Why shouldn’t you treat politicians like rock stars at CPAC (or anywhere else for that matter)?
One of my first memories of going to CPAC after I started working in DC was the over-the-top entrance of Newt Gingrich into the ballroom at the previous venue. Instead of just walking out from backstage, Gingrich pulled a stunt that professional wrestlers do at times and came in from the back of the ballroom through the crowd as “Eye of the Tiger” blared.
I remember that year and in subsequent years that whenever a politician came to the blogger lounge in the back of the main ballroom, there would be a swarm of people to surround them and there was some Q&A but most people just stood around and gawked and tried to get pictures made or just shake hands with the politician. There were usually 1 or 2 people in the room who would remain at their computers writing or otherwise working, and I would often be one of those after the first few times of finding the unruly gaggle around a politician a waste of time.
This isn’t the only time it happens. You can see people fawning all over politicians and falling at their feet all over during CPAC, often at the many parties or receptions going on when all sorts of things happen. Not to mention all the free labor people give to organizations or politicians just for a chance to hang out with VIPs or other political celebrities. The level of adoration some have for politicians approaches the level of teenage girls screaming and shrieking over One Direction or Justin Bieber.
The key thing to remember any time you are at CPAC or another conference or event where this kind of behavior tends to happen: these people work for you.
Sure, you can be inspired by the political figures who are great speakers and who are great on the issues. Clap for them, give them standing ovations, and otherwise give them affirmation. If you run into a politician you like shake hands with them, get your picture taken with them (if you must), and otherwise be nice to them like you would any new person you were meeting at CPAC, whether a politician or not. Just don’t debase yourself by turning into a groupie for every politician or recognizable person you see.
Just remember, these are normal people who just happen to have gotten elected to office. They are nothing special. Remember, our founders thought our leaders would be farmers who left the fields to serve and then after their term in office was done they would return to the plow.
I honestly think most people assume that this type of behavior at CPAC (along with the complaints about inappropriate dress and the out of control partying) is limited to all the college students who are there, but honestly that stereotype is a bit flawed. The grown-ups at CPAC are just as guilty of any bad behavior as those crazy college kids. So, don’t assume that my rant about people losing their mind when Ted Cruz walks into the room is meant as a criticism of college students.
I have talked to others about this as well, and the consensus seems to be the first year you attend CPAC you’re at your most enthusiastic. You go to every big name speaker, you go to the exhibit hall and get freebies and brochures from every booth, you go to book signings and other events, and generally, to again invoke professional wrestling, you mark out (i.e. you’re a mark) for every activity and politician at CPAC (a mark is someone who idolizes a particular wrestler, often to the point of excessiveness.)
After your first year, your enthusiasm wanes, especially if you’re attending for work. You get to the point that you’re going for the networking and to see friends you might not have seen since CPAC the year before. Your idealism wanes and is replaced by a creeping cynicism. This cynicism is a good thing for a conservative to have. A healthy cynicism of government and politicians is a good thing, even if they happen to be on your “team.”
If you let your cynicism kick in even further you respond to friends who still call CPAC the “Super Bowl” of the conservative movement by pointing out that the DC conservative movement appears to be nothing but a money laundering scheme for the people involved in it. In year 2, or later, you find yourself not coming into town on Saturday since the previous two days were work for you.
Extreme cynicism is probably best avoided, but so is extreme boosterism. Sure, the movement needs its less sophisticated “go team, go” people involved on the ground in the grassroots, but those aren’t the type of people you expect to be in grassroots leadership or at the forefront of the movement at events like CPAC.
The point of my rant is, do whatever you want at CPAC, but do as much as you can to spend time with your friends you might not have seen in a while. Chat up a stranger, whether it’s someone at CPAC or the shoeshine guy at the hotel. CPAC can be a great learning experience as well as a great place to watch people. If you really want to work hard and bust your hump in the conservative movement, network with strangers or friends of friends and find a bigger role in the movement. You have something valuable to provide or you wouldn’t be there. Don’t let the cynics like me get you down if you are still an idealist, but also remember what I said before you run into a wall of cold, hard reality and it catches you totally by surprise.
You can have a good time at CPAC without damaging your own credibility or making a fool out of yourself fawning over somebody who works for you ultimately. Politicians need people reminding them they’re human, not people encouraging their excesses. There are still humble politicians around (e.g. Mick Mulvaney and Dan Bongino.)
We shouldn’t put our politicians on a pedestal whether at CPAC or anywhere else. Ask them tough questions, praise them when they do good, but also express your polite criticism when you disagree.
Being at CPAC is about more than wasting your time with a bunch of politicians. If it isn’t too frigid, hop the water taxi over to Old Town Alexandria when you get a chance (or take a cab) and walk along the streets where some of our founding fathers walked. Go to the some of the great restaurants at National Harbor and check out the Awakening statue.
I’ve been a political junkie for at least 25 years now and while I still like following politics and writing about them, there are so many other things that are more important to me now. My best experience at CPAC all-time now was Saturday last year when I got to bring my wife and 6-month old daughter to CPAC so all of my friends at CPAC could meet her. I didn’t follow any schedule at all related to what was going on in the convention hall. I didn’t have to rush to go anywhere and it really reminded me of what is important in life.
I will be at CPAC this year but I’m looking at it differently now. I’m going as credentialed media (a blogger) and I will likely be going to a couple of happy hours or parties while I’m there. I’ll do what I do and look forward to seeing my friends more than anything else.
You can love this rant or hate it and it won’t matter to me. All I want you to do is think about the facts I’ve presented, especially these:
- You, no matter what your lot in life, are just as important as any politician. Your vote on election day is the only reason this rock star atmosphere is necessary for them to try to keep getting re-elected.
- Spending time with your friends is more important than any bit of chum or swag from some non-profit (who pays six figure salaries to their leadership) who is only giving it to you to get you on their email list so they can send you spam to ask you to give them your hard-earned money later.
- Don’t mistake my cynicism with me being a hater. I still love DC. I love following politics and writing about it. I just am probably very old for my 40 years. Take this as a warning to concern yourselves more with the things that matter than putting your faith in a politician of any party.
- I’m not indicting every politician, politico, policy wonk, staffer, or organization in this rant. There are plenty of fine people in the conservative movement and CPAC. The bad apples just spoil the whole barrel at times.
I will be at CPAC, like I said. No matter what I say about it, I’m a conservative blogger and it’s the big thing happening this week. I’ll be around mainly Thursday and Friday. Follow my Twitter feed if you want to have a civil conversation about this topic and we can get together over a beer or coffee or talk in the lobby. I may be there Saturday, but the odds are not as good now that I am participating at a kickoff rally for my local 40 Days for Life campaign in the morning. Later, at evening Mass at my parish, I am joining my Brother Knights (in the Knights of Columbus) and handing out baby bottles for a Lenten campaign to raise money for a local crisis pregnancy center. Those activities, and spending time with my daughter, are more important than coming into CPAC on a Saturday now.
I’ve laid out my case, along with some snark, for why politicians shouldn’t be treated like rock stars at CPAC, or anywhere else. For these politicians to come to Washington is a privilege for them. They get to serve the greatest people in the greatest country in the world. We should keep our standards high, praise them when they do well, and ask them to come home before Potomac Fever fully sets in.