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Turn to the Right 

A conservative icon draws one wandering soul back into the fold.

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By Mark Gauvreau Judge

A couple of months ago I thought I was finished with conservatism. Maybe it was just me. I do lack patience--I've had about 800 jobs in my 34 years and never stayed with a girl for more than six months. Anyway, I hated--still hate--the two faces of Bill Clinton, and at first I'd cheered the GOP obsession with nailing him. But as the sexual McCarthyism got worse, I found myself drifting. I started to feel the way I had after the crab feasts my buddies and I used to have down on the beach when we were in high school. We'd get a keg and a few bushels of Maryland's finest, and from sundown to pass out we'd sit around a table getting shit faced and gorging ourselves on crabs until we could barely get up to puke and our hands were bloody and raw from the shells. The next morning, hungover, we'd weakly pick over the empty carcasses, though we weren't really hungry.

I'd converted to the dark side in 1992, when the movement seemed fresh and exciting. Being a young radical leftist had become hard work. Like the hosts on Pacifica Radio, I had to twist every opinion and sociological phenomenon to fit a victim's worldview. America's foreign policy was responsible for everything wrong in the world. Minorities and the poor weren't to be held accountable for committing crime because the system made them do it. Gays should never be told to abstain from sex, even when doing so would save their lives, because they were an oppressed minority and their promiscuity was an innate and uncontrollable aspect of their being. Abortion at any time for any reason was justifiable. Oh yeah, and Republicans were satanic.

I took to the conservative agenda like a manic-depressive to Prozac. I embraced the free market, low taxes, less government, moral values, discipline in schools, civility, and self-restraint. All the things, in short, that made good common sense. I was really doing what neocon philosopher Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine, referred to as becoming a progressive--rejecting the failed nostrums of the last 30 years for something new.

But eventually the conservatives' failure to embrace a grand vision for the country--such as the procity agenda of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani--and the Orwellian atmosphere of the hunt for Clinton left me feeling enervated. Clinton's blood in the water had put the right in a senseless frenzy, without an agenda and blind to the damage Ken Starr's invasions could do to everyone's privacy. I found myself wondering if capital gains and school uniforms were all there was. I saw that conservatives' obsession with certain topics--homosexuality, affirmative action, Clinton's penis--never seemed to spill over into an obsession with more constructive, even visionary topics, such as detailed plans to revitalize the cities or help the poor who live in them.

I'd hoped to hear my concerns addressed when I recently attended the Young America's Foundation 20th annual National Conservative Student Conference in Washington, D.C. But I wasn't holding my breath. In fact, I skipped much of the conference once I saw who the scheduled speakers were, realizing that it would be the same boilerplate conservatism I'd heard a million times at a million different conferences. Dinesh D'Souza and Ed Meese would worship at the altar of Ronald Reagan, just as they had in January at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Prop 209 spearhead Ward Connerly would hold forth on racial quotas, the National Review's Kate O'Beirne on women in the military (guess which side she's on), talk-radio mouth and religious freak Janet Parshall (one of those born-agains who keep Jews and Muslims out of the party by sheer self-righteousness and can't get up to pee without thanking Jesus) on Jesus, and Bay Buchanan on the "culture wars."

After running down this list of greatest hits, I decided I'd rather endure a Jethro Tull concert. So I spent most of the week dicking around Washington--swimming in a friend's pool, visiting my brother who works at the Capitol (about ten feet from where that shooting took place), and hanging out in Georgetown, where I used to get drunk every weekend in high school and college.

There was, however, one person I didn't want to miss--David Horowitz, who remained a towering figure in my consciousness, a man with an almost obsessive regard for the truth. He'd written brilliantly about the AIDS crisis, condemning the bathhouses that spread the disease and the political correctness that prevented them from being shut down without denouncing homosexuality itself. His autobiography, Radical Son, is perhaps the greatest indictment of leftism ever committed to paper--well, next to Whittaker Chambers's Witness. Horowitz's intelligence is blinding, his prose electrifying, his outrage precise. This guy has balls. If anyone could act as Viagra to my flaccid right-wing convictions, it was him. I thought that if I could corner him I might convince him to convince other conservatives to drop the gay thing and put some real energy into helping the cities and the poor.

I arrived early to hear Horowitz--so early that the previous speaker was still going. I was met at the door by a young woman who's been hosting this conservative shindig for several years. I don't want to say her name because she's one of those young right-wing girls who'd also made me bored with conservatism. I've never dated this woman, but I suspect she's representative of all the right-wing girls I have--impeccable hair, sharp white teeth, navy dress combos that go to the knees, great looks, and the eroticism of a sea turtle. Really conservative girls don't put out. The last one I went out with pulled away when I tried to hold her hand. Her rule, she told me, was no holding hands until we were seriously dating, no kissing until the engagement, and no boot knocking until the wedding night. I told her to have a nice celibate life. I mean, I grew up dating Catholic girls, and many of them were conservative. But they were human. They might make you work for it for a few months, but they'd eventually give it up.

