Get this picture: A Russian comic whose one-liners brought down a ballroom full of conservatives, even arousing in Ronald Reagan a twinge of professional envy.
Example: "In the Soviet Union they say they have freedom of speech, but here they have freedom after they speak."
*Example: "What do I like most about America? Warning shots. In Russia they don't shoot up in the air. They shoot towards you as a warning for the next guy."
Example: "In Russia, if someone heckles you from the audience, you can't say 'Your mother wears army boots' -- because she probably does."
Yakov "everything you ever wanted in a beer" Smirnoff was the other star last night at the 13th annual Conservative Political Action Conference opening at the Washington Hilton. Reagan's turn at the microphone came after Smirnoff's, and he faced his disciples humbly.
"The instinct that is within me says, 'Perhaps it would be better if the entertainer follows the speaker,' " the president said.
The crowd loved that, too, though last night at least, it wasn't laughs Reagan was after any more than it was necessarily his jokes (he saved a place for a few) the crowd came to hear. He said he wanted to speak about "our movement and a great danger that lies ahead . . . the danger of growing soft with victory, of losing perspective when things go our way too often, of failing to appreciate success when it occurs or seeing danger when it looms."
Later, at a noisy, crowded party Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) hosted in a seventh-floor suite, Terrell Cannon, chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, voiced a reaction frequently heard in the elevators and along the corridors.
"It wasn't the typical Reagan speech, but it wasn't meant to be a speech that we've reached the shining city on the hill, a recitation of all our victories," said Cannon. "He did some of that but it was more a call to arms. You can't strike a call to arms if you tell people everything is fine."
Cannon, whose group is a sponsor of CPAC '86, said, "Conservative groups as a whole are hurting financially because there is a tremendous amount of complacency among the people who traditionally write the checks."
Some of those mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 1988 were cautiously upbeat about Reagan's speech. Evangelist Pat Robertson, who said he always enjoys hearing Reagan speak, thought he wasn't perhaps "as fiery as in times past, but a bit more restrained."
"In terms of delivery, low-pitched," said William A. Rusher, publisher of the National Review, who thought that probably was the effect of the Challenger tragedy.
Pat Buchanan, Reagan's director of communications, brushed off a question about whether the final version of the president's speech had been toned down. "No, it went right through, no, not at all," said Buchanan.
For conservatives, generally, it seemed to be a night for taking stock of where they've come from and where they're headed.
David Keene, chairman of the cosponsoring American Conservative Union, called it the conservative movement's "one big night where we bury our differences, where there is no Old Right or New Right."
He said that a year ago there were 28 participating organizations at the conference, and this year there are 55 -- the largest turnout ever. Another "first," he said, is that "no one [candidate] can claim the conservative movement or these people as their own."
A convention poll is due out tomorrow, and Keene expects that Vice President Bush will be the leading candidate "because right now it's very early, but leading by a lot less than you think, under the circumstances. People are still looking around."
Rusher told the crowd, which included every significant conservative organization in the country and considerably more women than attended the daytime session, that he thought the younger members "timed themselves wrong" in aligning themselves with what he calls the "golden age of conservatism."
"They are going to have to fight through many battles, win many battles, when the situation is less satisfactory than it is today. I happened to have come on the scene," he said, "when we could and did hold our meetings in phone booths. Now toward the other end of life, I find Ronald Reagan being elected in 49 states to one, and boy, what a way to go!"
Later, Rusher said he wasn't telling everybody the movement had peaked.
"I think the conservative movement is going to be around from now on. But I think in terms of the commitment of the president of the United States to the movement, we are not likely to see this, if at all, again," he said.
That doesn't mean the movement is "going down the hill," Rusher added. He believes whoever is nominated in 1988 will not be as committed to the conservative philosophy as Ronald Reagan. "It's hard to visualize a future with a long line of Ronald Reagans," he said.