The kids are far right: hippie hunting, bunny bashing, and the new conservatism.
It's 9:00 A.M., Monday July 31, in the Grand Ballroom of the student center at George Washington University. The ballroom is crowded with conferencegoers from more than 180 colleges and thirty-nine states, who've convened here to spend the next five days in Washington as guests of Young America's Foundation, the conservative campus outreach group sponsoring the conference. The conferees will be sleeping in the G.W. dormitories, eating all meals together, and attending a procession of speeches from brand names on the conservative lecture circuit, ranging from culture-war fusiliers such as Angela "Bay" Buchanan (Pat's sister), to antagonists of the campus left like David Horowitz (recent author of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America), to Fox News contributors John Stossel and Michelle Malkin, to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Alexander Haig, Sam Brownback, David Brooks, Robert Novak, and a couple of dozen others. The students are obligated to attend all lectures, a quantity of conservative comment that will tally out at forty solid hours by the time the conference wraps up on Friday night.
Although it's a far cry from a uniformed rally, the student body is not staggeringly diverse: very few of the ache-mottled, pubertally gangly student-government types you might expect at this sort of thing; several women presenting what are surely not coincidental echoes of the Ann Coulter look--sideswept blond tresses and rigorously diet-whittled frames; a small population of square-built fraternity men; and two groovy lunkers in the California style, with carefully shaggy hair, rakishly slouching postures, distressed cargo shorts. Four conference-goers, by my count, are African American. Students from obscure conservative or Christian colleges outnumber representatives of the Ivy League by a ratio of six to one.
Only twenty minutes into the parade of speakers, I haven't yet had a chance to sound out many students' motives for giving up a week of summer vacation to audition lectures eight hours per day in a windowless room, but the students themselves offered an inkling last night at the conference's opening ceremony, at which everybody had to stand up, one by one, and declaim a brief statement of purpose for attending. Delivered across a spectrum of toastmasterful polish and downcast-eyes/ball-of-foot-grinding self-abasement, their explanations specifically included the following:
"I needed to come to a place where people love America and understand why." "I'm here because I want to make liberals cry and subvert the socialist agenda." "I'm here because I'm a Christian." "Liberals on my campus make me sick, and I want to figure out how to combat them better." "I came to D.C. because I might get the chance to slap the jaw of Ted Kennedy." "I'm here because I thought this conference had the potential to turn into a weeklong fear-and-loathing-in-Las-Vegas-style adventure but with conservatism instead of drugs." "I'm here to see a girl I met on MySpace." "I want to teach freshmen how to defend themselves against dirty hippies." "I'm here because I've seen the liberals destroy Chicago." "I'm sick of dating liberal guys." "I'm earning a zoologist's and veterinary degree, and we in the science community are having a lot of arguments about evolution; I need some better ammunition than what I have right now." "I'm here for How to Bash Liberals 101." "I'm here not necessarily to bash liberals but to change the system from the inside out." "I came here to network with my fellow right-wing conspirators, because we're all going to be running the country someday."
Despite all the jaunty blood thirst for liberals and hippies, it's interesting to note that none of the students utters words of praise for George W. Bush, or goes in for any cuticle-nibbling over the daily media forecasts of the drubbing the G.O.P. is supposed to suffer at the polls fourteen weeks from now. The more than 400 attendees is a record for the conference, and although this is good news for the conservative movement, it is also an oblique sort of nose-thumbing at the Republican Party, whose frantic volunteer trenches these students have disdained to spend the week in Washington. Proud self-declared Republicans, in fact, are curiously hard to come by among the students, nearly all of whom identify themselves as libertarians or simply as "conservatives," and who will later describe our president to me in the following terms: "embarrassing," "stupid," "arrogant," "a halfway conservative," "a puppet of lobbyists and special interests," and "a liberal, basically."
Nor do you find much midterm-election fretfulness among the masters of ceremony at Young America's Foundation, whose hopes for the students' futures in the movement stretch well beyond November. Founded in the early 1970s with the mission of reclaiming campus turf surrendered to the liberals in the sixties, YAF strives, through events like this week's lecture smorgasbord, to rouse students to lifelong affections for free markets, strong national defense, and the political prerogatives of the Christian Church. A sort of junior cousin to such big-league conservative message hydrants as Cato and the American Enterprise Institute, YAF also operates training programs in the journalistic and political arts, and provides rear-echelon support to students' ideological tusslings back on campus and beyond.
The message that Patrick X. Coyle, YAF's director of campus programs, is delivering this morning is that despite the Republicans' dominance of all three branches of government, the liberal movement is still alive and dangerous. "They're not out there knitting Che Guevara throw rugs," Coyle says. "They're out there thinking about how to attack your group."
