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Grassroots conservatism, hurrah!

By Bernard Chapin
web posted May 26, 2003

Earlier today at the gym, a guy I know was telling me about the interview with Stephen Glass he saw on television and he mentioned the "big money" Glass earned fabricating stories for The New Republic. When I asked him what types of events Glass had concocted he mentioned a phantom conservative conference rife with sex and partying. I said "Well, I just got back from one of those conferences a hour ago and there was no sex, no partying and no drugs." Yet, even though the conference was absent of illicit delights, I bragged to the fellow that it was brimming with good, clean policy discussions about rapacious taxation and its corresponding impotent Congressional representation.

Such was the fifth annual Chicago Conservative Convention sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the United Republican Fund, Concerned Women for America, the Lincoln Legal Foundation, Leader Media, Inc., and the Family Taxpayers Network.

Conservatism is alive and pulsating vigorously in America today (even in the leftist wards of Chicago for the duration of a few hours). We attended for the purpose of conserving this magnificent nation and its people. Roger Kimball defined the driving force well:

What, after all, is a conservative? He is someone who acknowledges the fragility of civilization, who seeks to conserve the manners and morals, the habits and prejudices that have enlivened society, preserved liberty, and opposed tyranny. (National Review, May 19, 2003, p.20)

Contrary to what one might expect, a 33 year-old man like myself did not feel like a kid again within the confines of this convention. Regardless of leftist opinion, this was no all white geriatric society. The average age appeared to be above 45 but there were many youthful members present. Yet, unlike a convocation of radicals, we do not have the luxury of wayward professors coercing youth to attend in exchange for higher grades. Further, unlike the CCC that I attended in 2001, there were many minority faces present. In fact, during the introductory remarks I found myself seated next to a man wearing a turban.

The convention began with a prayer and they wanted to follow the prayer up with the pledge of allegiance but, as no flag was displayed in the auditorium, the MC, Joe Wiegand from the Family Taxpayers Network, suggested we sing "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." Only at a conservative gathering would there be so many participants capable of remembering the words. In fine rightist tradition (circa 2003), the MC thanked everyone for not wearing a tie as it originated in France. Few in the audience, the narrator included, could resist laughing aloud.

The first speech was by the eminent Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform and full coverage of his speech is available in another one of my columns. Needless to say, his twenty-five minute recital was the apex of the day's activities.

Some of the other speeches made were also quite interesting although I did not hear them all. I should note that a unique feature of the event was the idea of taking the speaker and moving him or her into a different room and floor for thirty minutes after they finished addressing the general crowd to enable to respond to individual questioners in an intimate session. I hope that they stay with this approach next year.

With a full agenda slated for between 8:30 am to 5 pm there was ample opportunity to hear conservative rhetoric on whatever topic of which one is interested. The "Foreign Policy" session was quite fascinating and featured retired Lieutenant Colonel Rich Gordon who gave several memorable lines about the state of affairs in the world today. One of my favorite was "What the left thinks, is that the middle east needs to be liberated from America." Accurate and true. The Lieutenant Colonel was the beneficiary of wild applause when he said how happy we all are to have Bush in the White House instead of Gore and that, had Gore been elected, we would still be meeting trying to figure out how to respond to al-Qaida. Another poignant moment was his statement that "G-d stays out of politics most days" but on two occasions, the appointment of Harry S. Truman as Vice President in 1944 and the victory of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000, he refused. The audience agreed with him and applauded enthusiastically.

Another highlight was the speech of Dr. Allan Carlson regarding taxation. Given congressional attempts to merge the two versions of the tax cut, this topic was certainly timely. He described much of the landscape of taxation and went over the old rule that what we subsidize we get more of and what we tax we get less of. Taxes have more variations, sizes and shapes than most of the racks at the nearby Marshall Fields.

He alerted us to the notion of "nuisance taxes" and these, by definition, do not surpass two percent of total income. He then discussed ways that the government can take a pro-family position and support the institution that supplies America, and the rest of the world, with its social stability.

One point that he raised which I was not aware of is that the personal exemption on our income tax ($3,000 currently) has been around since 1948 and, if it were to be reflected in constant or real dollars, it would now need to be a $9,000 dollar exemption. Such a situation is not surprising if one considers how long it took the government to adjust the contribution ceilings for IRAs. He described exemptions, deductions, and credits within the tax code as being "zones of liberty" and proffered convincing reasons why we might not want to completely revamp the present tax code. Although, I still am personally in favor of a flat tax, a fresh perspective on the subject was valuable.

The best part of any convention is observing its participants. On a far end of the ballroom there were many booths where a person could get fliers and publications regarding activism and policy positions. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the Heritage Foundation's No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools and a coffee cup from the National Taxpayers Union. Fliers were available by the copier load and one could be informed of just about any issue under the "don't tread on me" sun.

The famous, and in some places infamous, John Birch Society was also in attendance and campaigned with a large banner displaying their most popular issue which happens to be getting the United States out of the United Nations. I wondered if this issue enhanced their overall membership due to recent disgust with the international dilettantes spending our money in New York. I asked one of their representatives about their overall membership but he declined to give me any numbers. I then thought I'd toss them a softball question by inquiring as to why so many people bad mouth the John Birch Society. The one representative motioned to the other and announced "We've got a reporter here." [It should be noted that I honestly told them I was writing a column for Enter Stage Right but, who knows, maybe with the trouble at The New York Times we might soon become the next "website of record."]

The Birchers then unloaded on me a conspiracy theory that they had been the target of intrigues for many years. When I asked about who was driving the conspiracy they could not give me any specifics. They did give me a pamphlet that, unfortunately, also did not contain any specifics. On a separate issue the Birchers denied that the far right is really "far" or "right" as by their definition the far left is totalitarian (which is true) and that socialism is the complete opposite of liberty so…therefore they are…I have no idea.

There was one particular shadow that hung over the conference and must be discussed. The shadow took the form of a president who still lives and breathes. His name is Ronald Reagan. Many conservatives present at the convention, like this writer, are the ideological offspring of his era and his achievements. His name was referenced quite often by both speakers and attendees. In what was the only truly touching moment of the day for me, I noticed that among the many framed photos and artifacts on display for the CCC silent auction was one of the great man who went to college at Eureaka.

Most of the sales items concerned George W. Bush and although I'm pleased to the gills with him I did not for a moment feel a tug at my weary VISA card while examining his memorabilia. It was the one plaque embossed with a photo and inauguration ticket of Ronald Reagan that instantly caught my wallet's attention. I noticed that the item was reasonably priced at 195 dollars (not so reasonable in my case actually). I saw that there was a sheet underneath for silent bids. I scanned it and most of the readers will not be surprised to read that the only bid listed was for a ritzy $1000. Out of my league to be sure.

Predictably there was only one thing that could dampen the event and that was the speeches from the politicians running for the Illinois senate in 2004. Their vapid style and empty sentences never interest activists but worthy of mention is that a Democratic Party candidate showed up to address us and he had to be shocked, along with the press, as to how genially he was received. We gave him respectful applause before he spoke as, we in the conservative wing, naturally tolerate diversity and don't have to put it on sign posts or nametags to prove our sincerity. Can you imagine a leftist conference doing the same thing? They would have thrown fake blood on the candidate and chased him out with chants of "Get off the podium media whore! We won't hear your pro-Bush score!" The kindness we extended him identifies who the really open-minded people in America actually are.

The entire day was a learning experience but it was also a pleasure as every table and conversation buzzed with the unthinkable: the sound of pages being ripped out of The Federal Register.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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