Herman Cain, listed in the official program as "Former CEO, Godfather's Pizza," took the stage at about 4:30 on Thursday at the Woodley Park Marriott in Washington, D.C. It was day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and he was the main attraction. There had been a long line throughout the lobby before his scheduled appearance. It was an earnest crowd. The prevailing concern at the conference (I overheard one college student saying) was with showing people it was cool to be an American.
Cain made a joke about the teleprompters—he doesn't "do" them, he said—and then told a story about the American Revolution.
"In 1773!" he said, booming each syllable into the mic, "The colonists! Were fed up! With old King George!"
In the fifth row, a gentleman in a minuteman uniform stood and waved his tricorn hat overhead.
"In 1785, two years later," Cain explained, "the American revolution started. Eight! Years! After that! We won... the American Revolution." The crowd did not seem to catch the chronological slip, and cheered appreciatively.
"We! Must! Outsmart! The liberals!" Cain continued. "We must outsmart the stupid people that are trying to ruin America! We! Outnumber! The stupid people!"
The audience stood. They cheered. They agreed with him.
"Trust me!" he said, pointing out past the podium. "I counted them!"
Conventions are, by their very nature, extremely sheltered environments. They bring together thousands of people who all share a similar—and very specific—interest, and they often do so in windowless, subterranean convention centers that can make it very easy to forget that the outside world exists at all.
Consider, then, what happens when the convention is not based on an interest, but on a worldview. Conventions are not for confrontations; they are for agreement. The theme of CPAC 2012 assumed as much: We still hold these truths, speakers and banners reminded us throughout the weekend. It was not posed as a question for a reason.
And so it should not come as much of a surprise that, throughout more than 100 scheduled events at CPAC, only two were even set up as debates. One was a contrived (and hilarious) boxing match debate between Crossfire alums Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (complete with a ring girl in a very matronly polka-dot pencil skirt), and one was a panel, free of any representatives from Occupy Wall Street, entitled "Taking Back Wall Street: The Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street." (The main difference between the two organizations, joked Ryan Hecker of Contract from America, is "soap.")
Complicating political dialogue was, admittedly, not the goal at the Marriott.
I spent the weekend floating throughout the conference, watching people stand and cheer for phrases and statements I didn't even fully understand, and saying nothing about it. When Florida Senator (and probable VP candidate) Marco Rubio told a capacity ballroom crowd on Thursday that "the greatest thing that we can do for the world is to be America," he was given an earnest ovation. Later that afternoon, Rick Perry nearly brought down the house when he reminded the audience how many Planned Parenthoods he'd successfully shut down in Texas ("about a dozen," if you're keeping track). On Friday, they stood and cheered when congressman Steve King suggested that the best way to fight childhood obesity was to just "extend basic training." "Is anyone out there tired of hearing about Warren Buffett's secretary?" wondered Rand Paul on Friday, and the audience roared in appreciation.
"You're occupying the wrong place," Sarah Palin said on Saturday, "you're protesting the wrong thing."
A small corner of CPAC had been briefly reminded of the occupiers on Friday afternoon, when hundreds of protesters gathered on the street in front of the Marriott. I went outside after Mitt Romney spoke, and just as a group of protesters attempted to move up the Marriott's winding driveway. D.C. police and hotel personnel blocked their path, and requested that they return to the street. CPAC attendees stood on the outskirts of the standoff, holding camera phones aloft as the protesters chanted "the people, united, will never be defeated" in English and Spanish.
"Let me ask you a question," an older black man carrying a "Fight For Philly" flag asked a student CPAC attendee who was standing on the curb, filming the events on her iPhone. "Who are you for? The 99 or the one percent?"
"I'm for—" she started, and he interrupted her.
"Ah, you took too long!" said the man, and he began to walk away.
"He didn't even listen to my response!" the girl called out, smiling in disbelief at her friend.
A few hours later, a group of student protesters (some of whom, I was told, had registered for CPAC ahead of time) entered the Marriott. A police officer told me that evening that there had been a bit of a skirmish, but no one was arrested. I had been in the media filing room, drinking bland coffee and watching Newt Gingrich's live speech on a TV monitor. The students were removed in the lobby. The attendees in the ballroom—away from windows, exits to the outside world, or anything that might have even hinted at conflict—were largely unaware they'd even been there.