Perhaps. Although in terms of campus organizing, as with the nation itself, the right has been ably stomping a mudhole in the collegiate left for the last couple of decades or so. It wasn't until the College Republicans dispatched a record-breaking number of student volunteers to the 2004 Bush campaign that Democrats and fractured liberal interests tried to get off the bench in the campus organizing game, a full generation after groups like YAF had already run off with the ball. In 2005, the Center for American Progress established Campus Progress, a liberal knockoff of YAF's model. Campus Progress will be the object of a fair amount of polemical target practice over the course of the conference, but it appears that YAF has little to worry about, if the movements' respective youth-recruitment coffers are any indication. Last year, Campus Progress's budget topped out at $650,000; estimates put the combined annual spending by YAF, and smaller, likeminded groups, at around $35 million. (1)
From the look of it, the seeds YAF and its allies began sowing in the 1970s have fruited out in discernible gains among America's youth. In 1996, Bob Dole lost the vote among eighteen-to twenty-nine-year-olds by 19 percentage points; in 2004, the same bracket preferred John Kerry to George W. Bush by only 9 percent. Sixty-even percent of college freshmen in 1995 believed that the wealthy should shoulder a greater share of the tax burden; the proportion had fallen to 50 percent by 2003. The College Republicans, like YAF, are seeing unprecedented numbers at their national conferences, and their campus branches now number 1,775, up from 650 just six years ago. (The College Democrats wouldn't say how many branches they currently have, for fear of provoking a "war" with the College Republicans.)
All of which makes it sort of difficult to raise a convincing alarm that the battle is still in urgent need of troops. So for those who might need a little enticement to enter the fray, Coyle goes on to explain, YAF offers an incentive program called "Club 100." Under Club 100, students garner "points" for feats of campus organizing and for attending YAF events. Making an appearance at the NCSC carries 30 points. Racking up 100 points earns you an invitation to attend a YAF retreat at the Reagan Ranch Center, in Santa Barbara, where the foundation conducts summer workshops instructing students in public speaking, media relations, and the fundamentals of conservative philosophy, as expressed in the writings of Edmund Burke, Barry Goldwater, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley. (2)
The retreat also includes a visit to Ronald Reagan's former ranch home, the "Western White House," which YAF purchased in 1998. The experience of setting foot on ground once trod by Reagan, who is un-ambiguously the foundation's patron saint, is an "awesome" one, Coyle promises. "Sometimes we'll go horseback riding on trails that are very similar to the ones that Reagan rode," he says. "The first time the staff went through the ranch house, there actually was a jar of jelly-beans that he'd used."
At this year's conference, students who have undergone Reagan Ranch leadership training can be reliably found on the right side of the front row of seats. I'll sit down to chat with them a couple of days into the proceedings, but as it turns out, they've all cultivated a polite but impermeable media-relations armor that makes talking to them like trying to interview a box of Jordan almonds.
Sample question: "If you were president, what sorts of policies might you try to implement that Reagan did not?"
Answer: "I don't see why there's any reason to improve on Reagan's policies at all."
Incidentally, the depth of local reverence for Reagan does not sit entirely well with all members of the student body. In the opinion of Adrienne Cumbus, who attends Patrick Henry College--an unaccredited Christian school in Purcellville, Virginia, that has placed more interns in the Bush White House than just about any other college or university in the nation--YAF's high treatment of the late president borders on the idolatrous: "I know Reagan was amazing," she said, "but I think it's weird that we're supposed to pretend he's God."
Back at the lectern, P. X. Coyle is presenting YAF's vision of how what's left of the liberal movement might be permanently put to rout. It will be the legacy of Ronald Reagan that will light the path to victory. Coyle encourages students to take up what YAF calls the "Ronald Reagan Model of Campus Activism," which recommends against "live and let live" detente-ism when it comes to engaging the left; rather, students should harry college liberals as relentlessly as Reagan did the "Evil Empire." Reagan's Cold War strategies, miniaturized for deployment on campus, include tactics such as "Use ... April Fool's Day to poke fun and expose the hypocrisy of prominent liberal leaders," "Counter Earth Day Activities with Free Market Solutions to Environmental Problems," and "Investigate Your School's Diversity Center."
Coyle warns that the battles awaiting the students in the coming semesters will be hard and lonely work, but he leaves them with a note of hope: "You may not represent the majority opinion on campus," he says. "But you do represent the majority opinion in society at large."
Tuesday morning, 10:00 A.M.--a somewhat sparse crowd for Dr. Burt Folsom's lecture on "Bias in Textbooks." The diminished attendance, I'm later informed by two tremblingly hungover anonymous sources, can be chalked up to a spate of epic pissups the previous evening in Foggy Bottom bars.
By 11:00, the crowd has thickened in eager anticipation of Dr. Walter E. Williams. A professor of economics at George Mason University, and an occasional stand-in for Rush Limbaugh, Williams is the subject of the conference's most breathless buzz so far.
"Oh, I can't wait to see that Dr. Williams," says the girl sitting in front of me. When Williams enters, the ballroom rings with applause and brightens with pandemic uncurtainings of happy teeth.
Dr. Williams is a tall African-American man of seventy, though he could pass for forty-five. He wears glasses and a necktie of a complicated pink pattern that from my seat looks like revealed musculature. Williams has come here today to let students know that, the recent tax cuts notwithstanding, American private property is in the gravest of danger. The free exchange of money for goods and services, he informs the students, is akin to "seduction." Taxation, by the same token, is a species of sexual assault. "Government," in exercising its powers to raise revenue, "is the major source of organized rape in the world."
