My Lost Weekend
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."