By the time we got to firing off the water-cooled, tripod-mounted, 30-caliber machine gun at the NRA-run Ben Avery gun range a half-hour north of here on the Saturday after New Year’s, I really began to worry. This was getting dangerous. At any moment, it seemed, one of these conservative foot soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder with me, suffering from impeachment-induced delirium, might drop his weapon and–while screaming “Victory!”–go fling himself directly into the line of fire.

You’d think that a gathering of more than 300 top-flight conservative pundits, politicians and activists taking place ten days after a presidential impeachment and barely a week before a Senate trial, both triggered by a Republican majority vote, might be a moment of high celebration.

Instead, attending the third annual “Weekend” event reminded me of being in Baghdad a week before the 1991 bombing. On the surface it was all business as usual. But you just didn’t know how many of these people around you would be dead in the days to come. Some were bound to perish in the coming Larry Flynt barrage. Others would be listed as Killed in Action in the Henry Hyde Brigade. And given the recent histories of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston, it was certain–and has become more evident in the days since the Weekend–that some others would find heretofore unknown methods to self-destruct.

Organized three years ago as a counter to the presidentially preferred touch-me-feel-me Renaissance Weekend, the conservative Weekend is supposed to be a much more straightforward, more cerebral sort of political forum on the future of the right. Nevertheless, it was all I could do not to obsess on my fellow Weekenders’ pain. Over four nights at the tony Arizona Biltmore, Dan Quayle, Laura Ingraham, Bill Kristol, Matt Drudge, John McCain, J.C. Watts, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Himself came to commune with any of the troops willing to pay the $750 admission (plus an equal hotel bill). And while they may have, indeed, collected here to praise The Revolution, it sure smelled like a burial to me.

Impeachment? What Impeachment?

In a greetings speech, Weekly Standard editor and ABC gasbag Bill Kristol did his best to set a properly upbeat tone. “The stock market is up and Bill Clinton has been impeached,” he proclaimed. “What more can you ask for?” Frankly, I asked for yet one more free vodka-cranberry at the generously open bar. And just about everyone else also politely applauded Kristol and then went about their own drinking. And why not? Call it surreal, but just at the moment when all of America was being forced to deal with only the second presidential impeachment in the nation’s history, that nasty little subject barely came up during The Weekend. With GOP favorability ratings at their lowest point since Watergate, there seemed to be a general reluctance by Republican pooh-bahs to discuss just exactly how those dismal numbers had been achieved. “Republicans are unbelievably lame on this subject,” said Weekend organizer (and former sixties radical) David Horowitz. “They should have shut this impeachment business down a long time ago. It’s turned suicidal.”

Talk about lame. And even when the subject did come up, it was hardly draped in the majestic robes of state business. After Henry Hyde canceled his Weekend luncheon appearance, none other than Matt Drudge was called in to sub. Perhaps this swap was really a Republican dirty trick designed to swaddle chairman Hyde with an extra layer of credibility and gravitas–at least compared with Drudge. The cyber-gossip spun a self-serving yarn, posing as the poster boy for “the power of the individual” and claiming–with a straight face no less–that he was still “wearing hand-me-downs.” Matt’s advice on impeachment: full speed ahead. A similar cheer came from Tom Phillips, owner and operator of Human Events magazine, the Christian Family Book Club, Eagle Publishing, Regnery Books and therefore publisher of right-wing screamers like Ann Coulter and Gary Aldrich. By 8:55 am on the Weekend’s first morning, Phillips had successfully bored even the faithful as he droned on about how he’s turned the impeachment drive into a multimillion-dollar commercial bonanza. “What is bad for the country is good for Eagle Publishing,” the rather orangy-haired Phillips boasted. “As Western civilization has declined we have had a wonderful year! Seven successful anti-Clinton books! We took six of them and put them in a shrink-wrapped sixpack for $99.”

Don’t get me wrong. There was some impeachment analysis a bit less entrepreneurial in spirit. Bill Kristol publicly worried that “Bill Clinton is winning. Bill Clinton is winning. He’s more popular than Reagan. We must have courage.” Republican senators–on the verge of the trial–are “very nervous,” Kristol said. “They’re afraid a full trial will have a political cost. And it might. But we need to go ahead with a full proceeding and not cave in to the compromise of a little mock trial.”

Kristol’s macho posture evoked hearty applause. But in private there was fear. Even some loathing. “On Election Day, California was a Republican massacre. Now I’m afraid this could go nationwide in 2000,” confided a ranking official of the California Republican Party. “I think Bill Kristol embodies our problem. Go out and do the right thing and damn the polls, he says. Easy for him to say. How much does he make at ABC? He doesn’t have to go out and get re-elected.”

A former aide to recently departed Governor Pete Wilson described a similar fix. “People here were scared by the election results,” he said. “And they are scared of what will come. They’re defensive about impeachment. A sort of denial. Basically, they just do not know how to deal with Clinton’s ideological acquiescence to the right. He’s left them without an agenda.”