Contrary to common wisdom, Williams says, the Constitution does not empower the government to collect taxes beyond those required for such necessities as roads, post offices, and the maintenance of armies. In his opinion, the duties of the IRS are a legalized atrocity comparable to slavery, the Stalinist purges, and the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
The lecture draws to a close. After cascading applause, Williams opens the floor to audience questions. Dual queues coalesce behind a pair of cordless microphones, angled on stands in the aisles. The students seem less interested in plying Williams with challenging questions than in dangling low-hanging rhetorical pinatas for him to knock the stuffing out of. Dr. Williams, by way of reward, returns answers that pardon students from further inquiry into matters of race or the moral complexities of abolishing social programs.
STUDENT 1: I've always been impressed with your "Klan with a Tan" references for the NAACP.
WILLIAMS: My description of the "poverty pimps" (laughter, applause) whom I refer to as the Klan with a tan (laughter).
STUDENT 2: I was wondering what you think specifically needs to be done to fix Social Security.
WILLIAMS: I think we ought to eliminate it.
Then Bennett Rawicki, a handsome, unimpeachably blond student from Bakersfield, California, approaches the microphone. Rawicki is notable to me because he was one of only two students to praise George Bush in his autobiographical sketch in the student facebook pages handed out with the conference agenda, or to use his introductory moment at the opening-night ceremony to announce his ambitions for the presidency, a socially chancy move in the NCSC's long-knife atmosphere on the subject of elected officials.
The question Rawicki asks is an awkwardly humane one. If Williams had his way, and all forms of public assistance were eradicated, would "charities be able to help those people who cannot help themselves?"
"Uh, yes," Williams says.
The lecture adjourns, and I join Bennett Rawicki next door in the line for the lunch buffet. Rawicki, nineteen, is a sophomore at the University of Dallas--his choice over Notre Dame, which he decided not to attend after learning that a performance of The Vagina Monologues was coming to campus. I ask him whether he felt as though Williams gave a satisfactory answer on the charity question.
"Yes," he says. He concedes that citizens these days may not be giving as much as they can to help the less fortunate, but that they'd probably dig a little deeper "if it came down to [the poor's] survival--they'd have to."
I say that I would hope so, yet it strikes me that conditions could get rather unpleasant for the people at the bottom before the donations begin pouring in. By way of example, I mention that I, a person of middling tenderheartedness, have given to charities twice in the last two years: once in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian tsunami, and again after Hurricane Katrina. In each case, what spurred me to tardy generosity were the newswire photos of waterlogged corpses swelling in the sun. The conversation temporarily founders in unamused laughter and then roves on.
What lies at the heart of the poverty problem, Rawicki muses, is that America's poorest families have turned pathological; they're "crippled," as he puts it. Taking a box cutter to the public safety net, and driving the poor into a modern-day state of nature, he says, might be just the thing to teach them a few important lessons in family values. "Think of the hunter-gatherers. It wasn't just one person out there doing it on his own. You had people working together." Rawicki brings up Barbara Ehrenreich's blue-collar survival study, Nickel and Dimed. "Her point was to show that you can't survive on minimum wage," Rawicki says. "But what I took from it is that single people aren't supposed to be out there trying to make it on their own."
The girl ahead of us in the buffet line turns to join our conversation. Like Rawicki, she, too, is an admirer of Dr. Williams. "He's amazing, a genius, I love him--I'm very libertarianesque." She introduces herself as Samantha Soller of Bucknell University. Soller, a warm, olive-skinned girl with spooly brown hair, is an intern with the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, an outfit devoted to grooming young women simultaneously for the workplace and for public-relations battles against the feminist movement.
In her facebook bio, Samantha Soller listed among her hobbies "political science, philosophy, and hippie-hunting, enjoys foreclosing on poor people's cardboard boxes, eating red meat, using her Sigarms P232 Stainless to shoot cute little bunny rabbits." I ask her about the gun.
"It's a semiautomatic handgun. I don't have one, but I would love to own one soon. It's really cute. It's silver. It fits in your handbag."
We close in on the catering trays, which today are full of steak and chicken fajita meat. The sight douses the cheer that mention of the Sigarms P232 had stirred in Soller's hale, brown cheeks. "What is this?" she says, surveying the buffet. "I don't eat anything that's not American."
A boy standing nearby assures her, "It is American; it's Tex-Mex."
Soller frowns. "I'm having the salad," she says. "I don't want to get sick."
Rawicki and Soller and I take chairs at a table with Marianne Brennan, a statuesque blonde who's also interning at Clare Boothe Luce. Other table-mates include Tom Samper, a frosh-to-be at the College of New Jersey, who talks with an amphetaminic enthusiasm that would suit him well for a career in horse-race narration, and a few others whose names I don't catch.
Someone at the table wants to know if Soller, as a Pennsylvania resident, has interned for Rick Santorum. She shakes her head. "I'm not really a fan," she says. "I mean, I'd vote for him over a Democrat, or over Arlen Specter. But he's weird. I mean, have you heard the dead baby story?"
