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Craig Shirley: This Is Not Ronald Reagan’s CPAC

CPAC just concluded its annual meeting and, let’s face it, the old gal is showing signs of wear and tear.

It’s time to take a cold and hard look at it, now that the ground has cooled and most combatants are in neutral corners.


In the old days, even when Ronald Reagan was president, we would have vigorous yet also intellectual debates over all manner of things. Today, it is mostly a pie throwing contest. Yes, we know liberalism is not healthy for children and other living things but why? And why is American conservatism preferable? And why are conservative principles timeless?


CPAC can trace its history to 1974 when, in the middle of Watergate, conservative leaders Tom Winter, publisher of Human Events and Stan Evans, longtime right of center writer told young conservative activists Jim Roberts and Frank Donatelli that conservatives needed to have their spirits lifted with a gathering and thus, the first CPAC came into existence. The featured speaker was none other than governor Ronald Reagan, who gave a barnburner of a speech before the gathering at the Mayflower Hotel where he honored Vietnam POW’s (including John McCain) and praised the Founding Fathers.


Reagan in fact spoke at every CPAC from 1974 to 1988 excepting 1976 and 1980, when the New Hampshire primary overlapped with the event. He came, as I recently told a reporter. not because he needed us but because we needed him.


There was an abbreviated gathering of conservatives in 1973, but it wasn’t called CPAC and did not feature Reagan.

The CPAC event was smaller in those days and the media always obsessed about the attendance and the annual straw poll, but the media has always been absorbed with the politics of politics and not real substance.

We had debates over tax policy and foreign policy and SDI deployment and in the early days over abortion; in those days, we got a healthy turnout of libertarians who were pro-choice, but after 1976, with the ascendency of the pro family movement, conservatism embraced the pro-life position and the GOP platform began to reflect this sentiment.

Back in the “old days,” we had lot of attendees including what we joked were “blue hair wrinklies” and people lugging shopping bags screaming about socialism as Woody Allen so memorably put it. It was fun and we laughed a lot.

As conservatism matured and deepened, the intellectual substance as derived from John Locke and which held the movement together was the individual; the privacy and dignity and rights of the individual.


Reagan spoke often about the individual over the state. And the glue which held together foreign policy conservatives and family conservatives and economic conservatives was anti-communism. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, the unity of conservatism melted away until our own government became a threat to personal freedoms. Just look at what the FBI is doing today if you want a good example of the threat of government. Hence, the American government has now emerged as the real danger to our God given liberties. Examples abound.

Unfortunately, CPAC has moved in a different direction, morphing into a Comic-Con for conservatives

rather than an annual intellectual exercise.

Of course, the six-hundred-pound gorilla in the room is Matt Schlapp. When the initial bad news first broke about Schlapp, I reached out to him, offering solace, but as the news continued getting worse and worse, I realized quickly he was nearly beyond help. There were just too many specifics. No one knows whether or not this former Bush Administration employee is guilty; only two people were there, but the whole matter is bad.

The news kept getting worse and worse and now to find out Matt has reportedly been paying himself $600,000 a year from CPAC/ACU and his wife, Mercedes another &175,000! It all seems so sordid and unseemly.

Sex, politics and money make for a good movie or Robert Ludlum novel but a bad elixir of reality. To add to his headaches, Matt is getting pounded in social media. And CPAC lost a lot of sponsors and attendees. The culmination for this year was every attendee I spoke to said the conference this year had little energy. No wonder.

I was deeply involved in the running of CPAC through the late 70’s, into the 80’s and mid 90’s and I can tell you that we all worked on the conference for peanuts or volunteered our time. My wife Zorine ran CPAC all through the Reagan and Gingrich years and I know from personal experience her pay never approached that what the Schlapps are taking home.

Eric Hoffer, the great longshoreman/philosopher was right: what was once a cause, becomes a business and eventually descends into a racket. It seems the conference is the enrich the Schlapps and little more.

Once upon a time, it attracted the best and the brightest of the conservative movement save Bill Buckley, who always went skiing in the Alps at that time of year.

We also had an annual debate between conservative columnist Bob Novak and ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, who gamely came each year. It was moderated by the very funny liberal columnist Mark Shields who would introduce Novak by remarking that Bob was living proof that Ma Barker and J. Edgar Hoover “were more than just good friends.”

For a time, it even attracted Hollywood glitterati including bombshell actress Jane Russell, who stoically

sat at the back of the hall each year, quietly listening to the speakers. She was older but still quite attractive.

This year, many prime leaders of conservatism stayed away, afraid of being tarred. Kari Lake at the Reagan dinner? She is probably a nice lady, but I don’t recall Reagan dwelling on losing to Gerald Ford at the Kansas City GOP convention in 1976. Reagan simply moved ahead.

As if CPAC 2023 didn’t have enough problems, there were charges of corruption surrounding the annual straw poll. So who knows if Donald Trump got 62% or even more?

We can’t tell the Schlapps what to do but I can tell you that their badly damaged reputations are hurting conservatism and the conservative movement. The ACU Board, of which I used to be a member, has some big decisions in the days ahead.

And the question the Schlapps must ask themselves, are they more important than the reputation of the ideology of American conservatism?

The conservative cause will endure, but at what price?


Craig Shirley is the author of four critically praised bestselling books on President Reagan, "Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All," "Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America," "Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan," and "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years, 1976-1980." His book "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World" appeared multiple times on the New York Times bestselling list in December 2011 and January 2012. His book "Last Act," was named Best Narrative” in the nonfiction category by USA Best Books for 2015. He is also the author of the authorized biography of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, "Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative."



  • CPAC

  • Ronald Reagan

  • 2023 CPAC

  • blue hair wrinklies

  • Comic-Con for conservatives

  • Matt Schlapp

  • Mercedes Schlapp

  • Kari Lake

  • Donald Trump

  • CPAC straw poll


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