‘Conservatism With a Heart’

Chastened by the Election Day drubbing that turned California into what one wag called a “one-party state,” Left Coast Weekenders seemed disproportionately reasonable and critical. Mike Madrid, a former political director of the California Republican Party and a young academic who spent three years studying Latino voter patterns, warned that any successful GOP bid for the White House in 2000 would require winning California, Texas and Florida. And that, in turn, would mean winning over a significant Latino vote. Maybe as much as 30 percent of the Latinos in California. In 1996 Bob Dole won 8 percent of California Latinos. “What we Republicans did in eight months, the Democrats couldn’t do in thirty years,” Madrid complained. “We mobilized the Latino electorate–against us.”

Republicans have a formidable task in playing catch-up on race. Watergate felon and talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy thought GOP chances to take back the White House in 2000 would be improved by the popularity of George W. Bush among Latinos. Said Liddy: “[His] brown babies will appeal to those people.”

But it’s not just Liddy’s fruitcake fringe that doesn’t get it on race matters. The mainstream party machine is equally clueless. The Republican National Committee has established a new minority outreach effort called the New Majority Council. Its chair–a white woman named Patricia Harrison–is a longtime party hack and a co-chair of the RNC. “Our Republican majority will depend on a majority of minorities voting for Republican candidates,” said Harrison at a Weekend panel. As lures for those minority votes, Harrison proposed a capital gains tax reduction. As for the African-American vote–well, Harrison theorized, that was as much as in the bag. Said the head of GOP outreach, “The Republican Party should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for ending welfare.” “Much of what the GOP is doing now as a remedy on race will not be successful,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire and former Republican California gubernatorial candidate. “Frankly, it’s just tokenism. The same people who three years ago threatened to kick Latino immigrants out of public school today say they just love Latinos.”

To his credit, Weekend organizer David Horowitz did take a more serious stab at injecting the notion of civil rights into the conservative body politic. He set aside an entire evening for what he called Conservatism With a Heart–the Republicans’ politically correct euphemism for what liberals celebrate as “diversity.”

“Clinton comes off as a Republican with a heart,” Horowitz told the Weekenders in introducing the special evening. “Compassion is our missing weapon.”

Then a small parade of conservative African-Americans took turns at the podium. Talk-show host Larry Elder reassured us that there were no more racists in America than there were people who claim to have spotted Elvis.

Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts–number-four man in the new GOP House leadership–lectured: “If we conservatives want to dominate into the next millennium we need to learn to smile…. It’s not going to break our necks to be nice…and some of our people are not nice.”

Oakland NAACP leader Shannon Reeves extolled a deal he cut with a major oil company to open up a handful of inner-city gas stations–a few of them with “learning centers” built immediately adjacent to the stations’ convenience stores.

But the undeniable highlight of the evening came during the fiery speech by John Bryant, who runs a minority financial foundation in Los Angeles. As Bryant urged the Biltmore audience to “interact” with him as if in a Baptist church, he worked toward his message-laden crescendo. “There’s a difference between being broke and being poor,” Bryant thundered. Broke means not having any money. But being poor, said Bryant, was only a self-defeating state of mind. And with that a mighty and collective “Amen!” rang out from a chorus of beefy, ruddy-skinned Republicans decked out in yacht club blazers and Italian loafers. This loud chorus only emphasized the obvious fact that while all the evening’s speakers were black, it’s also true that all the blacks were speakers.

Whip Me! Beat Me!

Several attempts were made during The Weekend to find or at least conjure that elusive Republican Agenda. Arizona Senator John McCain showed up and gave an open-to-the-press speech kicking off his presidential explorations. But the enthusiastic welcome he received melted into polite forbearance as he hammered out a half-hour’s worth of mechanical, mainstream boilerplate. His appeals to “pride in our national heritage” and his self-definition as a “proud Reagan Republican” did little to fill in the Republican road map to the White House. “I was really very disappointed,” said the increasingly iconoclastic columnist Arianna Huffington after hearing McCain’s address. “His campaign consultants are Vin Weber, Ken Duberstein and Mike Deaver. You know, the people who brought us ‘Dare to Be Dole.'” At least I think that’s what Arianna said. Through her Greek accent I had trouble making out the last word. She might have said dull, not Dole. Same difference.

It was left to Jim Nicholson, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee, to define a new Republican charter. I have to admit that I felt a lot of pity for the guy. With probably half the party leadership living in fear of Larry Flynt and the Christian conservatives demanding more human sacrifices, it can’t be easy trying to maintain any semblance of control. But I must have been the only person in the room on Nicholson’s side. All that discomfort Republicans are feeling (if not admitting) about the political moment was focused like a laser beam on chairman Nicholson. Boos, hisses, catcalls and spirited denunciations from the floor met his undeniably vapid attempts at explaining the party’s predicament. He spoke wistfully of a “disconnect” between Republican message and agenda. But there was “very good reason to be optimistic,” he said. Even if there was no visible agenda today or, for that matter, a national Republican leader, they would soon emerge. “Within fifteen months,” Nicholson promised.

