There's a sideshow quality to the Conservative Political Action Conference that's easy to poke fun at. There are the bright red buttons that say "Impeach Hillary," and conspiracy theories raising the possibility that the Clinton administration covered up murders of late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (who died in a plane crash) and White House attorney Vince Foster (whose death was ruled a suicide) are discussed openly and reverently on panels. What's more, Charlton Heston is treated like a serious political thinker.
But this year, the conference enjoyed a political cachet it hasn't enjoyed since Ronald Reagan regularly attended when he was president. Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on opening night, Bush campaign architect and senior advisor Karl Rove spoke Friday and a parade of congressmen -- Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.; Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.; Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; Richard Shelby, R-Ala. -- came and went.
It also drew younger people like Joel Mowbray, 25, who seemed to best fit the typical profile of a CPAC attendee. Like 54 percent of them, according to a conference survey, Mowbray is 25 or younger. He's Catholic (like 28 percent, more than any other religion) and male (like 63 percent). And while racial makeup wasn't surveyed, a casual observation of the conference participants suggests that Mowbray is among the 98 percent or so in attendance who are white.
But Mowbray doesn't exactly blend in with the arch social conservatism of the conference. "The book that helped make me a conservative was 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X,'" Mowbray explains proudly, recalling how astonished he was to find that the black nationalist leader distrusted liberal solutions to the black community's problems, such as President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Although the Georgetown University law student isn't comfortable with all the rhetoric at the conference -- particularly the "way-out religious types" who make berating gays a centerpiece of their politics -- Mowbray feels completely at home here.
So does his friend Telly Lovelace, 25, one of the few blacks at the conference. Lovelace traces his own attraction to conservative politics to an old episode of "Family Ties."
"Someone on the show said, 'Republicans are for the rich; Democrats are for the poor,'" Lovelace says. "I figured I wanted to be rich, and so I wanted to spend time with Republicans."
As up from his bootstraps as any Alex P. Keaton wannabe, Lovelace blames the Democratic Party for perpetuating in the black community an unhelpful reliance on federal programs for social needs. "This is the same government that enslaved you, that discriminated against you, that wouldn't allow you to vote," Lovelace says, "but you trust it to clean up your community, to feed your family?" Joining in the conversation with Mowbray and Lovelace is Shirley Carmichael, a woman of multiracial background who describes herself as "30-ish." Her conservative leaning stems from faith in God that, she says, isn't as respected by liberals.
As for Lovelace, being a racial minority is less of an issue here than elsewhere for Carmichael. "My entire life has been defined a lot by the racial issue," she says. "It's nice to be around people who look at me for who I am."
Perhaps the conference reflects the spoils of victory: After George W. Bush won the presidency, and after months of his being a political contortionist on conservative issues like abortion, the Supreme Court and affirmative action, conservatives finally could declare they won, and their audience has grown as a result. This year's attendance, close to 3,500, represents a high point in the organization's 28 years of existence.
But nobody should mistake the CPAC as representative of the "big tent" party the Republicans tried to create during their national convention last year. Hardcore conservatives only need apply, and statements that uttered elsewhere would be deemed outrageous are welcome here, especially if they're aimed at the former president and his wife.
"When it comes to the Clintons ... I don't really see anything wrong with providing taxpayer-supported office space," says conservative radio commentator Cliff Kincaid. "I just think the taxpayer-supported space should be in a federal penitentiary."
Reed Irvine would love to provide the evidence to put Bill Clinton there. He's the founder of Accuracy in Media, which bills itself as a "grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage." That mission covers a whole lot of alleged Clinton misdeeds.
But Irvine really hit his stride with what he called "the $600 million for a blacks-only lottery," another alleged example of Clinton corruption. "Any black," Irvine explains, "who says that he farmed or attempted to farm between 1981 and 1997, [and] said that he applied for a loan from the Department of Agriculture and he didn't get it because he was black, can send in a letter to this effect and find one other person who can say ... that's true ... can collect $50,000 tax-free from the U.S. government."
The whole story is a little trickier than that. In 1997, thousands of black farmers filed suit against the USDA for systematic discrimination against them in federal loans and subsidies. In 1999, the case was settled in the farmers' favor, with the federal government agreeing to pay $50,000 to each farmer who could prove discrimination. Since then, the Agriculture Department says, it has approved just under 12,000 claims, though black farmers still believe that the response has been too slow. Last year, conference attendee Rep. Watts even vowed to put his political muscle behind speeding relief to the farmers.
But those details apparently escaped Irvine's attention, as did the possibility that language like "blacks-only lottery" might be a little derisive. Even a conservative true believer like Lovelace doesn't like the sound of that. But he has studied the black farmers' situation extensively, he says, and cites it as proof that the federal government is still poisoned by racism, making it unworthy of blacks' trust.
While Irvine's words bother Lovelace, he won't condemn them. "I didn't hear what Irvine said," Lovelace offers. "Maybe he just didn't understand the case."
There's still only one case that occupies the attention of Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, and that is the case against Clinton, a project that has consumed his group for eight years. "We have uncovered 132 scandals," Klayman says. "And we're not proud of the fact that we uncovered scandals; and we're not proud of the fact that we have 80 lawsuits against this Clinton-Gore administration; and we're not proud of the fact that this Clinton-Gore administration is not gone -- it has simply moved from the White House to the Democratic National Committee."
And Bush shouldn't expect these investigators to stop now that the former president has begun his new life as a private citizen. "You would think that the current president of the United States would say, 'I've had it. I've got to bring about justice,'" Klayman says. "But what have we heard from him and his Republican Party? The compassionate conservatism. 'Move on. Forget about it.'"
"Well, we can't forget about it," he says.
But Jonah Goldberg, editor of the National Review online (and son of Lucianne Goldberg, Linda Tripp's famous would-be literary agent), says that keeping Clinton hating at the top of the conservative priority list will cripple the political movement in the future. "We've gotten ourselves into a little bit of trouble as conservatives," Goldberg says. "We sort of bought into this idea ... somehow, because Clinton was so metaphysically tacky, we got seduced by this proposition that it was conservative to have problems with Bill Clinton."
Anybody can have problems with Clinton, he insists, rattling off a few colorful tidbits of condemnation. "Conservatives should take very little pride in the fact that they think that it's terrible for someone to lie under oath, to cheat with an intern, to blast Barry White music in the Oval Office [while] shooting amateur porn."
Though the audience obviously had fun hearing Clinton kicked around some more, in the end Goldberg sided with Bush. "I would love to simply move on from the man."
At this conference, he was clearly in the minority.