It's Cool to Be Conservative, Kids! A Sarah Palin Impersonator, a Man in a "Big Government" Fat Suit, Newt Gingrich's Presidential Entrance and a 15-Foot Cardboard Foetus: Meet America's Reinvigorated Right at Its Annual Jamboree
Burleigh, Nina, New Statesman (1996)
On the morning of the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), I encountered a group of young women boarding a train at Dupont Circle Station in Washington, DC. They were wearing high heels and what seemed to be cocktail dresses underneath their winter coats. One of them sat down beside me. Her name was Tara and she used to be a treasury spokeswoman in the Bush administration; she was now working as a lobbyist, she confided ruefully. Her mother was one of the organisers of CPAC 2011 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in upper north-west Washington. As we trudged uphill from the metro stop, Tara said: "There are a few strange people in there [the conference centre]. But then, you know, they can show up anywhere."
CPAC is hosted annually by the American Conservative Union Foundation, with financial help from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Young America's Foundation. In recent years, as many as half of those present have been college students. This year's attendance figures topped 11,000 and a gay conservative group, GOProud, was invited for the first time. The gathering was packed with young Sarah Palin wannabes: women in their twenties with robust, right-wing opinions.
The three-day conference was the first mass meeting of conservatives in Washington since their triumph in the midterm elections in November, when President Barack Obama lost his majority in the House of Representatives and the Tea Party swept in. It was an opportunity for potential presidential nominees to stump among the true believers.
The front-runner is the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who announced on 3 March that he is considering making a bid. Most speakers at CPAC entered stage right, but Gingrich appeared from the press balcony, sweeping down the stairs like royalty and approaching the stage from the centre aisle. He was wearing a grey suit and looked much as he used to on Capitol Hill before he crashed and burned over financial conflicts of interest and accusations of hypocrisy (he led the charge against Bill Clinton over the Lewinsky affair in 1998 while cheating on his own wife with a staffer). That staffer, Callista, who is now his third wife, walked out in front of him. As the couple forged ahead, trailed by guards, her diamonds glinted and Survivor's rock anthem "Eye of the Tiger" shook the rafters.
Last autumn, Gingrich was said to have already hoarded a campaign war chest equal in treasure to that of four of his possible competitors (Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin) combined, raking in a reported $52m over the past four years. He opened his speech with a litany of the ways in which the government has refused to acknowledge that Islamic terrorism remains a clear and present danger to Americans. When he made a Freudian slip and called CPAC "six-pack", the crowd tittered.
Over the three days in mid-February, a range of speakers marched on to the stage -from old favourites such as the former vice-president Dick Cheney to young turks such as Kristi Noem, the South Dakota representative and a Tea Party favourite. They made speeches decrying big government, "Obama-care", the national debt and the burdens of taxation, then led their entourages around the maze of the hotel, shaking hands with the right-wing faithful.
Among the presidential hopefuls present were Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. But the conference favourite was Ron Paul, the Republican congressman for Texas who is devoted to fiscal conservatism, likely to be the party's core message in 2012. Paul won the presidential straw poll of attendees, though not before the tycoon Donald Trump, invited as "a surprise guest" by GOProud, strode on to the stage with the speakers blasting out the O'Jays song and Apprentice theme tune, "For the Love of Money": "Money, money, money, money, moneeey!" Trump delivered a rambling talk about the yen and his latest business endeavours and amused himself with a single goading political message, delivered with a pointed finger and repeated twice to loud boos: "Ron Paul can't get elected president! …