CPAC then and now

– – Monday, March 2, 2015

GOP_2016_CPAC.JPEG-01103_c0-217-5184-3238_s561x327For those of us around in the early days, there was something bittersweet but also warmly comforting about watching the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference.

While it was never true that sometimes we held our meetings in phone booths, it is true that conservatism has grown and extended its influence far beyond one smallish conference and far fewer hardy souls some forty years ago.

Those were the dark days in the months leading up to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Spiro Agnew has already resigned and the GOP and conservatism were on the ropes. Frankly, the only heroes we had were Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan. Problem was, Bill always went skiing in Europe every year, which coincided with the first CPAC.

Despondent conservatives including Human Events Publisher Tom Winter and conservative writer Stan Evans knew something had to be done. So they told two young activists, Frank Donatelli and Jim Roberts to pull together a conference. One of the first invited–and to accept–was Ronald Reagan, then outgoing governor of California. No one thought he would run for president in 1976 and as long time ACU and CPAC head David Keene said, “Reagan didn’t come because he needed us; he came became we needed him.”

Conservatives needed Ronald Reagan.

CPAC wasn’t precisely invented for Reagan but you wouldn’t be wrong to say it would not exist today without Reagan. He came every year–except 1976 and 1980–when there were presidential primaries going on in New Hampshire. Even then, he sent messages. He came every year he was president. He told us one year that his staff bitched and complained about him going to talk to the kids at CPAC. Again. And he replied, “You know, you dance with the one who bring ya.” Reagan’s last CPAC was 1988. We never thought he wouldn’t come again but he didn’t. But we never pressed it hard. Hell, he’d come 14 times. It was time to give Reagan a break.

Over the years, CPAC has grown and extended. Despite battles inside the ACU, despite growing pains (and yes shrinking pains) the conference marched forward, ever forward. My wife Zorine had the unenviable task of taking CPAC over from Tish Leonard, just as Bush 41 was ascending–and conservatives again–were descending.

But Zorine built it again, post Reagan. And we rid ourselves of Bushism, embraced Newt Gingrich’s Contract, and CPAC has never looked back.

There is something sweet and sad but also bracing about not seeing just old faces on the panels anymore. Not hearing Dave Keene’s laugh (or yelling) but instead now seeing Matt Schlapp’s smooth stewardship. He is not a movement conservative, per se, but he has produced what may be the most successful CPAC ever–at least since Ronald Reagan graced our presence.

If Schlapp is not a movement conservative, but is attracted to conservatism, and attracts conservatives, then that is good.

And if I write like CPAC is a living thing, to many of us, it was and is. It was and is will always be a place where we talked and listened and fought and celebrated.

Yet like all things in life, CPAC has moved on. From the first generation, to the second generation and now even the third generation of American conservatives.

And that is a good thing.

Craig Shirley is the president and CEO of Shirley and Banister Public Affairs and a biographer of Ronald Reagan.