Soller tells the story of the dead baby, Gabriel Santorum, who, in October 1996, was born twenty weeks pre-mature and died soon after delivery. "But instead of calling a priest or a cemetery or whatever," she relates, the senator "insisted that they take it home and introduce it to the three living children, who were, like, two, three, and four." Actually, the children were six, four, and one and a half, according to an article on the incident in the Washington Post, which describes the time the Santorums and their children spent "kissing and cuddling" the child's body, taking his photograph, and singing him lullabies. "It's just weird," Soller says. "I don't think he's that good of a conservative."
"Well, he's very pro family," another student contributes.
Then conversation drifts and yaws through topics such as immigration, the impropriety of colleges using funds to host productions of The Vagina Monologues, and whether prostitution and drugs ought to be legalized. Samantha Soller, libertarianesquely, declares that they should be. Bennett Rawicki, who has been in a quiet, reflective mood since the lecture, ponders the drug issue with a troubled brow. After a moment, he brightens. "Hey, do you think--like what Walter Williams said--if you got rid of welfare, so that if families had to support themselves, that would lead to people doing less drugs?"
"Absolutely," says Marianne Brennan.
"I think so," says Samantha Soller.
"Definitely," says Tom Samper of the College of New Jersey. "If it's a choice between drugs or survival, they're going to spend their money on survival."
With the troublesome birds of welfare reform and the drug problems of the American poor neatly felled with a single stone, an air of satisfaction settles over the table, and Samantha Soller makes a trip to the buffet table to fetch everybody some dessert.
During the National Conservative Student Conference, evening meals are invariably referred to in the program as "banquets," and the students have taken up the term in a big way. Phrases like "Will I be seeing you at the banquet this evening?" are an elegant fixture of local conversation.
At a banquet early in the week, the ballroom is done up splendidly--the tables clad in white linen, shrubs of apricot light sprouting warmly from the wall sconces, the napkins starched and fanned upright, casting scalloped shadows on the bowls of chilled butter marbles. The ladies wear dresses, and the gentlemen wear suits and ties. From where I'm sitting, I can spot only two departures from the sartorial main: a petite girl in goth raiment--bleached, bandannaed hair forking back in twin rearward horns, dime-size slugs in her earlobes, and a visible tattoo of crossed claw hammers on the nape of her neck. Subsequent conversations with YAFers confirm conferencewide suspicions that she's a mole.
The second style outlier is a man who, for reasons that nobody can figure out, arrived at the conference in a bewilderingly thorough complement of cycling wear: knee and elbow pads, sleeve and pant-cuff suppressors, and a reflector-spangled bicycle helmet, its flexible mirror swept back and the chin strap cinched so mercilessly that proud flesh rises alongside the band. He's worn the outfit at every meal, through all the sessions, and has not yet been seen without it. This fellow remains the subject of a fair amount of smirking conjecture throughout the Grand Ballroom, though a few concerned students advance sympathetic theories of a possible balance malfunction or an unhealed fontanel.
Tonight we are dining on chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese. Across the table, a student from Alabama is describing a late-term abortion procedure in which the attending physician delivers the fetus more or less intact, and then drives something like a knitting needle (judging from the young man's pantomime) into the base of the fetus's skull. "I wish I could just, you know, swoop in there and snatch the baby before they stick the thing in," he says.
The student beside me, a sturdy youth named Chase Dannen, is telling those on our side of the table about life in the rural part of Oregon where he's from. "Do they have cow tipping out there?" a girl wants to know.
They do have cow tipping, says Chase Dannen, who acknowledges that the odd cow has in fact toppled at his hand. "But what's even better than cow tipping is bunny bashing." Bunny bashing, he explains, involves borrowing someone's father's pickup truck for an evening and filling the bed with young men armed with cudgels. Then you drive around the countryside until an unlucky jackrabbit freezes in the high beams, at which point somebody hops out and clubs the animal to death.
What becomes of the dead rabbit? I ask.
Chase Dannen turns bashful. "Do you really want to know?"
With a little prodding, he continues. If you're keeping true to the spirit of the thing, what you do is rip the rabbit's head off and then impale it through the throat and eye socket on the antenna of the borrowed truck. On a bountiful evening, he says, you can accumulate a totem pole sure to astound the truck's owner when he sees it in the morning.
Jeff Scott, of Georgia's Mercer University, used to harbor great passions for the Republican Party, but he does not anymore. This spring, feeling betrayed by the Bush Administration's bloating of the public sector, and by congressional Republicans' craven pandering for votes at the expense of conservative principles, Scott resigned his membership in the G.O.P. and registered as an independent. "I won't call Bush Hitler, but he completely sold us out," Scott says. "The Republican Party has lost its soul."
His views are essentially libertarian, though Scott, who is from North Carolina, says he's seen too many textile jobs depart his home state for China to unreservedly boost for free trade. "I mean, we've got people out of work, and all we're doing is funding China's military," he says.
Scott once considered a career in politics; now he has hopes of making it in talk radio--"I'd like to be bigger than Rush." He currently hosts a daily show through Mercer's Internet radio station. He peppers his conversation with crude, pleasurable pragmatisms that ought to win him a wide audience, if he can slip them past the FCC.
Jeff Scott on immigration: "Of course we need to militarize the goddamn border. We've got Mexicans coming into this country like shit through a goose!" Jeff Scott on gay marriage: "Why does marriage exist today? To perpetuate the species? Bullshit. People are going to hump whether they're married or not."
