Wednesday, February 3, 2010

James O'Keefe and the Downward Trajectory of the Right-Wing Campus "Conspiracy"

Photo of the summer 1990 intern cadre posing with President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. I'm the one wearing the dark blazer. 

A little background can really change your views of someone.

Conservative activist James O'Keefe was previously best known for releasing secretly made videos purporting to show ACORN staffers instructing a fake pimp and prostitute how to traffic in underage prostitutes. ACORN claims O'Keefe edited out the portions of the video wherein the staffers showed that they didn't take the conservative actors seriously. But the damage to ACORN (serving as a stand-in for the conservatives' real target, President Barack Obama) was done.

As I noted above, that was O'Keefe's previous reason for fame or infamy. These days, he's known for being part of a band of conservative activists who were arrested after allegedly lying to get access to a U.S. senator's communications system on federal property. Big-time federal crime, though it'll probably help them that one of the activists' father is a U.S. attorney in Louisiana. Just sayin'.

The interesting angle for me has come from writers who have highlighted the activists' involvement in the conservative movement since at least their college years, including involvement in conservative campus newspapers. If there is a vast right-wing conspiracy (and there is and has been for decades; Hillary Clinton was correct), a key cog in that network is the campus conservative movement groups that train the Karl Roves and Dinesh D'Souzas and the Ann Coulters. They bring them to Washington to meet conservative bigwigs, they give them money to start or support right-wing campus papers, and they give them internships and jobs in the government or in their connected networks of foundations or think tanks.

And I was sort-of almost kinda a part of it for a while.

Let me explain.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1980s, I joined one of the daily student newspapers. (At the time, the UW was the only campus in the country that had two daily student papers competing. A point of pride.) There was the long-running Daily Cardinal, which was the campus left-wing paper. No, not liberal; left-wing. There's a difference. One famous low point for the Cardinal was when Saigon fell to the communists; the Cardinal's big front-page headline was "VICTORY!" Ugh. Anyway, back in 1969, a group of campus students created The Badger Herald as a libertarian-to-conservative counterweight. The Herald went from boom to bust to boom and back over the next decade, but by the time I joined the staff in 1987, the Herald was flourishing. Even without (and probably partly because it was without) any financial support from the university, the Herald had become the paper with the larger circulation, and it went from strength to strength.

An important factor in its appeal, I think, was that it wasn't a doctrinaire, ideological sheet. Nor was the Herald predictable. As editorial page editor for a year and a half, I relied on the "libertarian" part of our identity whenever I ran an editorial or opinion piece that wasn't in any way conservative. But what gave us cred within the journalism school was that we kept our politics in the opinion section and out of the news, entertainment, and sports pages. I was very proud when a staffer came back from her first day in a journalism class and related her professor's plea to his students not to work for the Cardinal because it was garbage. At that very liberal J-school, I'm sure there were plenty of professors who felt similarly about the Herald, but we were increasingly hearing good things from those professors, and that became one measure of our success.

The Herald wasn't part of any right-wing conspiracy. It was just a good student paper doing what a band of writers and editors should do: offer an alternative viewpoint and engaging in the issues of the day. (In the photo at right, circa 1987, the Herald's editorial staff sets alight a copy of the Cardinal. What scamps. But even in that photo, there is everything from a supporter of El Salvadoran Marxist rebels to a news editor to the right of William F. Buckley to apolitical editors to moderates. Healthy debate requires diversity.)

But early in my tenure as editorial page editor, one of the editorial page's Grand Old Dames (he was a man, not a woman, but it's hard to think of conservative elders in other terms) told me about the Institute for Educational Affairs, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that helped network a disparate group of conservative campus newspapers. IEA (which later merged with the Madison Center) provided some funding for papers, but for the Herald, the $10,000 or so that it might get wouldn't be worth it; our budget was something like half a million dollars a year, and we were profitable and proud of our independence. I think the only financial help we had ever received from IEA was help buying a photocopier, before my time there.

