Some of the major problems dividing the Republican Party today happen to be the same ones that created massive structural barriers to throwing a raging party at the Conservative Political Action Conference: the fight between the old vs. the young, and the struggle to attract the ladies. Purity rings, lurking dads, tiny hotel rooms, a sad gender ratio — many obstacles stood in the way of having a good time in National Harbor, Maryland this weekend. Against these great odds, The Wire set out to find the fabled CPAC rager.
An unlikely ghost haunting the CPAC social scene is Stephen Glass, the ex-journalist who made up a bunch of stuff in The New Republic in the 90s. One of Glass's most famous pieces of fake journalism was a tale of hotel room debauchery at the conference. ("The minibar is open and empty little bottles of booze are scattered on the carpet..." etc.) The standard line, one uttered several times at CPAC parties in separate conversations by different people, is that Glass didn't need to make up the debauchery, because it is so easy to find conservatives gone wild at CPAC. One British conservative launched into an anti-mainstream media tirade because Slate's political podcast had been too easy on Glass's attempt to find a second career as a lawyer. Later, a reporter sighed, "if only he'd done the reporting!" and then showed a photo of the elephant ice sculpture College Republicans had done shots from the night before.
But the truth is, for most CPAC attendees, the sexy wild CPAC party remains elusive. The college kids are, by definition, conservative, even with the influx of libertarians. Explore your faint memories of college and you should recall that the kids involved in electoral politics were usually not the coolest kids in school. And worst of all, there just aren't that many women at CPAC.
In fact, a significant number of the CPAC-related personal ads on Craigslist involved hate sex. A group of gay men on Capitol Hill put up an ad proclaiming a desire to have oral sex "while I sign you up on the health care market place." Another read, "Radical libertarian would like to tie up and abuse proglodyte and leftover journalists." Another: "What I'm looking for, you, a masculine Ayn Rand, me, the 47%. And I want you to slap me around hard and give it to me good." A liberal lady seeking an ideological ally: "Sorry, conservatives, but I just don't find you attractive."
On Thursday, a group of young men from the University of Arizona approached the booth of The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, which was passing out anti-GOProud literature with a manic rainbow gopher gnawing away at social conservatism. "Don't you guys feel like you're alienating everyone under the age of 25?" asked a young man in fashionable glasses named Charles. TFP's John Horvat engaged them in a friendly debate, which eventually devolved, like so many dorm room discussions, into absurdity. Could religion be used to excuse any act? What about cannibalism? Horvat said cannibalism violated natural law, the rightful basis for modern law. Well, Charles asked, what about some kind of ritual eating of the dead? His pal Christopher chimed in, "Yeah, their bodies aren't even being used." Horvat smiled: "We digress."
The Arizona men were asked about libertarianism, young people, the future of Republican politics, and they all had smart, interesting answers, which were dutifully written down until The Wire could sneak in some questions to further our devious true agenda. We're they excited to finally meet conservative girls?
Charles bravely answered first. "You see groups of them walking around together," he said. "Some are the stereotypical sorority blondes. Others are like pre-law, in pantsuits. … It sort of speaks to the dichotomy within the GOP." One thing to watch out for was their left hands: "Are they wearing a wedding ring? Are they wearing a purity ring?"
Christopher was ambivalent. "I try not to follow them around, because I don't want to seem like a predator," he said. This is a "professional setting," and besides, "they might have their dad with them." But his friend had gotten a girl's number. By this time, the Arizona crowd had expanded from two to about five or six men. They all seemed proud of their friend who'd scored some digits. His name was Alex, and he explained what happened: "I was like, 'Hey, what's up?'" But she'd had "something on her finger." "She had a purity ring!" another guy yelled. They'd all clearly spent some time analyzing the woman's jewelry. "She had a purity ring on," Alex admitted. He said he probably wouldn't call her. The Wire encouraged him to try anyway. It could have been just fashion.
