One of the natural habitats of the Washington pundit is the conference stage. Charen, now 61, has lost track of how many she’s appeared on over the years.
“Hundreds?” she says, her slender shoulders lifting in a shrug. “Definitely hundreds.”
She developed a routine. It wasn’t just about what she would say, but also about fueling herself for the performance. It was about lunch. Charen doesn’t like to skip a meal. It’s part of the way she orders her orderly life.
But a few Saturdays ago, she couldn’t take a bite.
“My stomach was in knots,” Charen says.
Charen knew she was about to get pounded. She’d resolved to make a firm and unpopular statement at CPAC, the annual conservative conference cum pep rally, a gathering that she says once felt to her like “slipping into a second skin.”
She thought it through carefully, because that’s what she does. She didn’t want to “hijack” the panel — a discussion of conservatives in the era of sexual harassment titled “#UsToo.” She resolved to wait, as if she were a distance runner hanging at the back of the pack, until her fellow panelists had had their say, until the clock was ticking down.
When her moment arrived, she didn’t hesitate. Not unlike the politicians she’s tracked with such a detailed eye, she veered away from the question she’d been asked and hit the point she wanted to make instead.
That’s when the boos and the catcalls began. How dare she criticize the occupant of the Oval Office! She looked out at the audience. Her eyes came to rest on an angry woman. Screaming at her.
“Pageboy haircut,” Charen says. “I could see her face.”
'A darling of the right'
In the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, Mona Charen’s social-media accounts and email inbox filled with hate whenever she questioned the competency and character of the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
“She’s a voice from the past in this way — a voice from conservatism BT: Before Trump,” says Jay Nordlinger, a National Review editor who co-hosts a podcast with Charen. “She has been dumped on, attacked with gross unfairness from the left for years. To come under attack from the right is surreal, wrong, ungrateful and disgusting. She was a darling of the right. And she should be now.”
Charen, who is Jewish, says she was sent images of ovens at Nazi concentration camps. She got emails portraying her as “anti-white” for questioning what she calls Trump’s “blood and soil nationalism,” and his remarks about immigrants. Her tormentors — some of whom she suspects were Russian bots — accused her of wanting “the Third World to come washing over our shores.”
“Why don’t you go back to your own country?” they demanded.
“By which,” Charen says, “they meant Israel.”
Charen, in fact, grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a psychologist and a physics and chemistry professor who were moderate Democrats. In high school, she declared she was becoming a conservative.
“They were dubious — more than dubious,” Charen recalls one recent morning at the sprawling stone home that she and her husband recently bought in Arlington after years living in Great Falls, Va.
After starting her career in conservative magazines, Charen wrote speeches for first lady Nancy Reagan. She turned down an offer to work for the campaign of Vice President George H.W. Bush because she considered him too much of “a squish” and signed on with New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
While Charen is reminiscing, Sullivan — a striped, flamboyantly coifed stray cat she adopted long ago at the behest of her exercise trainer — limps into the kitchen and proceeds to follow her from room to room. Their other cat, recently deceased, was named Gilbert — the pair being an homage to the opera legends Gilbert and Sullivan.
Charen, a classical music lover who often discusses music on her podcast, has convinced herself that learning an instrument will keep her mind sharp. In the front room, a cello sits in a black case.
Charen’s husband, lawyer Bob Parker, she says, “is more conservative than I am now, which is funny because when we met, I thought he had Bushite symptoms and told him so!” One son is nonpolitical, one is a “man of the right and the other is a man of the left.”
Charen’s books have such titles as “Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First” and “Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (and the Rest of Us).” Since Trump’s ascendence, she and her liberal son have found more they can agree upon.
'It was almost comical'
In years past, Charen would be asked for autographs at CPAC. These days familiar places have become foreign to her.
“It’s a little like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” she says.
Still, she accepted an invitation to appear on a sexual harassment panel despite concerns about CPAC and other institutions going “full Trumpite.”
“I wanted to lay down a marker,” she says.
Charen has a book coming out in June called “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love and Common Sense.”
Has Charen ever had a #MeToo moment? “I got chased around desks when I was in college — by professors” at Barnard, she says during a chat at her downtown Washington office at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a think tank focused on applying Judeo-Christian moral traditions to public policy. Her face is framed in the big window with a view of the cupola at the Cathedral of St. Matthew.
In her professional life, she says, “I was a recipient of sexual harassment — no doubt about it.”
When Charen saw the lineup of speakers, she was furious at the inclusion of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of far right French politician Marine Le Pen and the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front political party and a convicted Holocaust denier. That’s when Charen decided she wasn’t going to mince words.
Onstage, she also wanted to weigh in on Trump, whose videotaped comments boasting about grabbing women’s genitals were reported by The Washington Post during the campaign, who has been accused of harassment by several women (which he denies), and who is now facing allegations (also denied) of an affair with a porn star.
“I’m disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party. Who are sitting in the White House. Who brag about their extramarital affairs. Who brag about mistreating women,” she said, as her fellow panelists shifted uncomfortably. “And because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain.”
Undeterred by boos, she added: “The Republican Party endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama even though he was a credibly accused child molester. You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.”
And regarding Le Pen, she said: “I think the only reason she was here is because she’s named Le Pen,” Charen said. “And the Le Pen name is a disgrace. Her grandfather is a racist and a Nazi. She claims that she stands for him. And the fact that CPAC invited her is a disgrace.”
CPAC organizers have defended the decision to invite Le Pen, saying it is “antithetical to conservatism” to blame her for her grandfather’s views.
When Charen left the stage, security guards appeared. Her Uber went to the wrong exit, and they had to traverse the length of the building.
“It was almost comical,” she says.
The Twittersphere was erupting. Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam noted that Charen was a “never Trumper” and tweeted: “Frankly these people have no place at Trump-era CPACs anyway. They had their turn at the wheel and steered the West off the cliff of corporatism, neoliberalism, and open borders. Charen is done.”
Republican establishment figures, such as Bill Kristol, called her a “heroine.”
The next day, Charen says, one of her fellow panelists — she won’t say which — contacted her.
“She basically wanted to unburden herself,” Charen says at the Ethics & Public Policy Center. “She would have liked to support me onstage. She may still want to out herself as the secret supporter on the panel.”
Panelist Kelsey Harkness, of the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, had tweeted: “Do I agree with everything she said? No, but I agree with a lot of it. And most importantly, I believe she represents a legitimate perspective among conservative women that deserves to be heard.”
Harkness declined via email to elaborate. Panelist Ashley McGuire, of the Catholic Association, did not respond to an interview request.
Since leaving that stage, Charen has been shuttling from one television interview to another. But the negative remarks still sting.
“I don’t have a thick skin,” she says. “My feelings get hurt very easily.”
Charen’s idea of what the Republican Party ought to look like, she acknowledges, doesn’t “get people’s blood going.” She once flew to Indiana and offered to drop everything to help former federal budget director Mitch Daniels run for president. She liked that he is a “total wonk. Quiet.”
Now she thinks the only way forward for people like her in the Republican Party is to reach out to Democrats — and she’s suddenly in demand for liberal women’s groups and ‘lefty” radio programs.
“I don’t want to sound Kumbaya,” she says. “The poisonous polarization we’ve seen is so dangerous.”
The other day something happened that had taken place only once before in her four decades of nonstop opining. She got an invitation for a private meeting — with a Democratic senator.
She’s looking forward to it.