Capital Letters: Judgment Days

In which our man in Washington discovers the newest conservative outrage, prepares for Y2K, and gets a secret identity


Date: Mon, Jan 25, 1999 12:54:57 AM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Presidential Hopefuls

"Where's the press registration?" I asked a young man who looked about the age at which one is eager to shave but doesn't quite have the raw material. "Go straight, take a left, take a right, go down the hall, and I think it's on the right."

I journeyed down the hall, past booths sponsored by Americans for Tax Reform, the Eagle Forum, and the Christian Action Network. I paused at the Traditional Values Coalition booth, which had materials comparing James C. Hormel, Clinton's choice for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, to the "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence," a particularly creative group of gay men in San Francisco. For a brief moment, I was homesick.

I shook it off, picked up my credential, and entered the main auditorium. I was at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference. Stephen Glass had made it famous outside the Beltway a couple of years ago, with a story of drug- and alcohol-induced sexual escapades that he invented for The New Republic. But it has long been an important event for conservative political activists, a forum for presidential hopefuls to deliver crowd-pleasing speeches. It was 26 years ago, speaker after speaker kept reminding me, that Ronald Reagan spoke of a "shining City on a Hill" at this very conference.

This year's crowd of about 1,800 was bimodal. One group was composed of middle-aged and older activists of the social, rather than economic, conservative bent. The rest were minicons: young conservatives bused in by Gary Bauer, the Leadership Institute, Dan Quayle, or the College Republicans. Everyone seemed upbeat–it was like noon at a carnival–which surprised me, since the impeachment process wasn't going this crowd's way.

"What have you got for me?" I asked a woman at the table of Americans for Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, a group that boasts Steve Forbes as its "Honorary Chairman." I started to pick at the goodies on the table, but she quickly handed me a bag, assuring me that someone had already assembled them for me. The heaviest item in my bag was a coffee mug emblazoned with AHGO's logo and "Steve Forbes" at least two font sizes larger. Forbes is no dummy–I searched the mug in vain for a "Made in China" sticker, a slip that Gary Bauer certainly would have taken advantage of.

I turned around and was confronted with a group of youths wearing "Bauer Power" T-shirts. What in God's name, I thought to myself, prompts a young person, so full of mischievous possibility, to give it all up and join the forces of fun-repression? There were probably close to 100 such ill-clad youths swarming the conference. It turns out that God has a lot to do with it.

Geoffrey White, a freshman communications major from Miami University, the source of much of Bauer's youth brigade, told me that he liked Bauer's message. We need, he said, to remoralize America.

I walked over to John Kasich's table. "What do you have for me?" I asked a young fellow sporting a "Kasich Pioneer" button. I held up my Forbes bag: Look at all this good stuff your competition is passing out–a mug, lapel pins, a book on the moral foundations of a free society, a book on Social Security reform, and a bumper sticker. He didn't have a damn thing to offer. It turns out this fellow is enrolled in a George Washington University nondegree program that provides people with a practical view of what politics is like. He was given the assignment to be a Kasich Pioneer just a day before and knew very little about the man. A true pro in the making.

My next stop was the Alan Keyes booth, where I spoke with Keith Proctor, a slightly disheveled, slow-talking man with a bag of Skittles hanging out of his suit pocket. Proctor gave me a Keyes cassette tape, a far second to my Forbes loot, but useful nonetheless. (I reuse propaganda cassettes as interview tapes.) The most important issue for Proctor is morality, neatly bundled up in the abortion issue. "He's a Christian man," Proctor told me, adding that Keyes would give Christians representation in Congress. (I believe he's actually running for president, but Lamar Alexander was about to speak, so I didn't get into it.)

I have long considered Lamar Alexander's presidential aspirations nearly as laughable as those of Dan Quayle. Lamar had published a piece in The Wall Street Journal that very day, assailing the presidential front-runners of both major parties for using "weasel words": Gore for his "practical idealism," the young George Bush for his "compassionate conservatism." Unlike them, Alexander bragged, he didn't need any adjectives. "I'm a Republican. I'm an idealist. I am a conservative–and proud of it," Alexander intoned, his ears flying away from his head at roughly 30 degrees, giving him a Dumboesque quality. "None of these words require any modification to serve either as a philosophy or as a political creed."

He endorsed a two-tier tax system–a contrast to the Forbes one-rate plan–and said he favored federal funding for education, particularly federal college scholarships and research grants. This man really inspires.

As Lamar spoke, I recalled a point Thomas Sowell made years ago about teachers' general aversion to academic competition. Noting that teachers tended to come from the bottom of their classes academically, Sowell hypothesized that they didn't have many happy memories of competition. Perhaps, I thought, the particular adjectives that have been applied to Lamar have scarred him.

John Kasich was up next. The well-caffeinated, freedom-loving, rock-music- listening House Budget Committee chairman claimed he just wants the government to set him free to do his own thing. He brought up regulations, saying he likes to call them "restrictions." He voiced support for an across-the-board tax cut and repeatedly professed his belief in God. "As the song says," he rambled at one point, "money can't buy you love."

