Clinton on Trial

Clinton’s Other Jury

One of the great mysteries of Flytrap is how conservatives cope with it. How can you endure living in a country where the majority of your fellow citizens (and apparently, your Senate) reject the values you hold most dear? Today, I go in search of the answer.

My destination is the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Crystal City Marriott. CPAC is one of Washington’s annual rituals, a prayer meeting for the faithful–three days of hobnobbing right-wing activists and stump speeches from prominent Republicans (Sen. John Ashcroft, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Rep. John Kasich, etc.). It is also Mecca for young conservatives, who bus in from colleges all over the country to gawk and worship.

Today, CPAC competes with the final day of the White House defense, but it is really no contest. In the Senate, David Kendall is lecturing to a silent audience. At CPAC, hundreds of college kids wearing “Bauer Power” T-shirts are mobbing the halls. A television in the corridor is broadcasting Steve Forbes’ speeches–all the time. People are shouting things like, “I just met Bill Kristol! Can you believe it?! Bill Kristol!” And Lamar Alexander, still running for president, is lurking around every corner, waiting to shake your hand. (Alexander’s handlers call him “Governor.” This makes me think there should be a statute of limitations on honorifics. Alexander hasn’t even held a job for six years.)

I begin buttonholing folks in the hall and quizzing them about America’s impeachment apathy. These true believers seem to divide equally into two camps: The Denying Optimists and the Principled Pessimists. (It goes without saying that all of them loathe Clinton and think he should be booted ASAP.)

The Denial school, which is dominant among older CPACers, simply rejects the premise. Americans actually favor Clinton’s conviction and the polls are wrong.

I cannot overstate this skepticism about the polls. “I don’t think they are talking to the right American people. I have never been polled. You’re the first person who has ever asked me about this,” says Ann Reese. “They use 1,000 people to project what 250 million think. Of course it doesn’t make sense,” says Bud Sadoff. “The pollsters are trying to meet their deadline, so they have to call people in Hawaii. So of course their polls are wrong,” says Don Labert. One elderly man tells me, “The polls always lie. They’re conducted by Democrats. They poll people who aren’t even citizens, much less voters. They poll children.”

The Deniers don’t have to grapple with the moral decline of the America, because they don’t believe America has declined. As far as they’re concerned, a solid majority of right-thinking people recognize that Clinton is a villainous crook.

The Principled Pessimists don’t share this good cheer. Almost all the young CPACers I met trusted the polls and were gloomy about what they meant. Their faith in the polls may simply reflect their greater knowledge of statistical principles, or it may reflect their desire to belong to an embattled minority. In any case, they fret mightily about the nation’s moral laxity and demand that senators buck the popular will.

“What has happened to our moral fiber? We’re not the individual freedom fighters we used to be,” says Ryan Ball, a student at Southern Virginia College. A crowd of his classmates surrounding him nods in agreement. (Ball then implores me to sneak him into the impeachment trial.) Jason Steele, a young supporter of Dan Quayle, is similarly grim. “This is not a democracy. We elect officials and delegate power to them and trust them to act honorably. … It’s very disheartening that the American people feel this way, but the Senate must ignore the polls and do the right thing.”

Some people in the village of CPAC, of course, transcend category. Bob Sharp, a friendly retiree from Virginia, wears an elephant tie and a gold elephant pin. Here is what he says: “We should impeach a lot more presidents than we do. Every third or fourth one. Carter should have been impeached for destroying the U.S. economy. Truman should have been impeached for corruption. That is what impeachment is for.”

Then Sharp adds, without any prompting, “You should become a conservative, David. And a born-again Christian. You don’t have to stop being Jewish. You don’t even have to give anything up. Just accept the Messiah. The pastor of my church is Jewish. All the best Jews I know are Christian. But that’s a conversation for another day.”

Click here after 7 p.m. ET Friday for David Plotz’s latest dispatch from the trial of Bill Clinton.