The reasons for this are many. Some pundits have put the blame on the uneducated masses, the so-called “low information voter,” who buys into the picture painted by the left and their media accomplices, who portray Republicans as heartless plutocrats looking out for the rich and the rich only. And those are the charitable ones. Among the less forgiving leftists, their political opponents are no less than racist, white southerners, who yearn for the days when Jefferson Davis was a leader of men and the women’s right to vote was a strange fantasy held only by those of unsound mind.
Others put the fault at the complexity of the conservative message. Those who believe in the welfare state can make an easy sell: If you need money, the government is here to give it to you. Conservatives need to sell the message of individual liberty and responsibility, a much tougher idea to convey to those struggling to put bread on the table.
Perhaps no one embodies this conundrum as well as David Keene. On the surface, he plays directly into the Republican stereotype: An older white male, well dressed, with a perfectly coiffed head of white hair. He looks like a banker, the one who turned you down for a loan last week. He worked in the Nixon White House and has had close ties to every Republican administration since. He has been a creature of Washington for the better part of five decades and has run the most vilified special interest group and lobbying organization in American history.
But a closer look at the man lends quite a different perspective. David Keene was born and raised in Wisconsin, to a family of union workers and to parents who were actively involved in organized labor. Not exactly a Republican ideal. His family and friends were believers in the Democratic message and propagated it to the masses. And yet, a half century later, Keene is one of the right’s leading intellectual voices and one who has won the respect of serious political thinkers on both sides of the aisle. The reason is simple. Keene is not a reflexive Republican who buys into whatever party leadership is selling at the time. His key attribute is actually eponymous. He is a keen observer of the political scene and one who seeks the true path to American success in this difficult environment.
“Conservatism wasn’t my natural instinct,” he remembers, reminiscing about his youth in the Midwest. “Both my parents were labor leaders, with my mother serving as the president of the local auto workers union. My first political job was handing out flyers for the JFK campaign in 1960. But by 1964 I was a Goldwater man.”
The path that led Keene from support for Kennedy, the liberal icon, to the right’s most iconoclastic conservative was similar to the one many other conservatives have taken.
“Frederick Hayek is credited with turning many into conservatives with his book, The Road to Serfdom,” he says. “I was also a Hayek convert, but The Road to Serfdom isn’t the one that turned me around. In the ‘60s, another book by Hayek called The Constitution of Liberty was published. Our local school library picked it up, thinking that it was about the United States Constitution. When it was discovered that it was nothing of the sort, they quickly pulled it from the shelves. But someone who knew I was interested in political thought saved the book for me. I would say that my political philosophy today is directly attributable to that little book.”
Thankfully, his newfound belief did not affect his relationship with his still liberal parents. “My parents raised us to think independently, and they respected my right to think for myself,” he remembers fondly. “That’s aside from the fact that they were Humphrey Democrats, who were strongly anti-Communist, so they were closer to my views on some issues than the political label would have you believe.”
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Thirsting for the opportunity to put his philosophy to practical use, the young college student wasted no time. In 1969, a special election was held for a State Senate seat in Keene’s district, and he quickly threw his hat into the ring. Although he won the Republican primary with a strong showing in his hometown, he lost the general election by the narrowest of margins.
“There were lots of factors conspiring against me in that election. First of all, I annoyed a lot of establishment Republican types with my upset victory in the primary, when my hometown turnout blew away the competition. So there were some ruffled feathers. Then there were some dirty tactics by my Democratic opponent as well. But all in all, there were five special elections in Wisconsin between 1968 and 1970, and Republicans lost all of them. Mine was closest, as I lost with less than 1% of the vote. So although it was disappointing, it was still a strong showing.”
And yet, despite a stronger performance than neither he or anyone else had expected, the 1969 state senate campaign remains David Keene’s only run for political office in a career that is now 45 years old. Why is that?
“Well, the truth is that candidacy is a mild form of insanity that only losing can cure. I was cured by that race. Although I never ruled out running again, I was offered a position in Washington shortly after that race. I took it and haven’t considered running myself since that point.”
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The position he was offered was to serve on the staff of Vice President Spiro Agnew, a man who was forced to resign from office in disgrace, accused of corruption and other unsavory deeds. So was Agnew as bad as he appeared?