Kasich was certainly the most libertarian speaker I saw. But he is affecting a worrisome populism: "Big is bad" was a major theme. "Whether it's big government, big labor, or big business," Kasich told the crowd, "they all put obstacles in our way." This, in my mind, misses the important point. What's wrong with big government is that there's no exit, no escape. The difference between the IRS bureaucracy, which is truly evil, and General Motors, which just produced really bad cars for a while, is that you don't have to buy the cars. At any rate, it would be nice if Kasich would focus on getting us a "big" tax cut.

As Kasich was fielding questions, Bauer's troops started to file into the room, greeting their man's rise to the podium with a placard-waving standing ovation. "I hope you don't all work for me," Bauer said. (They do, at least the most enthusiastic ones.) With his elongated snout and set-back eye sockets, Bauer resembles a mouse. He rolled into his well-rehearsed speech. He compared Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision and, like the other candidates, called for a defense buildup. (Bereft of domestic policy, Republicans are pinning presidential hopes on a popular movement for a larger, more expensive military.) Bauer also paid tribute to Henry Hyde, and the crowd leapt to its feet, filling the room with whoops and howls.

Later on, Bill Bennett went up to lament the "death of outrage." He was introduced by Preston Noell, of Tradition, Family, Property Inc., who mislabeled Bennett's best-seller "The Death of Courage" and vented some outrage of his own. Noell was upset that the Capitol Steps, a local singing group known for its mild political satire, would be providing evening entertainment. At first I thought he was kidding. The Capitol Steps are not exactly Howard Stern. But Noell was dead serious: The Steps have poked a bit of fun at the pope and committed other acts of political incorrectness. Noell had complained formally to the CPAC authorities but was told the show would be late at night, the crowd was all adults, and not everyone was that conservative anyway. This response really upset him.

"Am I being judgmental?" the enraged Noell asked, as if the person he was fortunate enough to introduce had given him permission to test his manhood in front of an audience. "You bet I am."

Bennett was soon at the microphone. "The bad guys have been made to look good; the good guys have been made to look bad," he said, since the public is more concerned with hypocrisy than the morality that makes hypocrisy possible. He urged the crowd to be "more judgmental." Watch out, Capitol Steps.

Date: Sun, Jan 31, 1999 4:33:17 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Apocalypse Not

The head's pounding a bit this morning. I am not sure if it's on account of the five glasses of wine I enjoyed with dinner or the "coconut macaroon flavored survival ration" Wired's Declan McCullagh thrust in my face shortly after I arrived at his Adams Morgan flat last night. Declan and Cato's Solveig Singleton were throwing a "Halfway to the Apocalypse Party," to "celebrate 333 days left 'til Y2K." The invite promised Y2K survival foods–including "bulk rice" and "eel"–various Y2K theme songs, and a chance to win Jerry Falwell's Y2K video.

"You're not Y2K compliant until you have this," blurted someone as he handed Declan a roll of camouflage duct tape. Declan added it to his pile of survivalist goodies, which included a 50-gallon drum of "Hard White Wheat" and a carton of GPC full-flavored smokes (future currency, I was told). Declan was soon showing me other party gifts: boxes of .357 and .22 caliber bullets. "You can see there's a bit of a libertarian theme," he told me, as he fondled a bullet.

I wasn't there just for the bullets and booze. I was on the beat. Washington has been buzzing about Y2K: Declan's "Politech" e-mail list teems with Y2K concerns; Clinton has promised the geezers that their Social Security checks will keep coming; and even the religious nuts have climbed on board, with Falwell hyping the coming computer crash as God's way of humbling America.

"I think the United States is in good shape," Jim Lucier, formerly of Americans for Tax Reform and now with Prudential Securities, told me when I pressed him on the issue. Domestically, he is worried only about operations sheltered by government, such as rural electricity co-ops. "Overseas, all bets are off." I next questioned a bespectacled bearded man who works on the Hill. "I really do believe there will be a year 2000," he allowed.

My reporting wasn't getting anywhere, so I decided to start drinking. On the way to the refrigerator I ran into someone on the staff of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). This fellow recalled testifying about Y2K before the Montana legislature but couldn't remember what he said. Another fellow from Burns' office said that China's approach to the problem was to hold its leaders accountable. Chinese airline executives, for example, are required to be in the air when the date turns. If anyone goes down, they go down.

Lucier pointed out that people who are airborne will be plenty safe, at least if the plane is built by Boeing, since private companies will see to it that the problem is fixed. "The weak link is local airports," said Lucier, since they are run by governments. This man is nothing if not consistent.

As the party thinned out, I took up with a cybercolumnist/taxi driver/limousine company owner, whose name isn't printed on his business card. His advice, as he pulled out a wad of bills, was to drive a taxi. He demonstrated why by separating his day's take of $161 into one pocket for the government and the other for him. (The lesson was that the government wasn't getting in his pocket.) His advice for Y2K: Buy 3M stock. Post-it notes, he felt, would be the best means of communication.