(This led to my one and only appearance in Rolling Stone magazine, and an education in how to talk to national media reporters. Sometime around the 1988 elections, Rolling Stone put together an article on the phenomenon of conservative college papers, and I came home one day to find a answering machine message from the reporter. I called him back and talked with him for an hour -- on my dime -- about the Herald, the UW-Madison campus, all the ways we were not a right-wing rag. None of that made it into the article he eventually published. Instead, the only bit of that expensive phone call that was immortalized in RS' pages was in a section about the financial assistance provided by IEA to conservative papers. Noting the typical $10,000 funding amount, I was quoted as saying something to the effect of "that's what we spend on beer in a year." So not only did he not include any of my comments that would have challenged his thesis about these fire-breathing right-wing papers, but the one bit he did use made us sound like a band of drunken frat boys, which we weren't. Sigh.)

Frankly, I rather liked IEA, or at least its Washington staff. They were intelligent, they had interesting backgrounds, and they had a good understanding of politics -- an important asset if, like me, you've always been interested in politics and the issues of the day. They also flew me to Washington, D.C., for conferences (with speakers such as conservative journalist John Podhoretz or Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia). It offered the student journalists a chance to network with each other, see how other papers were surviving and how they met challenges. Since we were pretty much the only non-right-wing paper (i.e., we were moderate to libertarian to conservative, and we were a real newspaper, not just a political sheet), there wasn't a whole lot I could learn from the others, and, let's face it, a few of those papers were pretty scary. The Dartmouth Review (which gave us Dinesh D'Souza and won't take him back) had ridden to success by provocative and sometimes offensive attacks on its political opponents. The Cornell Review was also known for being over-the-top; no surprise that one of its founders was ultra-right provocateur Ann Coulter. And then there was the paper (I forget its name, thankfully) that liked to trade in Nazi insults and illustrations.

Though I never met Coulter (she is quite a bit older, anyway), I did meet a number of the other editors who were in the campus journalism wing of the vast right-wing conspiracy (to stick with the theme). They ranged from the sort of prep-schooled alumni to blue collar conservatives. Men and women. Very conservative to moderate. One could lampoon them -- after all, being serious about politics in college when most students are just trying to pass courses, find a date, and get drunk is a lampoonable offense in this country. But, even if I don't share much of their views, I respect the majority of them. Even the college kid who wore suits to all of the IEA conferences and had his own business cards. Even the grad student who tried to create a magazine that had no editorial rules whatsoever. Even the one who thought Ayn Rand provided step-by-step guides to life in the 1980s.

I was also the recipient of two IEA-arranged internships. The first was for a major conservative foundation in Milwaukee, where I spent a summer reviewing project files and writing reviews. I can't imagine they got much value out of two interns' views on their funding projects. The second internship was in the office of the Vice President of the United States, where I ... didn't do much at all. Most of the interns did not do much, apparently because most were there due to family connections and were hoping to cement future political roles. I, on the other hand, still saw myself as an editor and writer, and was pretty bored out of my skull, though I did discover that the library in the Old Executive Office Building had an excellent collection of New York Review of Books issues going back many, many years. Since it was the summer that I discovered John Updike and Philip Roth, I spent many an hour going through those old NYRBs looking up articles on their past books.

In the end, my politics solidified much more in the center of the spectrum, ranging from center-left to center-right. (Think German Chancellor Angela Merkel.) It would be wrong to assume that there weren't similar political evolutions for some of the other students who were involved in conservative campus newspapers; they didn't all grow up to be Ann Coulter. So the conservative campus newspaper part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" isn't in itself something to worry about; it's just part of the lively debate of a civil society.

Where this comes back to James O'Keefe and his ilk, which I do consider to be something to worry about, is where campus conservatives aren't interested in engaging in discussions with their opponents. They don't grant their opponents the courtesy of having ideas or viewpoints that are worth considering and that might change the conservative's mind. They attack. They use deceit. They lie. They are not a political evolution but are instead a political dead-end, in particular the dead end of conservatism. At its best, conservatism can ask good questions about human nature and past attempts to change the world, and thereby provide a grounding by injecting realism into political debates. But conservatives of this radical sort today, who prefer the Ann Coulters and the Sean Hannitys (Hannity, by the way, provided James O'Keefe with his first post-arrest TV interview) to any sort of conversation with moderates and liberals -- that sort of conservative is not a good thing, and we have nothing good to expect from them.
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