If Scott held the marionette strings at the White House, the Legislature, and the Judiciary, abortion would be illegal, defense coffers would be full to bursting, and the public sector would otherwise be pretty much set afire. The Department of Education, he feels, ought to be abolished. Social Security should be axed, its outstanding debts squared by auctioning the national parks to the highest bidder. "Boo hoo, so you lose some old trees; the timber industry can do a much better job of protecting the environment than the government can."
The conference has drawn, or perhaps cultivated, more people like Jeff Scott, who would like to see government wholly destroyed (save for the military), than students with fantasies of ascending to the highest office in the land. Besides Bennett Rawicki, the only presidential hopeful I can turn up is a student named Fabiani Duarte. When there is not a lecture underway, Duarte can be found in the lobby posing with fellow students for grip-and-grin photo ops in front of a big YAF banner, which advertises the slogan THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT STARTS HERE.
Duarte is an athletic-looking young man with upright carriage, very white and perfect teeth, tidily parted hair, and exact locution, which, in sum, lend him a luminously presidential aura. One feels a temptation in his company to find things for him to autograph. His politician's mien has already earned him a few detractors here. One student described Fabiani Duarte as "a total baby kisser," though this seems an odd thing to say about someone who is only seventeen.
A few weeks from now, Duarte, who hails from Huntsville, Alabama, will begin his freshman year at Vanderbilt University. When he graduates, he will go on to law school. After law school, he will seek work in "international relations." He plans to approach his international-relations career advisedly, because he does not want to alienate the citizens of Huntsville, whose votes he is counting on when he returns home to run for mayor. After a stint in city hall, he intends to become governor of Alabama. "After two successful terms as governor, I will make my bid for the White House," he tells me one afternoon.
Duarte has not yet decided, or is too canny to disclose, which party he will ultimately join. He supports legal access to abortion, a conviction he has not acknowledged to his fellow conferencegoers. He also believes in full rights for gay people, another opinion he has kept to himself this week. "If I said that gay men and women are still men and women," Duarte tells me, "the people here, they would say, 'You're immoral, you pig.'"
A conservative member of his church urged Duarte to attend the conference, which he describes as "a journey of discovery." But the journey, so far, has turned up fewer certainties than Duarte had anticipated. Although he has learned useful things about "the meaning of free enterprise," he is not so sure about the rest of what he's heard at the conference. He does not like liberal bashing, or the unkindnesses he's heard repeated about Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Bright as Duarte's prospects seem, his politics, unfortunately, proceed from a credo that will probably stop his career at the campaign trail: "I am opposed to people being hostile to their fellow citizens." Of course there is every chance that time and gravity will tug Fabiani Duarte's lofty convictions down to more practical realms. "We still have much ahead of us," he says. "We are still extremely young."
The guest lecturer at the Thursday "Men's Lunch" is Dr. Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University. According to the program, Mansfield will talk about "manliness," which is also the title of his most recent book. The ladies, meanwhile, are supposed to be lunching with Bay Buchanan, but several of them, declaring a preference for Mansfield's remarks on manliness, launch a respectful, small-scale insurgency against the breakdown of coeducational order. The ladies are eventually permitted to sit "at tables in the back of the room that do not have a salad," Roger Custer, the conference's director, specifies beforehand.
My neighbor at the luncheon is Winston Fernandes, the fellow in the cycling helmet and battery of straps and pads, a getup that has not diminished since his first appearance on Sunday night. Fernandes is thirty-three years old and studies engineering at Northern Essex Community College, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Despite casting his vote for John Kerry in 2004, Fernandes considers himself neither liberal nor conservative, and he tells me that his sole intention in coming to the conference is to learn to "think critically about the issues."
Out of a sense of journalistic obligation, I launch a crabwise line of questioning about his ever-present bicycling habit. He wears it because of a "medical condition," he says equably. Although this does not entirely clarify things, at this point I decide that whatever's going on between Winston Fernandes and the bicycling gear, it is hardly my business.
Across the table from us sits Adam Towne, from Manhattan's Upper East Side. In his facebook bio, Towne mentioned that he'll be studying engineering at Cornell in the fall and that he's also recently authored a seventh volume of the Harry Potter series. Having eavesdropped on a couple of his conversations earlier in the week, I'd gotten the drift that his ideology was still pupating, so I'm eager to hear his thoughts on the conference. Towne, however, is deep in conversation with the student beside him, and I can't get a word in edgewise. "I love Christianity--I'm not going to convert or anything," says Towne, who apparently is Jewish. "But I love the Christian faith."
The boy he's talking to admits that he can't say much about Judaism, because he doesn't know any Jews. "But I just found out that Dr. Laura"--a conservative talk-radio personality--"is Jewish, and I really like her."
Then Dr. Harvey Mansfield steps onto the stage. Mansfield's lecture is a reading from the first chapter of his book, which argues that manliness--what he defines as sexual rapacity, an appetite for war, a general bull-in-a-china-shop heedlessness--is preferable to the namby-pamby faggotistical mores being pressed on us by radical feminism and the castratory mandates of late capitalism/twenty-first-century bureaucratic culture. But Mansfield himself is so aristocratically gentle and soft-spoken that one can't help but think that if a man's man of the bronco-busting, six-gun-discharging stripe the professor is apparently lionizing were to burst in upon our gathering in the ballroom, it'd probably be Mansfield himself who would suffer one of the first asswhippings in the ensuing sissy purge.
