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The GOP, Gathering and Gloating

By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page D1

Here at ground zero of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, the conspirators are quite pleased with themselves.

"We’re having a heyday," Republican activist Floyd Brown said yesterday as the 25th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, opened in Arlington. "I feel so vindicated."

Like many of the 1,500 others on hand at the Crystal Gateway Marriott for the three-day conclave sponsored by some 70 organizations from the Christian Coalition to the Heritage Foundation, Brown was savoring Hillary Rodham Clinton’s phrase for the folks who, she claimed this week, stoked up the headline-grabbing Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"You can call me Conspirator-in-Chief," Brown gloated. "I’ve been trashed left and right by this White House. But now, I have to admit, I’m feeling good."

Brown’s group, Citizens United, has relentlessly tormented President Clinton and his wife since 1992, capitalizing on every embarrassment from Gennifer Flowers to Whitewater.

It was at CPAC’s meeting four years ago that Paula Corbin Jones held her sensational news conference to charge that Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. That led to Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit, which in turn led to the current unpleasantness, notably independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s perjury and obstruction of justice investigation involving the president.

Yesterday, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, who organizes CPAC every year, took pains to distance himself from Jones, saying he had nothing to do with her fateful announcement. "The reason people try to surface their agendas at this convention is not because I am here but because you all [in the news media] are here," he said.

Keene pooh-poohed Hillary Clinton’s claim of a right-wing cabal.

"All of politics is a conspiracy," he said. "Every campaign is a conspiracy. They want an enemy, because in politics you need an enemy. . . . She has slipped into the fever swamp, and has developed a case of paranoia second to none."

Like Keene, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), yesterday’s lead attraction, and a host of other top Republicans who graced CPAC’s program attempted to project a certain statesmanlike calm about the political mayhem going on at the Clinton White House.

"No comment," Gingrich determinedly replied when reporters attempted to draw him out on the scandal.

In years past, when Democrats ruled Congress and liberal bureaucrats still made policy, CPAC was a gathering place for red-meat zealots who gloried in their status as underdogs. But now that the GOP is in control on Capitol Hill and a Democratic president is on the ropes, the CPAC attendees had all the fervor of insurance adjusters.

Only Reed Irvine, the head of Accuracy in Media, seemed disgruntled – and even then, only mildly.

And then, at the wrong people.

"There is a conspiracy within the Republican Party to suppress investigations of the Clinton scandals," he maintained.

In a meeting room far from the ballroom where CPAC was mounting its high-minded program on the Republican agenda, the Reagan legacy and the future of entitlements, Irvine’s group was staging its own presentation on "The Biggest Clinton Scandals." Sample topics: "TWA Flight 800: A Transparent Coverup," "Why Is the FBI After Me?" and "Obstruction of Justice: Farce and Fraud in the Foster Investigation."

"Conspiracy is a word that has been given a very bad connotation – it’s become synonymous with ‘kooky,’‚" Irvine said. "But really it has a very good connotation."

In other words, Irvine elaborated, some conspiracy theories are valid. But not Hillary Clinton’s. "She’s kooky," he insisted.

During the conference, the participants are hearing from Republican presidential hopefuls, such as former education secretary Lamar Alexander and former vice president Dan Quayle, who addressed the group yesterday, and Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, who is on today’s schedule. There were also discussions of such topics as the federal judiciary and tax policy. By tomorrow, when the conference concludes, they will have heard from nearly every top leader in the GOP, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and will have gotten a primer on current Republican thinking.

In the CPAC exhibit hall, meanwhile, political paraphernalia salesman Robb Metry – the proprietor of "It’s Only Politics" – was doing a healthy business in scandal buttons, priced at $2 each. "MEMBER OF THE VAST RIGHT WING CONSPIRACY," said one.

After being interviewed for German television, Metry, 38, said, very responsibly: "I hope it doesn’t disgrace the presidency. If it’s true, it’s pretty disgusting. But why would Clinton risk his entire presidency over a 21-year-old intern?" Out in the corridor, a few practitioners of conservative talk radio like Oliver North and Blanquita Cullum broadcast their shows from equipment-strewn tables. Cullum, who is heard on 60 stations, hosted cartoonist Bruce Tinsley, creator of the "Mallard Fillmore" strip, winner of CPAC’s Conservative Journalism Award.

"It’s ironic that the president who pushed for the television rating system is now going to be responsible for the first time that it’s applied to the evening news," Tinsley sniffed.

Later Cullum addressed Hillary Clinton’s conspiracy theory. "She and the other liberals like to talk about right-wing radicals who see the black choppers over their houses," she said. "Now we have a left-wing radical who thinks she sees a black chopper over the White House."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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