It was a curious warp in time. With the Reagan era drawing to a close, former New Left activists gathered to both proclaim and condemn the glory days of the '60s as the central experience of their lives.

It was not intended to be a revival. The convocation this weekend at the Grand Hyatt, dubbed the "Second Thoughts Conference," had been elaborately planned to mark the journey from left to right. The ex-radicals would expiate their sins and be blessed by such elders of neoconservatism as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, who had made the same passage. Thus purified, the newly converted would assume their stations.

"The purpose of the project," said Jim Denton, president of the National Forum Foundation, which sponsored it, "is to mobilize a movement of ex-radicals which sort of exerts its influence, as we say, in the national debate."

The aegis under which the event was organized -- National Forum -- is emblematic of the shift from the left-wing '60s to the right-wing '80s. Its founder is Jeremiah Denton, the lately defeated New Right senator; Jim is his son. The budget is $450,000, provided by flush conservative foundations: Smith-Richardson, Coors, Olin, J.M., Murdoch Trust, Scaife, and Bradley.

But the weekend did not unfold as planned. In the midst of the choreographed conversions, there was a spontaneous conversion -- the wrong way.

The apostate was Bruce Cameron, a pro-contra lobbyist and former associate of Lt. Col. Oliver North, who now bore witness to his new beliefs: The contras cannot win and they aren't democratic "freedom fighters."

There was dead silence, quickly broken by boos and hisses, the rending of clothing and fierce accusations. Then the assemblage of elders, in a fit of generational pique, disdained the entire ritual, casting all the conversos back into outer darkness for their insufficient self-denunciations. What was called the "second-thoughter" movement was becoming unstuck before it could be glued together.

Traitors for America Appropriately, the leaders of the Conversion conference had been leaders of the Movement -- David Horowitz and Peter Collier, former editors of Ramparts magazine, the Zeitgeist barometer when they were the way they were. In their hotel suite hours before the festival of disillusionment was about to begin, Horowitz and Collier revved themselves into the mood.

"We committed significant treason!" exclaimed Horowitz. Short and stout, with a Trotsky-like goatee and tinted aviator glasses, he was clad in retro-Berkeley style: tight stone-washed jeans, black lizard boots, and white T-shirt emblazoned, "Nicaragua is Spanish for Afghanistan."

Horowitz was such an important figure of the age that "a lot of countries would have killed us!" He went on: "We tried to destroy this country! This country was good to us. It forgave us!"

Collier is Horowitz's Sancho Panza. (The two are more than an ideological tag team. Together they have written books chronicling the Rockefellers, Kennedys and Fords.) Collier's dress -- button-down shirt unbuttoned at the collar and cuffed trousers -- matched his quiet tone. When Horowitz paused for breath, he filled the gaps: "The '60s was an innocent era. We were murderers in our fantasies. But there was an innocence to it."

After getting warmed up, Collier's bitterness began to seep around the edges. His special target was Tom Hayden, the former radical leader, now a California state assemblyman and husband of Jane Fonda. Long ago, he had informed Collier that "fascism was coming." And Collier confessed that he promptly "bought a gun."

Now, he resents having listened. He also remembered a wedding in Berkeley where the cake read: "Smash Monogamy." In retrospect, he has decided, this was "dada," not funny.

Horowitz is back: "The '80s left, the Hate America left, is less honest. The '60s left was more honest: Tear the mother down! You have the '80s left posturing as liberalism ... 'McCarthyism' has become a cudgel to prevent any discussion."

Though Horowitz fashions himself in reaction against the New Left, his roots are in the old. He grew up in a communist family in New York City. His red-diaper rash turned into the conviction that he was chosen to be the next Karl Marx, whose writings would set millions rushing into the streets.