A student asks his opinion of the French, with specific regard to their non-participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom. "I would consider them to be unmanly," Dr. Mansfield says.
One afternoon, just after lunch, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich steps from the elevator in the Grand Ballroom lobby. He has a very handsome face, smiling from beneath several pounds of thick white hair. What makes Newt Gingrich's face so attractive is the shape of the front of the skull, which is concave in the center so that its features are perfectly displayed in a sort of naturally occurring candy dish of head bone. Gingrich spends a half hour photo opping with the students and then proceeds to the stage.
In his talk, Mr. Gingrich confirms that the Republicans are in awfully black water and that the course to brighter shores lies in a revolutionary reversal of the G.O.P.'s message. "You have a chance to create an entire new discussion, one that nobody expects to come from the right, where you actually stand for a better future for everybody, not just for those who are wealthy."
This better future, he says, will be brought about by some new inventions he's spotted on the horizon, among them a composite car that gets one thousand miles to the gallon and a vaccine for Alzheimer's, which will supposedly be market-ready in the next couple of decades. One student wants to know how Gingrich sees the Alzheimer's cure coming about without funding for stem-cell research.
Here is the answer: "Nanotechnology."
Filling out the Thursday 3:00 P.M. lecture slot is Star Parker, founder and president of something called the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education. Ms. Parker, a slender African-American woman with gold-highlit braids and a green, faintly paramilitary blouse, declares that the conservative vocabulary would be improved if everybody were to abandon the term "liberals" to describe members of the left and to instead call them "creature worshipers.... They worship and serve the creature rather than the creator," she explains. "They think that they are God."
The creature worshipers are a motley bunch, Parker continues, encompassing "the feminists," "the environmentalists," "the racists--the black ones, I'm talking about, that you encounter on your college campuses," homosexuals, and all adherents to secular humanism. What unites these disparates, she says, is their common ecstasy in the slaughter of unborn infants. As Parker has it, abortion is the creature worshipers' "sacrament." "When you think about the creature worshipers, and their obsession with killing children in the womb and allowing that blood to flow, you just have to naturally put it together that there is something spiritual about why they take that baby and let that blood run the way that they do."
The talk plows on, through a rummage sale of indictments against public education, moral relativists, and single women who sublimate their mothering impulses by owning small dogs. When she has spoken her piece, and the Q & A cortege has paid its obsequies, everyone in the crowd ovates Parker standingly.
The only student who does not rise to applaud is the goth rocker, who is sitting a few seats away, flagrantly reading a copy of Irvine Welsh's Porno--the book's cover art is a head shot of an inflatable sex doll, mouth circularly agape, revealing a lurid inner-holstery of crinkled pink plastic. I invite her to join me for a coffee at the Starbucks down the street, and she stares back at me with quizzical suspicion. "But I'm not a Republican," she says.
Her name, she tells me, is Maddy Myrick, and she is a student of Japanese and psychology at a community college in her hometown of Everett, Washington. She reveals over an iced chai latte that she is not, in fact, a mole. She has come to the capital at the bidding of her father, who offered to pay her way if she consented to attend the conference. "It's a free trip to D.C., basically."
The NCSC has been something of a trial for Maddy Myrick, who has so far failed to mesh with her colleagues here. She says she is still trying to make sense of an incident yesterday, when a group of conferees inside the dorms yelled "neocon" at her, evidently road-testing a new vulgarity they had not quite mastered.
The mealtime blessings, too, have been difficult for Myrick to endure, in part because she and organized religion have had a troubled past. "I went to a Seventh-day Adventist school, but the teacher there was a pedophile, and he had a crush on me," she says. "He taught us really weird things, like that Sodom and Gomorrah exploded not because God rained down sulfur but because there were hidden tar pits under the city that someone lit a fuse to. He also told us that Adam and Eve were fifteen feet tall. Now I don't believe there's a God at all."
She says she's been favorably surprised by the passion and sincerity of her fellow YAFers, but the speakers have not yet won her to the conservative cause. She has mostly passed the time by sending text messages to her friends back home, quoting phrases from the lectures that have appalled her especially: Robert Novak's comparison of Hillary Clinton and Gore to Hitler and Stalin, Newt Gingrich's description of campus Democrats as "young socialists and defeatists," and one speaker's claim that "liberals have joined the dark side in our time."
I ask her whether she thinks she'll leave the conference with a more active interest in American politics. She takes a sip of the iced chai latte. "Honestly, I don't like America, the way we deal with things, and the way we just invade whoever we want to. And also we're all really fat and dumb, and--" She breaks off and gives a small laugh.
"God, I guess I sound just like they say we are."
By day five of the conference, lecture fatigue is rampant, and attendance at the Friday afternoon discussion, "Great Books to Read in College," is at an awkward low. Today's panelists, introduced by Roger Custer, are Marjory Ross, president of Regnery Publishing (whose catalogue includes The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design and the John Kerry character assassination Unfit for Command), and Elizabeth Kantor, managing editor of an operation called the Conservative Book Club. Compared with the rest of the week's female lineup--most of them Fox News regulars or campaign-trail veterans who all radiate the same lean, broadcast-ready spiffiness--Kantor and Ross, both staid plainish women in their middle years, seem refreshingly bookish and faintly ill at ease before a crowd.