Inside the conference room about a hundred young right-wingers were listening to Floyd Brown, head of Citizens United and sometime guest on Politically Incorrect. Like everyone else there, Floyd hated Bill Clinton. "The American people and the media say they didn't know how bad Bill Clinton was before he got in office!" he cried in a nasal whine, sounding like that infomercial dork who says you can be a millionaire by selling crap through newspaper ads. "Well, let me tell you, friends, I wrote a book called Slick Willie that was published before Clinton was in office! The media knew, make no mistake about it. The New York Times and the rest of the media knew. But they engaged in a conspiracy to keep it a secret, because they agreed with Clinton's ideology." Brown then ranted about how the scandals revealed not the iniquity of Bill Clinton so much as the "moral inadequacies" of the American people. "Character does count!" he thundered, hitting the podium. No one applauded. It was after lunch, and the kids were pretty sleepy--though two of them did look at each other and chuckle.

Brown was dispatched to make way for Horowitz, who was much shorter than I'd thought he would be--only about five foot six. Something about his goatee, receding hairline, and stern visage made him look taller in his photos. But the man had stature. His speech outlining the basic story of Radical Son was one conservatives had heard many times before. Still, he had a way of making his transition from editor of the radical mag Ramparts and head of the New Left to Reagan conservative riveting. He didn't rant. He simply stated the facts clearly and logically--though with a high level of passion. His parents, he told us, were members of the American Communist Party. It was, he said, "a vast international conspiracy that had treason in its heart." No honest historian or journalist would deny this, yet I'd never heard it put in such stark, stripped terms. He then described the grim episode that began his journey to the right, the murder of his friend Betty Van Patter at the hands--or so he claimed--of the Black Panthers. In the early 70s young radical Horowitz had bought a church in Oakland for the Panthers to use as a school, and he'd hired Van Patter to keep the books. A few months later, after Van Patter apparently tried to straighten out some discrepancies in the books, she was found in San Francisco Bay.

In Radical Son Horowitz suggests that former Panther leaders Huey Newton and Elaine Brown might be responsible for the crime. "I knew that if the Panthers were involved, it was Elaine who had given the order," he writes. Brown went on to run for the Oakland city council (she lost, with 44 percent of the vote). The following year her political ally Jerry Brown became governor and hired a Panther lawyer for his legal affairs team--a story neither network shows nor news magazines would touch. "What do you think would happen," Horowitz asked the kids, "if the conservative mayor of a city was linked to a right-wing militia that was being investigated for murder?"

Horowitz next claimed that there are now millions more communists in America than there were during the Red Scare--just look on any college campus. The left, he said, is really a religion. Its belief is that it can create heaven on earth by having the government change human behavior. "Humans can be intractably self-destructive and stupid," he said. "Anyone who doesn't think so should be forced to watch Jerry Springer for a week." He then took a shot at Jack Nicholson, who'd just got back from Cuba and was calling Castro "a genius and a humanitarian." "This is a truly sadistic dictator," Horowitz said.

All good stuff, if nothing out of the ordinary. It wasn't until the question-and-answer session that something amazing happened.

One of the young guns got up and asked how conservatives could get more minorities in the party. And then Horowitz launched into a tirade that I wanted to put on a plaque and hang over my bed. He started with school choice, saying that every time the liberals kill a school-choice opportunity, somewhere a black kid and his family suffer. "You know what we should do?" he said. "We should place an ad on TV. It'll be footage from when George Wallace stood in the doorway of the Alabama public school and wouldn't let the black kids come in. We start with that, then Wallace morphs into Ted Kennedy. That's what the liberals are doing. That's the irony of the whole thing--the liberals are supposed to be for the minority, but everything they've done, from welfare to killing school choice, has hurt them."

He wasn't done. "Why aren't there more blacks and Hispanics in this room?" he asked. Everyone looked around uncomfortably. "These should be our people. Black people are conservative. They are churchgoing, faithful people. We should be their natural allies."

I almost leapt out of my chair. Yes, yes! I wanted to cry.

Horowitz got through the entire speech without thanking Jesus or hammering gays. (I'm a Catholic who loves Jesus, so don't get me wrong. But some of these born-agains are just plain nuts.)

When he ended he was immediately mobbed by groupies. I hustled out the door with the rest of the throng. Oliver North was coming up soon, but frankly I thought I'd rather jerk off. I got in line and waited for about ten minutes while Horowitz smiled and signed autographs. I had nothing for him to sign. I just wanted to tell him he was on the right track. The right had to concentrate on the basics, but it had to help minorities and the cities--the cradle of our civilization. I got it in my head to tell him about how the federal highway system, the largest and costliest government program in the history of the country, had ruined our cities and destroyed many self-sufficient minority neighborhoods, most of them in urban areas. By attacking it we could attack big government and the suburbs and reclaim the cities for the right.

It was my turn. I was face-to-face with the great man. He reached out to take what I wanted him to sign, then realized I didn't have anything.

"We have to stop bashing gays and attack the federal highway system," I said.

Jesus, what a moron. I guess I was a little nervous. Before I could say anything else, the guy behind me pushed for his turn.

"Uh, OK," Horowitz said, giving me a quizzical look.

I headed for the exit. I'd made a fool of myself, but Horowitz had just said things that need to be said if the Republicans are going to be the party of the 21st century and not the 15th. Maybe it wasn't time to give up on the cause after all.

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