That really sent the troops into a tizzy of scorn. Huffington, also sitting on the panel, razzed Nicholson by trashing Newt Gingrich and chiding the party for being “royalist and Stalinist, allowing no debate,” and for adopting a stance embarrassingly soft on “corporate welfare” and one given to defining “morality as sexual morality.” The GOP, she said, was rudderless. “If you have tears to shed,” Huffington continued, “get ready to shed them the first time Denny Hastert appears on Meet the Press.”

But the real knockout punch was delivered by Jimmy Carter’s former pollster, Patrick Caddell (a sometime contributor to The Nation and occasional writing partner of this author). There must be one recalcitrant ember of sixties radicalism still smoldering in David Horowitz’s otherwise wholly Republican soul. For it was truly an act of provocation for him to have invited the former Democratic strategist as a Weekend speaker.

Caddell, sitting on the dais with Nicholson, unleashed a torrent of critical abuse on the GOP and its leadership, at one point comparing the party to the bumbling and hapless 1962 Mets. Caddell won the most sustained standing ovation of the Weekend when he thrashed the Republicans for having alienated the electorate by staging a partisan impeachment of the President on the basis of the Paula Jones case while not going after Clinton for transgressions of much greater importance–such as campaign finance violations. “The House vote on the [impeachment] inquiry was transparently partisan,” an excitable Caddell said. “Every dummy knew that the inquiry [should have ended] January 4. But noooo! The Republicans had to ramrod through their own proposal; they rolled out the steamroller, and there for all to see was Mister Ethics himself, Newt Gingrich, smirking and laughing, making this whole thing look like nothing more than vengeful payback.”

My Dinner With Newt

Don’t get me wrong. The same audience that cheered Caddell as a hero was, two evenings later, panting in expectation of the counsel of the same ex-Speaker Gingrich. The banquet room buzzed and crackled as we chewed through dinner in the moments before Newt’s keynote speech.

First came the warm-up acts. There was an a cappella rendition of the national anthem by one of my table companions, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s former White House reporter. Then, another tablemate, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, rose to read a letter from Viagra spokesman Bob Dole to Newt Gingrich reassuring him that “the revolution will continue.” Next came a bizarre political specimen in the form of Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler. The mayor held us spellbound as he recounted the conversion he underwent from liberal Democrat to Republican free-marketeer–all thanks to repeated listening to “the voice of Newt Gingrich” via the ousted Speaker’s set of GOPAC tapes.

And then, Newt. Listening to Gingrich one is reminded just what sort of symbiotic twin he is of Bill Clinton’s. Forget their supposed and stated ideological differences. What both men have in common is an uncanny talent that has allowed them to pass off the truly mundane nuts and bolts of hack politics as some sort of glorious architecture of vision and passion. Clearly, Clinton is the more talented of the two. But Newt’s no slouch.

Who else could take such Republican leftovers as tax cuts, military buildup and privatization and so shamelessly and dramatically unveil them as a historically significant menu carefully written after months–or is it years?–of deep introspection?

He artfully dodged any half-serious analysis of his or the party’s responsibility for its November defeat and its grim current ratings. The defeat, he said, was a product of the leadership, i.e., of Gingrich himself being “tired…exhausted from managing the House.” And impeachment? That word never crossed the lips of the man who once vowed he would never again make a speech without referring to the crimes of Bill Clinton. Instead, in speaking of the looming impeachment trial, Gingrich gingerly referred to the “immediate tactical questions before us.” “The party should stand for rule of law and for the Constitution,” he said with dramatic emphasis, “no matter what the cost.” Once again the mantra of those who no longer have anything to lose. Or never did.

You Say Potato[e]

With Gingrich having regurgitated the same-old-same-old as the plan for the future, there was one last chance for someone at The Weekend to better define the missing Republican Agenda–Dan Quayle. On the morning after Gingrich’s talk, with The Weekend officially over and most of the participants already winging back home, the former Vice President held a breakfast chat with about two dozen of us stragglers to discuss his current presidential crusade. After joking about the heat that RNC chair Nicholson took over the party’s lack of program, Quayle waxed serious. Jabbing at the air he said, “About this big debate on when the Republican agenda is going to emerge, I say, Now! Right now!” Finally, I thought. It was worth getting up early on Sunday to see Quayle. I flipped open my notebook, ready to write down the former Veep’s prescription. But no way.

“I’ll be unveiling a new tax proposal,” Quayle said. “Next week.”

“And second thing,” he continued. “Over the next several months I will be making speeches on foreign policy, the great orphan of the last two elections.”

Quayle concluded by asserting–details of his program still outstanding–“I’m prepared to lead. I’m prepared to win.”

I prepared my bags.