Alec Francen, cornered at the end of a Donald Trump meet-and-greet, had driven up with some friends from Emory, so "my social level today is not very high." He was reluctant to answer questions about CPAC debauchery. "When you guys were driving up, were you talking about it in the car? Like did you expect people to party hard or be more straight-laced?" The Wire asked. "I anticipated it to be the former," Francen said, looking at a spot on the wall nearby.
Later, The Wire interrupted a young man getting numbers from two women, and felt guilty. Kyle Kostuch, a Wisconsinite who, like so many young people at CPAC, said he was from the libertarian wing of the party, was more forthcoming than Francen. Was he excited to be around all these conservative women concentrated in one place? "That's the best part." Kostuch explained, "It's easier to connect with women when you share a common interest. … I've had such bad luck in my dating life. I don't know why," he said. "Maybe because they're all liberal."
On Thursday night, we knew of two official parties, which meant that we also knew that in order to find the good stuff, we'd eventually have to track down an unofficial hotel party. Blog Bash, held inside Bobby McKey's, a dueling piano bar, had an hour of free drinks, but unpleasant lighting and not much action. Across the street, GenOpp's Millennial Madness party was livelier, perhaps because no one seemed to be checking IDs. There was a glass box filled with fake money. Rand Paul happened to be there, sitting at a table in the corner. We seemed to spot him at the exact time as everyone else. “Just leave him alone, he’s just trying to have his dinner!” a sympathetic fan cried.
Someone had posted on the CPAC app about a party in "room 201" so we hunted through the Gaylord, found the room, and put our ears on the door. Nothing. We saw some guys in uniforms who worked in the hotel. Had they heard any strange noises? No. We walked back through the gigantic atrium, which had not only fake trees but a fake village, and stared up at a dozen floors of empty balconies. A slender young man was striding with confidence across the floor, eventually turning in the direction we'd just come from, as if he were on his way to 201. About 30 seconds later, he appeared in front of us. His name was Jack, and he, too, was searching for a party. "Why don't we get a drink till we find one?" he asked. His persistence was admirable.
We started wandering through the fancy hallway with the Swarovski crystal store. Soon we saw exactly what we were looking for: a pack of men with floppy hair, blazers, and loafers. We stopped them — had they heard about the wild College Republicans hotel party? Oh yes, the leader said proudly. "We had to leave because it was so packed you couldn't move." He was wearing a red elephant broach with his fraternity letters in gold. "You don't want to go there." But if we did want to go to the kind of hotel party where you couldn't move, what room number would that be? He wouldn't say. "I'm head of our state chapter of College Republicans, so I can't tell you," he explained, drunk with power. The Wire headed back to Millennial Madness.
We waded through the crowd toward a back room. As one of us approached the cheese table, a man complained the party was full of kids. The Wire told him that, at 42-years-old, he might be at the wrong party. He took off his hat to reveal a star-spangled yarmulke, and explained that he was looking for a wife at CPAC. “The problem with Jewish girls is that they all tend to be leftist and liberal,” he said. One more CPAC attendee looking for love.
Most of the time, a branded party is not one you want to go to — it feels lame and inorganic, and, worst of all, monitored, like those kids whose "cool" parents would let them drink beer in their basement. This was not true of one party: The Breitbart Speakeasy. Anything with the Breitbart brand had an electricity to it. Andrew Breitbart, more than two years after his death, still seems to be the most exciting cultural force within the party. No conservative since William F. Buckley had so excelled at celebrity. Say “Breitbart party” and people are immediately intrigued, imagining that within the walls the last days of Rome were taking place. Previous Breitbart parties were legendary. There had been a pony.
On Friday night, from the outside, the Breitbart party, in a fancy rowhouse near the Supreme Court, looked like another disappointment — a few guys in suits standing near the window. When we got in, we realized the suits were those of a 20-piece brass band. There was a champagne keg.
Andrew Breitbart's credentials for CPAC 2012 were displayed on the mantle with some Mardi Gras beads. A man sat at a table and hand-rolled cigars with a Breitbart label, and the backyard was so packed with cigar smokers that the party flowed into the garage, where people smoked next to an old mattress. A young man told Lucy he was happy to see a non-blonde woman, then asked if she was single, then asked for a hug. Two RNC staffers enthusiastically greeted each other by shouting "RINO!" One of them pointed her index finger upwards and put it against her nose, imitating a horn. "I'm a RINO! I'm a RINO! I'm a RINO!" she yelled, and then emitted a series of short, guttural grunts.
