Smart v. Stupid
CPAC 2011 was a carnival of weirdness
The first thing you notice about CPAC is that most everyone is young – really young. Sponsors, American Conservative Union, said that half the attendees were under age 25. But it looked much higher, more like seventy percent. A three-day youth ticket was $35 – half the cost of a day pass to Six Flags but easily just as entertaining.
Of the younger attendees most looked well under 25 – boys with severe haircuts and cobbled together wardrobes meant to accommodate the “business casual” dress code (but not quite hitting the mark); girls in calf high stiletto boots and too-short cocktail dresses. They were trying to comply without spending any money. Uniformed boys from DC preps schools (St. Albans and St. Johns) had an easier time. And there seemed to be a busload of boys wearing the dress-gray wools of the Citadel – its recent forced gender integration not seeming to make much of a difference.
After you get past the amusing pubescent aura, the next thing you’d notice is that the place is just stinking with journalists. Print writers, video crews, mike-toting radio reporters, and vaguely-familiar TV pundits are everywhere. I was poked in the back three times by tripod lugging sound guys. If you can’t get interviewed at CPAC, then you must have a giant, hot carbuncle on your nose. If you didn’t get interviewed at CPAC, you might as well kiss that student government race goodbye. You ain’t competitive.
It wasn’t until the second day that I realized another touchstone demographic – most all the people between 25 and 50 were reporters. There were very few middle-aged conference goers. That night, my wife summarized the crowd, “young and foolish and old and angry, huh?” My psychiatrist buddy mused that the middle agers probably had to work.
CPAC attracts all sorts of unique folks. There was Howard Woodridge, wearing a shirt that said “Cops say legalize pot. Ask me why.” He was dressed in Friday-night cowboy – sturdy, well-worn boots; a heavily tooled belt; and a wide-brimmed, cream-colored, Stetson 4X. His cell phone whinnied like a cow pony. Except for unwrinkled skin, he looked every bit the ranch hand. Nice guy too; I liked him. It turns out he was a retired cop from a Midwestern city.
The guy at the John Birch Society booth was apoplectic about a conspiracy to hold a constitutional convention. Having not heard of it, I asked him what groups might be supporting the idea. He thought for a minute then had to refer me to another guy. Guy number two said, “those guys over there” pointing to an unmanned booth for some random anti-tax group. “Any liberal organizations pushing the idea,” I asked. He thought for a minute, “The Bicentennial Commission.” I know what you’re thinking but no, he actually said The Bicentennial Commission!
Then there was the guy in full-costume, revolutionary war garb – complete with tri-colored hat, flag and musket. He placed himself in the highest traffic spot and never moved for the entire event. I’d have charged $5 a photo. But he obviously did it for the adoration, offering a bright smile to anyone who spoke to him.
Interestingly, out of over 10,000 people, I only saw two dressed in Tea Party regalia. You read that right, two. Rand Paul mentioned the Tea Party; Michele Bachmann barely did. One guy did hand me a free book celebrating rude Tea Party signs. Grandma’s Not Shovel Ready contained only pictures – no words. I feel quite sure that particular irony was lost on the publisher. So was securing an ISBN number.
Jimmy McMillan was there too. Remember him? “The rent’s too damn high!” When I wandered by the balcony overlooking the Marriott lobby, Jimmy was leading a group of maybe 50 people chanting his signature line. A guy leaned over and mentioned the obvious, “That’s ‘the rent’s too damn high’ guy.” Then he said, “He’s attracting a bigger crowd than Sarah Palin did.” By that, he meant the Sarah Palin look-alike. CPAC didn’t pay for speakers. So they didn’t get the actual Sarah Palin.
It was probably just as well. This was not a Palin crowd. T-shirt vendor Trey Stinnett—his business is called Guns & Tea —said only Ron Paul stuff was selling. He hadn’t sold a single Palin shirt (although his partner said she’d sold one.) “It’s a lot different from the Tea Party events we’ve been to. I sell a lot of her there,” offered Ron.
But that wasn’t all. A guy on the shuttle bus volunteered that he couldn’t understand why “quitting your elected office halfway through” wasn’t an automatic deal breaker. Throughout the event I’d hear dozens of Palin jabs in panel discussions or hallway conversations.
Later, Palin would place ninth in the CPAC straw poll, just behind Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and just in front of the Godfather Pizza guy. She placed tenth if you count "Other." The momma grizzlies’ time seems to have come and gone.
I did have an epiphany at CPAC.
You know that dismissive and derisive and spiteful way that conservatives talk about liberals and foreigners and government? It’s like they are spitting while speaking. It’s like a snake hissing. It’s like the mean girl in high school running down your dating possibilities.
Well that’s the way they talk about each other too. From the speakers, to the kids, to the old folks in the hallways, everyone talked about everyone else with the same sort of quivering bitterness. Rand Paul acolytes had scorn for John Boehner. Ron Paul fans had it for Donald Trump. Tom Tancredo had it for the entire Republican Party. Lots of people had it for Sarah Palin. Freshman Republicans had it for seasoned Republicans. And most everyone had it for every GOP candidate who wasn’t their guy.
So I left with a feeling of calm.
These people who sound like they hate liberals and immigrants and public servants just hate everyone. It’s a feature of their character to approach every fork in the road in the same way that Chicken Little might. When they say the sky is falling due to liberalism, you could just as easily substitute Sarah Palin or Ron Paul or Donald Trump or the balanced budget amendment, or Republican Hispanic outreach.
The sky is always falling with these folks. Only the reasons change.
Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”