Marjory Ross recommends the usual syllabus: Goldwater, Kirk, Buckley, Ayn Rand. At the mention of Rand, a current of ardor passes through the ballroom, and someone gives a low, deferential whistle. She then ventures onto a frailer limb, making the claim that it is occasionally worthwhile to read books that are not explicitly conservative: for example, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and Gore Vidal's Lincoln. "I know, I know," she says sheepishly, as though half expecting the fruit to start flying.
Roger Custer does not like the sound of this Vidal and Russell business. He leans into the microphone. "I think it's really important that we read conservative books," he reminds the crowd.
Elizabeth Kantor, when she gets up to speak, is also bent on promoting books that, on the face of it, are not conservative at all. She likes the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, T. S. Eliot. When arguing the superiority of Western civilization, you're at a disadvantage, she says, if your readerly horizons end at Dinesh D'Souza and Ann Coulter. What's so pleasurable about reading the greats is not only that they're rich with human truths but also that they can be mined for object lessons in conservative values, or dismantled into rhetorical brickbats that make for good hurling in culture-war skirmishes. Beowulf, for example, instructs us that "war ... is a noble pursuit," Kantor says. Dickens's Hard Times, in Kantor's reading, is a valuable critique of the "dehumanizing effects of the modern science-based education."
Roger Custer again steps up to the microphone to winch the conversation back onto trustier terrain, plugging "books about Ronald Reagan." He says, "We talk a lot about him, and we talk about how great he was, but I think the best book that I've read so far is Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King. She does a great job of outlining the Reagan presidency and Reagan the man."
First in the Q & A line, Molly Fitzhugh, of the McDonogh School, in Maryland, voices suspicions that her teachers have been trying to pawn off as classics books that actually are not, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Kantor fields this one: "Well, I haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I wouldn't recommend that you read it either."
"I have to," Fitzhugh laments.
"I'm sorry," says Kantor.
Then a student from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs claims to have had "interesting experiences" reading "non-Western books," specifically Indian literature. "Do you have any recommendations for books that are good but may not originate in Western civilization?"
Kantor gives a slight, apologetic grimace. The answer is no. "There's an awful lot of people reading things just because it's not ours, and who hate what's ours, and I just think we should cut that out." Applause erupts for the first time in the "Great Books" talk.
Then Roger Custer speaks up once more: "If I just might add a tidbit. Did you know that Ronald Reagan was the only president to write a book while he was in office? It's called Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. It's only about this big," he says, holding his fingers a centimeter apart. "You all need to read it."
The last student in line tilts her head at a coy angle and asks the panelists, perhaps in jest, whether they can "recommend some non-conservative books that are actually worthwhile."
After a long, mirthful pause, the room breaks out in laughter. When the chuckling subsides, Marjory Ross informs the student, "Books that aren't conservative don't have anywhere near the staying power that the conservative classics have. They tend to fade away."
Finale banquet, Friday night. Rumors have circulated all week that Karl Rove would be the honored guest this evening, a prospect that excited no one at all. As it turns out, it's going to be National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, who also seems a sort of improbable pick to sum up the conference. LaPierre enters as the students are tucking into their dessert. He has an unassuming look, bespectacled, with a plain square face--in no way the craggy icon Charlton Heston was. But the room recognizes him right off. They waste no time in bolting from their chairs and mining loose a roaring, hooting applause, an ovational overdrive unrivaled at any lecture in the previous five days. The crowd's unanticipated, Category Four approval comes as something of a glad surprise to Rich Richardson, a sixteen-year-old boarding-school student who is my tablemate tonight. "Wow, everybody really loves guns here," Richardson says over the crisp din of his own thundering palms.
Wayne LaPierre mounts the stage briefly, and when the ovation does not abate he surfs the tide of public favor out beyond the fourth wall, going table to table, posing for photos, pressing what appears to be his personal business card into the hands of eager youth. When all available flesh has been duly pressed, LaPierre reascends the dais.
"I'm here tonight to tell you that banning citizens' firearms as a way to control crime in this country is dead," he says, amid a vast clatter of applause. "It's as dead as dinosaurs; it's as dead as eight-track tapes; it's a thing of the past."
"This guy should run for Senate," says Rich Richardson.
Then LaPierre moves on to darker tidings. He wants to warn us that already in the works is a global, and chiefly French, conspiracy to restrict gun rights through the connivances of the United Nations. "They want to lower our U.S. standard of freedom to some U.N. standard of freedom that's a lot lesser, in terms of freedoms, than we enjoy here in the United States."