His books on U.S. imperialism poured forth: "Free World Colossus," "Empire and Revolution." He studied in London under Isaac Deutscher, the scholarly ex-Trotskyist and Trotsky biographer. And, having missed much of the '60s, he returned to America in 1967. He moved to Berkeley, ground zero for the Movement, and soon became an editor of Ramparts.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ramparts was the chief promoter of the black-leather-jacketed and gun-toting Black Panther Party. "They disturbed me," said Horowitz. "They were Stalinists." Then, in 1973, by his account, Huey Newton, the party's charismatic leader, persuaded him to raise money and make propaganda. "He was a master seducer."

But when the Panther bookkeeper was murdered, apparently because she knew too much about their shakedown operations, Horowitz began to lose his faith.

When Horowitz abandoned radicalism, he also left his wife and three children, escaping into conservatism and Beverly Hills. "When I was a Marxist, I was puritanical," he said. "Then I got loose." Now, however, he says he's sympathetic to Tipper Gore's crusade against salacious rock 'n' roll lyrics.

"I feel," said Horowitz, as he prepared to chair the conference, "like I'm the first Horowitz to step foot on the country."

Conversions The weekend's purge trial began on Saturday, with the victims also serving as judges. After convicting themselves, they urged the assembled to trust their political judgment.

Jeff Herf, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society and now professor of strategy at the Naval War College, said: "This was really embarrassing; the communists were really as bad as supporters of the war said they would be." His failure was one of theory: "I viewed the war through Marcusean and Adornoesque prisms" -- a reference to two abstruse theoreticians popular with the New Left. Herf said the '60s were not "wasted years," and his statement was not "a repudiation."

David Ifshin, the former president of the National Student Association, who once urged a U.S. defeat in Vietnam on North Vietnamese radio, has become a Washington lawyer, indeed Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign counsel.

What he did in the 1960s, he said, was a "willful delusion." He compared his political transformation to that of President Reagan's Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork: "I am an admirer of Bob Bork ... The way he was handled was wrong ... He received vilification."

In the back of the room, a staunch right-winger who apparently had never had a second thought muttered about the "chummy celebration of how bad they were."

After a luncheon of speeches by contras, it was time for Nicaragua. Robert Leiken, an ex-Maoist turned pro-contra lobbyist who now teaches at Harvard, reviewed the reviews of his articles: "There are penalties for opposing the left. Watch out for your job or reputation."

Then Bruce Cameron arose, visibly shaking, constantly sweeping his hand back across his gray hair. His commitment to Third World revolution in the 1960s had, in the 1980s, found the contras as its object. He had been a crucial player in getting them aid.

Now, he declared, he had "third thoughts": The contras are "an army without a vision of a future society ... the contras cannot win ... I have great doubts whether there can be a democratic counterrevolution ... There is no wing of the Democratic Party soft on communism ... Liberals are not procommunist and anti-American." And, he announced, he was now a lobbyist for "the Peoples' Republic of Mozambique."

"Boo!" shouted Reed Irvine, the conservative press critic.

"Boo!" hollered Arnold Beichman, the anti-Soviet specialist at the Hoover Institution.

And Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative editor of Commentary, could not stop shaking his head.

A break was called. Seated in his chair, Cameron trembled uncontrollably.

"I want to cry," he said.

Arturo Cruz Jr., the Social Democratic contra leader and ex-boyfriend of North's secretary Fawn Hall, embraced Cameron. Cruz felt a bond of personal emotion that transcended the opinion of the moment.

Cameron had been a China scholar, radicalized by the Vietnam war, who worked with Fonda and Hayden in the Indochina Peace Campaign in the early 1970s. During the Carter administration, as a lobbyist for the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, he worked on human rights issues. That led him to an interest in the Nicaraguan revolution. He traveled there and eventually became disillusioned with the Sandinistas. When he became convinced that the Reagan administration wanted a negotiated settlement, he supported contra aid on that basis. One of those who convinced him was Oliver North. "I liked him," said Cameron. "His energy was infectious. He was absolutely seductive."