A Twitter fight came tantalizingly close to being brought to real life, because one invitee was BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins, the subject of a hit piece by Breitbart's Matthew Boyle over a profile of Donald Trump. During an earlier interview with Boyle on the state on Bretibart, Boyle effusively defended his piece. “That wasn’t journalism. BuzzFeed doesn’t do journalism, they do protection for the Democratic Party,” Boyle said. “They have great cat slideshows, I love them. It’s kind of funny, they like to boast about their traffic being through the roof, but most people aren’t reading their political stuff.” Alas, The Wire did not get to see the Trump-Coppins-Boyle feud come to life. Boyle later tweeted at Coppins, "thanks for coming! Glad to have had you! You should have introduced yourself to me!"
Among the many conservative all-stars spotted: voter ID law advocate Hans von Spakovsky, comeback evangelical Ralph Reed, sting video artist James O'Keefe, established conservative journalists like John Fund and Byron York, plus Raffi Williams, son of Juan Williams. There was a rumor Sarah Palin was coming, but she didn't materialize. But Rep. Louie Gohmert appeared, and he didn't just show up, shake hands, and duck out in half an hour, like you'd expect from a typical politician. The congressman had clearly come to party, because he stayed for hours.
The sad truth is that people tend to have the money to pay for debauchery long after they've passed their sexual prime to enjoy it. In the CPAC exhibition hall, an Arizona student had ticked through the many different schemes he'd come up with to get some outside organization to finance his trip; a few booths over, an older gentleman scoffed at all the geeky libertarian young men who wanted anarchy, because he could easily kill all of them without risking bodily harm to himself. Most of the Breitbart party attendees were middle-aged men.
Even so, there were a few youths to be found at the scene. Thanks to Lucy's British accent, we were pulled into the orbit of Raheem Kassam, the new managing editor of Breitbart London. While Breitbart News capitalizes on the Tea Party and hard right movement in the U.S., Breitbart London seeks to create one in the U.K. Kassam had the Breibart magic surrounding him too.
As the Breitbart party started to calm down after midnight, Kassam said the after-after-party was in the club on the roof of the Gaylord. On the sidewalk, Kassam had collected four other friends, including a South Carolinian in the commercial real estate business named Sinners. As our massive SUV taxi drove back to National Harbor, Sinners riffed on the investment opportunities in Washington's "ghetto," Anacostia. Real estate can't be destroyed, Sinners said, "but you can tear down whatever's there and build something new."
Eventually, we arrived in the rooftop club, somewhat sparsely populated with its white leather furniture lit with orange and purple and red tones. Kassam bought a couple bottles of Moet; he sent his friend Robert Towner to fetch some glasses. Non-CPAC people nearby seemed to wonder what was going on. Kassam offered a toast, his friends seemed to revel in being in the company of greatness. A reveler named Connor said he'd once worked for Rep. Steve Stockman, and that the failed Senate candidate was kind and sincere ("Can you be so honest that it's bad?"). He felt lucky to have been in the lobby and swept upstairs with the crowd as it headed to the club. "Honestly, I'm not cool enough for this," he said. The Wire told him this wasn't cool, it was just good lighting. A few minutes later, the bouncer ushered us towards the elevators. It was 2a.m., the hour the bars of our nation's capital close down. Maybe the anti-fun nanny state prevented us from finding the El Dorado of CPAC partying, but more likely, it never existed. Instead, we stood outside the hotel as a young man tried to demonstrate how to tie a bow tie while smoking a cigarette and holding a bottle of whisky in his pocket. It kept unraveling in his hands.
The Wire did not stay for the Saturday night parties, but a CPAC attendee messaged a summary of the atmosphere: "We went to this house party in Alexandria. It was creepy. Basically a Rand Paul cult."