There may no better evidence of how quickly things can change in the political realm than my experience with CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference going on in Washington this week). This familiarity has also revealed to me what a fraud the entire affair is and why it should be ridiculed, or at least disregarded, by observers of all ideological stripes.
In 2009, after having spoken there the previous two years, I was a co-sponsor of CPAC because my film Media Malpractice about the 2008 presidential election was being released that week (I appeared live on the Today Show that Monday). Sarah Palin, the unofficial star of my film, was still governor of Alaska and could not attend the conference.
For all intents and purposes, I was Palin's representative at CPAC that year, hosting two large screenings of the news-making interview that I did with her for the documentary and speaking about the media bias against her.
In 2010, I did not even attend CPAC, mostly because the previous fall I had gotten into a video confrontation with the then head of the American Conservative Union (which runs CPAC) David Keene, which exposed his antipathy for Palin as well as his highly questionable ethical practices. At the time I was still in close contact with Palin and it was very clear to me that this episode played an important role in her deciding to skip CPAC that year as well as again in 2011.
Now, in 2012, Keene is no longer the head of the ACU, I have come out strongly against what Sarah Palin has become, and Palin is going to be the "keynote" speaker at this week's conference.
If someone had told me at the 2009 CPAC that by 2012 this would be the lay of the land I would have been more shocked than if I had been informed that in the ensuing time period Tiger Woods would become a scandal ridden and mediocre golfer, Joe Paterno would be fired in disgrace because of something an ex-assistant coach was alleged to have done, and Rick Santorum (who was largely ignored at that year's CPAC) would be a leading contender for the presidency.
I share this incredible evolution of events not just because they show how bizarre the world can be, but also because they have given me a unique insight and perspective on what CPAC really is all about (and, just as importantly, the willingness to reveal it publicly).
The most significant truth people need to understand about CPAC is that, like far too many entities in the conservative realm, it is business pretending to be promoting a cause. The allowing of Donald Trump (an obvious self-promoter with no conservative credentials or credibility) to speak last year, for what I am sure was a healthy "donation" in return, should have proven this case beyond any question, but my direct experience serves as further evidence of this obvious reality.
Mike Huckabee has described CPAC as a "pay for play" organization and he is absolutely correct, except he understates the inherently corrupt nature of the event.
When I was a co-sponsor I sat in all of the planning meetings to determine who would speak when and about what topics. At the time (not yet having gone through the maelstrom that would be the effort to promote Media Malpractice), I was remarkably naïve. I actually thought that speakers were chosen based on their credibility, loyalty to the movement, accomplishments and ability to give a good speech. I might as well have thought that the contestants in Trump's Miss Universe pageant are selected purely based on their SAT scores.
Instead, it was extremely clear that speakers were chosen based only on who could do the most for CPAC/ACU as an organization. The hierarchy of qualities to qualify one for a prime speaking slot seemed to be, in reverse order of importance: friendship with the organizers, sponsorship of the event, and the ability to create positive publicity for the conference.
So, in reality, it isn't really "pay for play," but something which is even worse. One's celebrity within the movement or ability to get coverage for the conference, as well as one's personal relationships with the ACU, are what really rule how the conference operates. If it was purely based on "pay for play," at least then everyone would at least know what the rules are, but this is not the case.
Specifically, I remember three prime examples of the way decisions were actually made.
During the planning meetings for the 2009 conference I raised strong objections to three names which had been proposed as speakers. They were Joe Scarborough (on whose show I have appeared several times), Jerome Corsi and Frank Luntz.
It had been clear that Scarborough had sold out the conservative cause in 2008 by being remarkably soft on Obama while being the only alleged "conservative" on the clearly left-wing MSNBC network. Similarly, Luntz had been used by the media on numerous occasions to show how much Obama appealed to "conservatives," and had even fully participated in a documentary where he tried to help Hollywood liberals with their political messaging.
Now, it is certainly within the rights of people like Scarborough and Luntz to do what they think they have to do in order to make a living and stay "famous," but I strongly believe that when you sell out like they have that this forces you to give up the right to be allowed to still be protected/elevated by the "cause."
As for Corsi, he had already revealed himself to be a nut by embracing 9/11 conspiracy theories and the Obama birth certificate scam.
David Keene (a year before I exposed him on video) indicated in front of all the other co-sponsors that the objections I raised were very legitimate and that they would be acted on. But somehow, all three ended up being prominently placed on the schedule for speakers (though I seem to remember that Luntz didn't actually end up attending the event).
It was obvious to me how this ended up happening. Corsi paid the ACU in some form and the others were deemed to be large enough "celebrities" that their past sins didn't matter. I am sure it was just a coincidence that Scarborough just happened to broadcast his radio show live from radio row at CPAC that year.
Being a business rather than a cause (while marketing one's self as exactly the opposite) ends up creating quite a few odd couplings and has gotten CPAC in several sticky situations.
CPAC power-broker Grover Norquist has angered many foreign policy conservatives by essentially preventing the presence of many opponents of radical Islamic terrorism at the conference. I can remember vividly Rick Santorum (who could still be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012) being forced to speak on the subject after the conference was over on the other side of the hotel in front of a small crowd which was far more concerned with loudly finishing their buffet dinner.
Then there is the flap over GOProud (a group of Republicans who support gay rights/marriage) being prevented from being a co-sponsor of CPAC. Conservative blogger and CPAC regular Andrew Breitbart promised to boycott the 2012 version in protest, but decided to renege on that pledge (laughably because he realized it was an election year!) when he didn't get enough publicity for it and his lead wasn't followed.
Having spent quite a bit of time with Breitbart at past CPACs, I can assure you that there was a better chance of Donald Trump turning down a prominent television interview than there was that Andrew would miss the chance to soak in the adulation of the crowd and get the opportunity to network for his business. This is especially true since I am quite confident that by ending his "boycott" before it even began that he was rewarded with a better speaking slot.
The key to the CPAC scam is that the vast majority of the conservative media has a great disincentive to expose it. Almost all of the top radio and television talk show hosts, as well as the most important bloggers, have spoken at CPAC and love the ego stroke that comes along with getting to speak to a large crowd of extreme partisans. I had a prominent conservative media member praise me for my take down of Keene and promise future coverage of my crusade, only to later see them accept a major award from CPAC. People like me who dare to speak out are immediately discounted as being "disgruntled," or are just simply ignored.
So, I won't be there this weekend when Sarah Palin makes her CPAC debut and further discredits her phony campaign against "crony capitalism" by embracing the very worst elements of it within conservatism. I certainly won't be sad that I won't be in attendance, though I can't say I won't feel depressed about what it all says about the sorry state of the conservative movement.