Through the conservative network around the contra issue, Cameron met Carl (Spitz) Channell, a right-wing fundraiser who has since pleaded guilty to violating tax laws. Channell raised money for Cameron's lobbying, and North's "courier," Robert Owen, set up an organization that Cameron called the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

By the end of 1986, after successfully lobbying for $100 million in contra aid just months before, Cameron had a change of heart. The talk of reforming the contras, he decided, was a sham. "They were behaving like thugs. There just was no change."

The Iran-contra scandal stunned him. "I was shocked," he said. "I had a couple of clues, but not enough." Not only were the contras "undemocratic," but the Reagan administration was "antidemocratic in its relations with Congress." The idea of the contras as "freedom fighters who could win" struck him as "a fantasy."

Cruz Jr. tried to halt the harsh criticism. "I will always love him," he said, gesticulating with a cigar. "He has the right ... My father {former contra leader Arturo Cruz} is no longer in the resistance because of what Bruce said." But Cruz could not hold back the flood.

"Stale, specious arguments," said Leiken, who had been Cameron's comrade in the contra cause. "I could go on at length about the progress of the contras ... You are an American who works on the Hill ... another form of imperialism, another form of isolationism."

"He's the one who's going to get all the press attention," said Irvine, demonstrating his expertise.

Leiken started attacking the press. "The coverage of The New York Times is very depressing."

"There is a line for this conference!" shouted Horowitz, now at the microphone. "If someone has not come to the conclusion that communism is a threat, then they haven't had second thoughts." Referring to Cameron's antiwar lobbying of Congress, he said, "I might have done what Bruce did, pull the plug on the people of Vietnam. The effect of pulling the plug was the death of 3 million people ... I'm never, never going to pull the plug on an anticommunist struggle again!"

The session was over, and walking toward the door Horowitz denounced Cameron for another crime: "He dominated the whole afternoon! It'll probably be the lead!"

Cameron sat at his seat, running his hand through his hair, a portrait of anguish: "I tried hard to work in good faith with the administration, and they didn't work in good faith ... I didn't know it was going to come out like this."

The Elders Dinner was served.

At the head table sat what Horowitz called the "panel of elders," collected to deliver a benediction and pass the torch. They were not in the mood for generosity.

The first speaker: Hilton Kramer, former art critic for The New York Times and editor of the neoconservative journal The New Criterion. He wasted no time denouncing the conference: "morally catastrophic ... not a single mention of the counterculture ... Well, you were all immoralists. And we are all paying the price for the agenda let loose."

The wraithlike William Phillips, founding editor of Partisan Review, the ur-journal of the New York intellectuals, then reminisced: "Let me remind you, {in} the 1930s ... we were called reactionaries ... we were called Trotskyites ..." Nothing the "second-thoughters" could do would ever match that lost glory of factionalism.

Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservatives, with influence over many right-wing foundations, was next. "I have rejected at least 50 articles on 'second thoughts,' " he said. The important statements have already been made. The 1930s were real, the 1960s unreal.

Norman Podhoretz came forward now to reject the self-purges of the morning: "a desperate effort to cling to ... lesser values." The confessors, in his mind, remained members of the counterculture. America faced "threats from within and without ... ideas flowing from the counterculture ... the corrupted and poisoned culture, which is our major problem."

This sheer generational resentment was beyond ideology. And for all the raging about the "anti-Americans," what the elders seemed to fear most were the aspects of American culture they didn't understand, such as rock 'n' roll.

Only Nathan Glazer of Harvard, in his closing seconds, referred to current realities: the change in Soviet leadership, for example.

It was an evening of nostalgia.

The Bottom Line But the "Second Thoughts" project is not played out. There is still a considerable sum left over for Horowitz and Collier to pursue its goals. The duo is trying to market a syndicated political column. They are rustling up speaking engagements. They are thinking about restarting Ramparts to reflect their new concerns. They are taking trips to Nicaragua. And they are writing a book on the generation that came of age in the 1960s. Its title: "Destructive Generation."

"About the money," said Horowitz. "I made only $60,000 this year. The previous year I made $250,000. I did this for the cause, for love."