I heard almost all the CPAC convention speeches last week thanks to latenight replays on C-SPAN radio. C-SPAN has been a constant source of unfiltered, illuminating information for me in these increasingly divisive times, especially with its overnight replays. Just as it did with the healthcare debate, C-SPAN gave me a wealth of information at a time when I could focus on it -- away from the phones and computer screen which I use to report and write about media all day.
Here's video of Glenn Beck's keynote speech Saturday. I watched it on C-SPAN, and decided not to write until I had some time to think about it. I needed that time, because it is hard to think about what Beck says when you see him saying it. He is quite a visually arresting (and distracting) spectacle -- sweating excessively, shifting into different voices as if he hears them in his head actually speaking to him, working the blackboard like a religious broadcaster from 1950's television (Think: Fulton J. Sheen, the Catholic bishop and broadcaster on the old Dumont network.).
But I am not here to critique Beck. I just want you to note (at the start of the video) him saying, "I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me." It might sound strange and excessive, but it makes perfect sense within the larger narrative of the CPAC convention. And in that sense, he delivered an excellent keynote speech. Just like Sarah Palin at the Tea Party gathering, he delivered the goods.
I heard them all in my latenight bedside radio -- Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney, even George Will and more than a dozen of the student conservatives who seemed to dominate the conventiongoing audience. (Some of the student leaders were rewarded with two-minute shots at the podium.)
And here is what mattered about the conference. It wasn't all the energy -- or the anger or the aggressive rhetoric. Nor was it the difference a year makes (with the group that was so down and out last year after President Obama's inauguration, now being on the rise as the Obama administration looks to be on the run).
No, what matters is the narrative of 20th Century Amertican history that conservative leaders like David Keene, the founder of CPAC (the person to whom Beck addresses his Wilson remark in the video), were carefully teaching those thousands of student conservatives.
I won't go into detail, but the thrust of it is that all the troubles of today started with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and his "progressivism." Beck even wrote the term on his blackboard.
You know the litany: income tax, League of Nations, blah, blah blah. But what's fascinating is the way Wilson was depicted by speakers to the young people as being an elite and arrogant college professor from the Ivy League who liked to wag his finger at common Americans and tell them what they should think and how they should live even as he wildly expanded government and fleeced them of their hard earned money through taxes. He is, of course, the antithesis of the man lionized by speaker after speaker at CPAC: Ronald Reagan.
And in case any of the young people couldn't make the connection between Wilson and the former college professor who know inhabits the White House, several speakers made it for them in characterzing President Barack Obama as elite, superior, ineffectual and dedicated to expanding government so exponentially that we will all soon be dependent on it for every aspect of our livelihoods.
I have to say I have rarely heard a convention with so much energy and so many speakers hitting the same few notes so consistently. I suspect we are going to be hearing these themes repeatedly in the campaign for the mid-term elections and into 2012. This is at least the story line that many young campaign workers will use to motivate themselves when the money is short and the hours are long in the next couple of political seasons.
CPAC has been called a pep rally for the hardcore right, but what I heard was more like a giant college classroom effectively teaching a counter-narrative of American history and shaping a new generation of conservative leaders. As a college professor and media critic, I found it to be a fascinating study in the way shared memory and national opinion can be crafted and, yes, manipulated. And once again, it was C-SPAN that took me inside the hall and let me see and hear it for myself.