The VCR in the corner of Declan's drawing room was playing a Y2K scare tape, Millennium Bug and the Year 2000. I sat down to watch. The video jacket warned, "Nothing this big has ever been this predictable with this much precision," and "begin to prepare for a radical alteration of your lifestyle." Pat Boone was soon on the screen fretting over dependence on technology. It was time to leave.

Date: Wed, Feb 3, 1999 3:28:01 PM
From: mlynch@reasondc.org
Subj: Washington Focus

I just returned from a two-hour focus group conducted by Peter D. Hart, who usually polls for The Wall Street Journal but was on a more corporate assignment tonight. "I'll do a Capital Letter on it," I thought, as an unsolicited caller asked if I would participate. Even if it was a bust, I figured, I could cash the $150 check.

I arrived at Olchak Market Research at 5:50 p.m., just in time to munch a sandwich, gulp a glass of water, and head into a bugged conference room. On arrival, each of us chose a movie star's name for purposes of identification. I was Danny Glover, while Bruce Willis sat to my right and I stared across the table at Warren Beatty, who is really a Republican Hill staffer.

It was a well-balanced group of Washington rent seekers. As the first exercise, Hart had us disclose our professions and predict the most important thing the 106th Congress was likely to accomplish. Harrison Ford, who works on the Hill, thought Congress would reform Social Security; Whoopi Goldberg, a journalist, expected a tax bill; and Jack Nicholson, who toils for a labor union, was banking on legislation on "pay equity," of all crazy things. All told, the group had two bureaucrats, two labor bosses, three Hill hands, two nonprofit employees, one who identified himself as "an attorney for a nonprofit," two journalists, and a trade association president. We were picked, Hart told us in an early suck-up, because we are opinion leaders. (Even the lowest-rent Lewinsky pundit probably wouldn't gab for two hours with a bunch of strangers for $150. I, however, will.)

At first, it wasn't clear who was paying Hart for what. He gave us a piece of paper with about six policy issues–including Social Security and Medicare, food stamps, telecommunications, and the environment–and two columns. In one column, we were asked to rank on an ascending scale of 1 to 10 whether we thought Congress would take action. In the second column, we were asked to signify if we gave a rat's ass about the issue with a simple Y or N. (For some reason, I had a bunch of Ns.)

We blathered about these various issues for about 10 minutes before Hart zeroed in on telecommunications. "Do you think Congress will do anything?" he asked Bruce Willis. Willis thought so, since there is plenty of lobbying power. For the same reason, I expressed the opposite opinion. With so many buyers, it's hard for congressmen to know who to sell themselves to. Besides, I said, the issue is very complicated, and congressmen are busy.

Hart, who has a studio executive tan, was soon up at an easel where he flipped to a page revealing four industries: Long Distance Telephone Service, Local Telephone Service, Cable TV, and Internet Service Providers. Which, he asked, do you think needs more government attention? Most people chose long distance or Internet providers, citing privacy concerns for the latter. I said cable TV simply because I hate, yes hate, my cable company and every cable company I have ever had. We blathered about competition–how would we know it when we saw it, what it might look like, whether it existed, and a bunch of other silly questions–for the next hour. Hart fired questions like a slightly subdued John McLaughlin. "Whoopi," he'd ask, as he paced about the antiseptic room, "how would you convince Harrison that more regulation won't help give him better TV service?"

With the ticking of each minute, Hart focused us on cable TV. He showed us ads for competitors–direct broadcast satellites and Star Power, a consortium which appears to offer bundled Internet, telephone, and cable TV service. He screened three ads for a company that situated cable and telephone companies in World War II America and Stalinist Russia.

I couldn't tell whether he was working for the cable industry or the upstarts, but he wanted to focus on our reactions to government intervention. Should the government be more or less involved? was his basic question. I, Danny Glover, said this question was framed wrong, since the government is already involved in each of his four areas, even those we agree are competitive. ISPs, for example, have government-regulated access over local phone networks. The real question is what the government should do to allow competition to flourish. Hart cut me off, and went back to his basic question for about the 20th time: Does the industry need more or less government regulation?

Finally, he asked us what we would say to the cable TV industry. Good riddance, I offered, adding that I would pay more money each month just so I didn't have to give any of my dough to a cable company. As Hart went around the table, there were lots of boat and dock metaphors. "The boat's already left," said one guy. "I don't know if they've missed the boat," said Robin Williams, "but they have to jump from the dock." Another guy–George Clooney, I believe, who works for a firefighters union–said they might fall into the crack between the dock and the boat.

As we left, a lady handed us each a small white envelope. Jack Nicholson continued to complain to me about his cable company. Warren Beatty felt there'd be action this year. Out on the street, I ripped open my envelope: a new Franklin and Grant. Nice. Beatty told me he couldn't accept money since he worked on the Hill and reiterated that he thought there'd be action on the direct broadcast satellite issue. I got his card. Another Washington contact.