On Saturday afternoon, I filed into the ballroom to see Carlson and Begala reunite for their "Fight Club Debate." They were clearly giddy to perform together, and the audience was game. They booed Begala with conspiratorial joy ("You're booing Jesus!" he scolded them at one point) and treated Carlson with the reverence of a high school quarterback.
They debated for a bit, and then started a round of free-association. The host, dressed in a tuxedo, read out words like "welfare" and "Reagan" and the two men responded in a few words. "China," he said, and Carlson quickly said, "Threat." Begala chimed in with "Rival."
They continued for a while. It was a funny, telling routine. At "welfare," the responses were "necessary" and "generational"; they said "selfish" and "someone I'd like to be" for "rich people." It's easy to surmise who said what, and rigorous intellectual debate was not the point. The point was to provide punchlines and a target at the same time, and Begala was game. He asked the crowd to cheer if they were conservative, and the ballroom roared.
"Obedient little trolls, aren't you," he cracked.
It was the most enjoyable session of the conference. It reminded me of moments from Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010, when hundreds of thousands of liberals descended upon the National Mall to snicker in allegiance at the sad state of our nation. CPAC's amusement, though, was different. The rhetoric of most of the speeches focused on restoring America to its "exceptional" past, instead of poking fun at its messy present state.
"America remains the most noble experiment in governing ever offered in the history of mankind," Perry said over and over again on Friday. America is "the single greatest nation in all of human history," Rubio told his crowd. "We have to show people that it's cool to be an American, you know?" the coed had said.
"My question to you, is do we still hold these truths?" a rep from the American Conservative Union asked the morning crowd on day one.
"Yes!" they responded. "Amen!"
On Saturday, the final day at the CPAC, I ran into Sarah Palin in the hotel lobby.
I mean that almost literally. I was coming up the escalator from the exhibit hall, where I'd just passed up a last-minute deal on a "Freedom Isn't Free" T-shirt and overheard an earnest discussion about what it would take to get Ronald Reagan's mug added to Mount Rushmore, and there was a growing mob of flashing cameras and squealing young women ahead. I walked toward them, found an opening, and pushed my way through. Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate, Alaska governor, and reality TV star, was standing there, smiling for cameras and shaking hands. Her hair looked impeccable, I noticed, and I reached for my camera to take a photo.
"Mrs. Palin!" I said. She turned toward me, beaming, and stuck out her hand. I shook it. A female college student to my right was weeping at the mere sight of her. The crowd was beginning to pull her away. Palin looked at me expectantly.
I'd spent the better part of CPAC dashing throughout the hotel, hoping to be in the right place at the right time in a three-day event so over-scheduled that I never remembered to eat lunch. I'd missed half of Newt Gingrich's speech and all of Callista Gingrich's hair on Friday because I'd been in a hotel bar, drinking beer and intentionally losing track of time. Stephen Baldwin's publicist wouldn't schedule an interview for me, Andrew Breitbart's assistant wouldn't get back to me, and the press office's contact information with Ann Coulter was an out-of-service cell phone number. Even the crazy guy in the minuteman uniform, who'd been posing for photos all weekend, had asked me if we could talk later.
And then, finally, I found someone. I ran right into her. It was Sarah Palin, the conference darling. In just a few hours, she would earn some 14 standing ovations in her speech, and a group of protesters—the only physical example of well-documented conflict in three days—would get thrown out to angry chants of "USA" and adoring chants of "Sarah." I had not expected to get to her, here or now or ever. I'd sat through 30 hours of scheduled panels and films and speeches in three days; I'd nodded through rambling rationales for the evils of gay marriage and the "failure of multiculturalism," and there had hardly been an opportunity to speak a contrarian word. What the fuck was I going to say?
"It's fashion week in New York," is what I said, listening in horror to my own words. "Who are you wearing?"
"Oh!" Palin exclaimed, in that high-pitched tone of hers. She smiled broadly. She looked thrilled. "It's Paige Adams-Geller," she said, as the bodyguards pulled her away.
"She's a Wasilla lady!" she called out over her shoulder, and waved goodbye.