Army of the right hits the beach hotel
They’re more clean-cut than most campus crowds, and better dressed. They aren’t crazy about affirmative action, Roe vs. Wade, or Tuesday’s election results.
Some 500 college conservatives are in town for the weekend from across the U.S. for a political jump-start in the wake of a national Republican drubbing.
On Saturday, there was some predictable hand-wringing at this gathering of the Young America’s Foundation, an organization devoted to spreading conservative values on the nation’s campuses.
But there also was ample opportunity for students bloodied in the trenches of campus warfare to swap stories about professors, administrators and fellow students who just don’t get it.
Michael Reagan, son of the late president and a conservative talk-show host, told the crowd at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, a beachfront hotel, that many of the Republicans who lost Tuesday had brought defeat upon themselves.
“The Republican Party was held accountable for walking away from the ideals and values that got them elected -- the ideals of my father,” he said. “It’s up to you to bring them back.”
When a student asked him about religion and politics, Reagan said his father prayed for guidance daily, especially after the assassination attempt that nearly killed him. He suggested that now would be an appropriate time to set aside partisanship and seek a divine intercession on behalf of the Republicans’ traditional liberal foes in Congress.
“We need to pray for Nancy Pelosi, for John Conyers, for Henry Waxman,” he said. “If we don’t, how are we to know that things won’t get worse in this world that we live in?”
Nearly 40 years old, the Young America’s Foundation provides more secular strategies for winning hearts and minds on campus -- or at least for expressing views that some conservative students find difficulty articulating in what they see as a frequently hostile environment.
One of several national groups that rally conservative students, the foundation is active on some 2,000 campuses, according to its officials. It sponsors student conferences, rounds up conservative speakers for college lectures and puts out how-to books like the “Campus Conservative Battleplan,” a month-by-month how-to guide for activities and demonstrations.
Suggested activities for February, for instance, include inspecting the campus for American flags and offering faculty members free flags for display in their office or classroom.
“By launching an American flag audit,” the book says, “Young America’s Foundation can help you expose those professors who shun the American flag.”
It advises students to counter the widespread campus productions of “Vagina Monologues” -- often presented in February to coincide with Valentine’s Day -- by researching and publicizing their expense.
In November, students can celebrate the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse by building a mock Checkpoint Charlie “to make striking comparisons between the free-speech-stifling atmosphere on college campuses and in the Soviet Union,” the book suggests.
Such street theater gives conservatives a higher profile on campus, said Patrick X. Coyle, the foundation’s vice president.
Affirmative action has been a big target of campus conservative protest, with students pricing items in campus bake sales higher for white customers than for minorities.
“It infuriates the liberals and gets lots of media attention,” said George Higgins, an activist at the University of Nevada Reno who was building his Young America’s group on campus by bringing a cadre of freshmen and sophomores to the conference.
Whatever attention such tactics draws is likely to backfire, said Jane Fleming, executive director of Young Democrats of America, in a telephone interview.
“To be honest, it’s embarrassing that young people do that kind of thing, and that the conservative movement and Republicans condone it,” she said. “They should be condemning it.”
Members of the conservative foundation disagreed.
“We want conservatives to be aggressive, vocal, and proactive,” said Coyle.
Students who succeed most visibly are rewarded with trips to Rancho del Cielo, Ronald Reagan’s mountain hideaway outside Santa Barbara. The foundation purchased the ranch in 1998.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Mike Tellier, a 22-year-old junior at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse. “It’s where he signed the big tax cut. It’s where he chopped wood and cleared brush.”
Three months ago, Tellier organized a Sept. 11 campus memorial with some 3,000 flags -- one for each death.
But protest posters went up “depicting President Bush in a rather nasty way,” he said.
Meanwhile, student Republicans’ posters were defaced with scrawls of “Where’s Osama?” and other comments that Tellier described as hate messages.
The school administration declined to take any action, Tellier said. “If this would have happened to a gay group on campus, on their rainbow display or whatever, it would have been a huge story,” he said.
On Saturday, students were fired up by numerous speakers, including radio talk show host Larry Elder, who lambasted the mainstream media, and by foundation President Ron Robinson, who acknowledged “the leftist activists” for fueling the Democratic victory.
“Will you do as much for your cause as the leftist activists did for theirs?” he asked.
Christine Zoldis, an 18-year-old student at Orange Coast College, was pumped.
“This is wonderful,” she said, surveying the throngs of students at the hotel. “I love being around so many conservatives. It’s awesome. It motivates me.”
Just last week, she made headlines by loudly declaiming the Pledge of Allegiance at a student government meeting after her fellow officers had voted against its customary recitation. Now she’s thinking about transferring to a four-year mainstream campus -- not the conservative school she had been considering.
“It’s kind of hard to persuade people who are already on your side,” she said.
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