In 1994, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, fed up with stories about the much ballyhooed left-leaning Renaissance Weekends that then-President Bill Clinton had popularized, decided it was time for right-leaning figures like her to have a conference of their own. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Ingraham called her conference the "Dark Ages Weekend," and invited some of her friends to a weekend symposium that included a speech defending the Dark Ages by Supreme Court Justice wannabe, Robert Bork.
Two years ago I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the Renaissance Weekend and wrote about it here, describing the weekend as an "intellectual feast." This weekend I've had the equally spectacular privilege of being invited to its ideological counterpart, now called The Restoration Weekend held in Palm Beach, Fla., which has been sponsored for 17 years by a group called the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Having attended both confabs, I am reminded again about the importance of ideas and the importance of events like these -- events at which interesting thinkers can sort of market test their ideas and put forth solutions to the problems that plague us today.
The mood at Restoration was somber, in part because of the election results that disappointed many of the attendees, but more poignantly because of the rockets raining down on Israel during the event. I overheard one Jewish attendee on the phone with his daughter in Israel, urging her to seek shelter and repeating a story she had told him of civilians singing for soldiers as a way of thanking them for their protection and their service.
There were several themes that emerged from Restoration speakers that may be an indication of where the conservative moment is headed: First, they are very, very angry at Chris Christie and more than one speaker consigned him to a sort of conservative penalty box for his Obama/Hurricane Sandy photo-op while others were weirded out by Christie's odd, weepy, Springsteen fetish. There was also a general resignation in the face of Obamacare and a realization that the president has successfully remade the country in his image -- at least on that one issue. But there were also calls from the House to fight back by refusing to fund various measures that the president might pass by executive order.
Finally, there seems to be a belated realization among these attendees, many of them older, that culture is downstream from politics, and that their attempts to change the political culture have failed largely because they've ignored pop culture, perhaps hoping if they did so it might go away. That realization was connected by more than one speaker to the funds that were wasted by Karl Rove and other political consultants and which should have been spent on creating culture instead.
Several speakers among the group of conservative stalwarts like Bachmann, Gingrich, Ingraham, Coulter, Krauthammer, D'Souza and others took great pains to describe Mitt Romney as a decent man even as they attacked him for showing up to a Chicago-style gun fight in his Sunday best. When I attended the Renaissance Weekend, President Obama had just taken his "shellacking" in the midterm elections and even many of his ardent supporters were wondering if he would survive. At the Restoration Weekend, that issue was clearly settled and the question that hung unspoken in the air was whether or not Conservativism could regroup, find a new leader, and live to fight another day.
I've enjoyed both conferences immensely and hope to return. And I continue to hope that one day the two sides will meet -- as they often did on the old Fred Friendly programs on PBS -- and provide robust discussions between the left and the right, the kinds of discussions that allow the best ideas to rise to the top and the foolish ones to be consigned to the dustbin of history.