslide. And CPAC’s first golden years were at hand.

The 1981 CPAC featured the new President Reagan, this time with Mrs. Reagan. The conference was flooded with Reagan Cabinet officers and White House staff. The jubilant crowd cheered when “Hail to the Chief” broke out at Reagan’s entrance.

Roberts wrote Reagan’s speech up this way:

“Fellow conservatives … our time is now. Our moment has arrived. We stand together shoulder to shoulder in the thickest of the fight.” Reflecting on how far the conservative movement had come, Reagan used the Portuguese word saudade, “a poetic term rich with the dreams of yesterday,” and went on to say that “surely in our past there was many a dream ended with broken lances.” Reagan then mentioned by name some of the conservative intellectuals who had lighted the way, including Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Milton Friedman and Frank Meyer and he saluted Barry Goldwater without whose willingness “to take the lonely walk we wouldn’t be here talking of a celebration tonight.” Most poignantly, he saluted the activists assembled that evening. “Last November’s victory was singularly your victory.” He had come, he said, simply to say “thank you.” Contemplating the enormous challenges ahead, the President concluded by telling his fellow conservatives: “If we carry the day and turn the tide, we can hope that as long as men speak of freedom and those who protected it, they will remember us, and they will say, ‘Here were the brave and here their place of honor.’ ”

And so it went in the 1980s with CPAC. The annual list of registered attendees grew and grew. By 2020 CPAC had long abandoned holding its conference in Washington hotel ballrooms — they were no longer big enough. The National Harbor complex in nearby Maryland was host to over 10,000 attendees in 2020, a stunning growth from the initial gathering of 400.

Even with the pandemic and the move to Orlando, I’m told there are still thousands in attendance in 2021.

Leading CPAC are ACU Chair Matt Schlapp, ACU Vice-Chair Charlie Gerow, and ACU Executive Director Dan Schneider. Along with others, they are a superb leadership team getting the job done and upholding CPAC traditions.

And it is precisely because of that success that my friend Matt Schlapp has himself been targeted by the Left’s virulent cancel culture. In 2020, Matt sat down with “The Daily Signal Podcast” and its host Virginia Allen to discuss the personal side of the cancel culture. When asked about his clients at his private business, Matt responded,

I don’t know if I want to shine a spotlight too much on who I work for because, clearly, these radicals want to destroy me in every way they possibly can, as you can imagine. I’m laughing, but it’s a stressful time.

He went on to note that people who see him — and CPAC — as a threat have been

coming after my company, and now coming after CPAC itself, now literally making calls to donors at CPAC saying, “How could you support an organization that has a terrible person like Matt Schlapp as its chairman?”

Look, it’s an integrated and very strategic attack on my character. It’s false, and I’m going to be looking at all the options I have to make sure we can go back to the idea of a civil debate.

And, I’m told, there has been more of this garbage directed Matt’s way in 2021. This is as inexcusable as it is increasingly common — and disgraceful. On the other hand, as the old saying goes, when you are taking intense fire you know you are over the target.

And, of course, the closer for this 47th CPAC is … former President Donald Trump. As any CPAC attendee can attest, Trump, like Reagan before him, is wildly popular with CPAC-ers. And with considerable reason.

This will be Trump’s first major appearance since leaving the presidency in January. And just as with Reagan, he finds himself targeted by GOP Establishment moderates.

Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney has been in the news lately for supporting Trump’s impeachment and saying this the other day when asked at a presser whether Trump should be speaking at CPAC:

That’s up to CPAC…. I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.

In all the press clucking that followed, the media through its short memory or simple lack of historical knowledge forgot that story about Reagan’s conversation with conservatives at CPAC 1974, as recalled by Frank Donatelli. Again, Roberts wrote it this way:

Frank Donatelli, then executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, recalls warning Reagan that under Gerald Ford the liberals were intent on taking over the Republican Party. “Well,” Reagan replied, “we’re not going to let them do that.”

Hmm. And who served Gerald Ford successively as assistant to the president, White House deputy chief of staff, and White House chief of staff? That would be Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney’s dad.

Which is to say, there should be no surprise in Liz Cheney’s views. She is the liberal GOP Establishment personified. That GOP Establishment couldn’t abide Ronald Reagan then, and they can’t abide Donald Trump now.

And there was one more conservative the liberal GOP Establishment couldn’t stand: Rush Limbaugh.

Back there in 2009 — a full six years before the rise of Donald Trump — ex-George W. Bush aide David Frum took to the pages of Newsweek to launch an assault on Rush. Rereading it the criticisms seem eerie, like an early version of the attacks on Donald Trump. Frum hates Rush’s style, Rush is “a walking stereotype of self-indulgence,” and so on and so on. And oh yes, Rush’s supporters are not thinking people; they are a “cult.”

This now 12-year-old attack on Rush says everything about the divide between CPAC conservatives and liberal Republicans. And the best answer to it this week of CPAC is to do exactly what Fox News is headlining here:

Rush Limbaugh to be honored at CPAC, inducted into Conservative Hall of Fame

Limbaugh will also be honored with video tribute at Ronald Reagan Dinner Saturday night

The story says this:

American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Matt Schlapp remembered being “glued” to Limbaugh’s 2009 CPAC speech, which inspired the conservative movement and is widely considered one of the most important moments of his iconic career. 

Limbaugh, who rarely traveled to events and only spoke at one CPAC, offered an explanation of “who conservatives are” that caused the crowd to erupt with chants of “USA! USA!” Schlapp hoped Limbaugh would be able to return to speak at this year’s event, but health did not allow that to happen.

“The fact that that speech stands alone as this very important moment for CPAC and for conservativism is somehow appropriate,” Schlapp told Fox News.

“He told us what being a conservative is in his language that we got so used to. He told the country what motivates us, he captured [it] in that fly-over country, Midwestern language,” Schlapp added. “I think a lot of people watched it again over the course of the last several days since his passing.”

All the cable news networks took Limbaugh’s 2009 speech live, helping to put CPAC on the map outside of conservative circles. His remarks were considered a “Conservative State of the Union” and allowed liberal viewers who tuned in on mainstream media outlets to get a glimpse of the conservative movement.

Indeed it did.

Without doubt CPAC is what it is today because of the collective work of decades of conservatives. This year’s gathering, which both honors Rush Limbaugh and hears from former President Trump — and is held in spite of the cancel culture and COVID — could not be better.

And for sure: CPAC’s role in 2022 and 2024 will be something to watch.

So three cheers for CPAC. Well done.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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