Question: In a logical progression that includes three names, who comes after Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan?
Answer: Pat Buchanan.
The new White House director of communications was Mr. Popular at last night's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) dinner. Of course, mention of Goldwater's name was a sure applause getter, and at Reagan's arrival the 1,700 conservatives in the Sheraton Washington Ballroom just about went crazy.
But a smirking Buchanan, his black hair as shiny as ever, got the kind of shrieks and applause that suggested he had surpassed the rank of hero and had achieved the cherished station of Conservative Symbol.
"Congratulations. Best news we've had in a long time," one woman said to Buchanan during a VIP reception before dinner.
"The way I figure it," said Buchanan, "I'm the second-most conservative guy on the first floor of the West Wing."
"Pragma-whats?" said L. Francis Bouchy, president of the Council for Inter-American Security, when someone mentioned the dread word "pragmatist." Bouchy looked at Buchanan and laughed. "He's inoculated against them."
No need for the inoculation last night -- there weren't any pragma-anythings around. Just outside the ballroom, you could pick up "I Support the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters" bumper stickers, "Jack Kemp '88" buttons, T-shirts reading "Gun control is being able to hit your target" and pamphlets explaining "What Homosexuals Do (It's More Than Merely Disgusting.)"
And inside the ballroom, you could listen to Ronald Reagan.
"I always see the CPAC speech as my opportunity to 'dance with the one who brung you,' " said Reagan, who has addressed 10 of the 12 annual CPAC meetings.
The ones who "brung" him went crazy all over again.
"Generally, conservatives around the country are buoyed by the apparent direction the administration's taking," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which along with Young Americans for Freedom co-sponsored CPAC's three days of speeches and discussions and banquets. "I heard someone on the radio the other day saying, 'Isn't it horrible that Reagan's being Reagan?' Well, the people who attend this conference couldn't be happier."
Tonight the group is scheduled to attend another dinner, this one titled "A Tribute to the World's Freedom Fighters." Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of the Salvadoran far-right Arena party, was supposed to address the audience, but was denied a visa.
"The State Department line was they're not letting any candidates in," said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) during the reception, and then pointed to two men standing nearby with one of his staff members, "and there are two candidates there. Same old stuff."
The two members of the Arena party, candidates in this month's upcoming municipal and legislative elections, both seemed to be cultivating ironic smiles, and laughed when asked why D'Aubuisson was not allowed to enter the country.
"Someone doesn't like to hear the truth," said candidate Juan Jose Domenech.
Then they went off to the receiving line, to greet Reagan.
Wandering through the reception were White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan (who received at least one compliment on picking Buchanan and at least one request for an autograph), anti-ERAist Phyllis Schlafly (who had laryngitis and was forced to ask an assistant to explain how "the hottest issue in the grass roots" is parents' control over what their children learn at school) and former interior secretary William Clark (whom Reagan yesterday appointed as chairman of a new task force on nuclear arms).
"When the governor -- rather, the president -- gives me a task, I'll attempt to perform it," said Clark.
And then he too went through the receiving line and on into the ballroom, where Young Americans for Freedom chairman Robert Dolan was standing at the microphone, asking, "Will all the good conservatives out there please take their seats?"
They all did.