In fact, he continues, the first signs of the Second Amendment's sacking are upon us already, still hot in his memories of the "poor souls" who stayed in New Orleans when Katrina blew through. A video spot, prepared by a "news crew" from NRA television, flickers to life on a large screen to the right of the lectern. The camera pans sidewalk garbage middens and chopper-blackened skies to an apocalyptic whong-whong soundtrack. It quickly becomes apparent that by New Orleans's "poor souls," LaPierre is not talking about the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed by Katrina, or the more than 40,000 who graphically languished in the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center while the levees failed. The documentary concerns the victims of a lesser-known but more treasonous horror: in the aftermath of the storm, the cops went around town and confiscated an unspecified number of citizens' guns. We're treated to a harrowing bit of verite footage of New Orleans police officers tackling an elderly woman in her kitchen as she clings to her pistol. "They punched me in the face. Look at my black-and-blue marks," says the woman, raising an arm bruised the yellow-purple hues of a blueberry Danish. There is a ballroom-wide intake of horrified breath. "How could this happen in America?" she wonders.
Rich Richardson turns to me in a stricken attitude. "That's really sad," he says.
On a more encouraging note, we're shown a brief interview with a lady Baptist minister, who, by way of contrast, had the good fortune to evade the police and wait out Katrina's aftereffects armed to the teeth. "I never once felt afraid," she says. "I had my Bible, and I had my gun."
It is all of our duty to spread the word of what really happened in New Orleans, says Wayne LaPierre, so that it may never happen again. This mission, as he describes it, will be partly ophthalmological in nature. "If anybody ever looks you in the eye again, one of those arrogant media elites, and says, 'Why do you need a firearm?' look 'em straight in the eye and say, 'Remember New Orleans.' If anybody ever looks you in the eye and says, 'Come on, they'd never really come into your home and take your gun,' look them straight in the eye and say, 'Remember New Orleans.'"
The room has gone rapt. The students, most of them, are nodding with wide eyes and stem jaws to the rhythm of LaPierre's refrain--Remember New Orleans. His selection as the conference's capstone now seems shrewd programming indeed. Over the past week, the guest speakers have capably banished the shadows of doubt from all sorts of knotty issues--what to do about the borders, how to manage the nation's poor, how to tell good books from bad. But LaPierre, in a single master stroke, has vanquished for the students what is perhaps the darkest question to trouble the national conscience of late; namely, how it happened that this country required five days and hundreds of lives to pass before deploying buses to an area in screaming range of a navigable interstate. As it turns out, America should have been worrying over a different catastrophe, one that posed a far clearer breach of the U.S. Constitution than the perverse refusal of tens of thousands of New Orleanians to do for themselves.
What's appealing about the calamity that Wayne LaPierre says must never be lost to memory is that it will be quickly sorted out, without trailers, or appropriations, or fears that we are "simply throwing money" at the problems in the Gulf. The Katrina tragedy, LaPierre is pleased to let us know, has prompted Congress to push through a bill protecting citizens' gun rights in times of an emergency; in the next couple of weeks, the president will sign the bill into law, and this most notable injustice of the storm will be neatly squared away. Even so, LaPierre enjoins the students not to abandon their anger at the outrage they've been awakened to this evening.
"If those arrogant politicians like Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein say, 'You're just a little bit paranoid, nobody's really gonna take your gun,' look 'em in the eye and say, 'Remember New Orleans.' And never, never, never forget that lesson."
The wave of applause rises, surging off the hardwood floors. The approval goes on swelling for a proud, affirming interval. The lights go up. After brief words from another couple of guests, Roger Custer assumes the microphone and declares the conference at an end. He attempts no extravagant farewell, or a parting effort to set a final spark to all of the heart-tinder that has been curing this past week. "You are all alumni now," Roger Custer says, with what seems insufficient grandeur. Then he delivers a few last words on proper procedure for checking out of the dorms.
In the slow, exitward march, I see Fabiani Duarte. He wears a stunned expression. I ask him how he liked the banquet. He shakes his head, and his lips form a dash. "I guess I should go get my Bible and my gun."
I try to tease out his thoughts a little more. He glances at the enclosing throng of students, people who may one day constitute his base, and he brings himself up short. "I probably shouldn't talk about it now."
The conferees file out into the lobby, to enact an array of low-affect, pre-professional leave-taking rites, exchanging addresses, handshakes, business cards. Few hugs; no tears or other last-day-of-camp mawkeries.
Off to one side of the genial fray, I spot Adam Towne, the author of the Harry Potter volume, who wears a wide grin and whose happy passion from the LaPierre banquet has not yet begun to subside. I ask him, as a previously uncertain conservative, whether the conference has clarified matters for him. "It's been great," Towne says. "This was my first, and at the start I was really undecided about most issues. I wasn't sure about abortion, but that's a whole lot clearer for me now. I learned so much more than I expected. I've got all these great books to read. Now I'm ready for anything. I feel like I can take on the world."
(1) Although each NCSC attendee pays $375 for the week's worth of room and board and for all the activities and speakers the actual cost per head is around $2,000; with YAF brooking the fee gap.
(2) To foster what it calls "accuracy, balance, and comprehension of the issues" in the media, YAF also oversees the National Journalism Center. According to an NJC brochure, "nearly a thou. sand" of the program's graduates have gone on to jobs with the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, CNN, ABC, Fox, etc. Alumni of note include The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell and Ann Coulter herself.
Wells Tower's last article for Harper's Magazine, "Under the God Gun," appeared in the January 2006 issue.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2006|
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