“To the contrary, Spiro Agnew was a wonderful man,” Keene avers. “I was once contacted by a reporter from the Baltimore Sun who was researching Agnew, a fellow Marylander. He was puzzled by something he had come across in his research: Everyone who worked for Agnew made two statements. Firstly, that he was a man of integrity, and secondly, that it was the best job they had ever had. He couldn’t reconcile that with the public perception of the man he had come to know. But he got the same answer from me. In his personal life, as a man, there was no one in public life with a greater sense of honesty and integrity than Spiro Agnew.”
Although Keene doesn’t answer for Agnew’s very public problems, he elaborates on his personal relationship with America’s first vice president to resign the office.
“I’ll tell you a story that happened to me personally. Agnew traveled to Baltimore on a Wednesday to plead guilty. You can imagine how this must have affected him personally. This was the ultimate downfall for a person who was the second most powerful man in the world. And yet, Thursday morning, my phone rang. It was the vice president. ‘David,’ he said, ‘I hear you are considering going back to Wisconsin.’ I responded in the affirmative. ‘You can’t do that,’ he declared. ‘If you leave now, you will always be tied to the scandals of this administration. It will negatively impact your career forever. You need to stay in Washington, get another job, and move on. Tell me what I can do to help. I will do whatever I need to do to make it happen.’ That’s the kind of guy Agnew was.”
In Agnew, Keene saw an attribute that is severely lacking in today’s political environment. “The problem with presidential politics today is that the process is so long and arduous that by the time they get there, they forget why they wanted the job in the first place. They’ve lost that ambition to make things right. Agnew was something of an accident in the vice presidency. He was still inspired by his beliefs. He would read something that he liked and he would have to meet and converse with the author. That’s where I met Irving Kristol and Jeanne Kirpatrick (some of the right’s greatest political thinkers) for the first time. He would host ‘ideas lunches’ where we could discuss these kinds of political philosophies. This type of idealism doesn’t seem to exist anymore in the upper echelons of power.”
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Keene’s nascent political career took shape while a sea change was going on in Republican Party politics.
“From 1960 to 1976, the entire face of the party changed,” he explains. “It used to be run by the real WASPs, the upper class corporate types. With Goldwater’s candidacy in ‘64, that began to change. As someone said at the time, the leadership went from the guy who ran the company to the guy who ran the local dry cleaners. It had much more of a grassroots feel. It was during that election season that the eventual leader of the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, gained national prominence with his speech endorsing Goldwater. There was a genuine shift in demographics and, consequently, in the political direction of the party.”
This led to Keene’s next high profile job, working in the campaign of that man named Reagan, who aimed to unseat a sitting president in the party’s 1976 nomination process.
“Reagan’s candidacy in ‘76 really sealed that shift for a generation, bringing the political philosophy around. It seemed that the party was adrift, with many seeking some sort of reconciliation with the Soviet Union and generally lacking a strong message. For many, Ford represented that line of thinking, and Reagan was the one with the bold ideas, who was willing to take him on.”
Many have compared the ultimately unsuccessful run by Reagan to be a parallel to today’s Tea Party movement, which seeks to take on the party establishment, holding their feet to the fire and urging them to defend conservative principles under all circumstances. Does Keene agree with the comparison?
“I don’t think it’s exact,” he opines. “Back in the ‘70s, the battles were much more philosophical. The party establishment types had genuine disagreements with the grassroots faction in terms of actual policy. Now, it seems that most of the differences between the party leaders and the Tea Party stem from tactical differences. They don’t feel like they can accomplish as much given the position that they are in and tend to focus on more peripheral issues.”
Another comparison that is frequently made is the similarity between Barry Goldwater, a conservative who made no bones about his beliefs, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has taken Washington by storm with his willingness to push the boundaries and vocalize his concerns, whether the party establishment wants to hear them or not. The flip side of that comparison, brought up by many concerned Republicans, is that Cruz’s expected presidential run may suffer the same ignominious fate as Goldwater’s ‘64 campaign, when he was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in what was at the time the greatest landslide in American history. Does the Goldwater precedent show that the American people will not accept a man who is so ideological to be their president? Keene doesn’t answer the question directly, but he does point out a key difference between the two men.
“Barry Goldwater was very different than Ted Cruz,” he says. “That generation saw a leadership structure that was pretty unusual on both sides of the aisle. Both Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy, who was the Democratic standard bearer in that era, were not as vocal or as out front in their leadership styles as we see today from people like Senator Cruz, who has no inhibitions about putting it out there for people to judge. Goldwater and McCarthy were really pushed to the front by their party. They weren’t looking to be the leader, the leading voice.”
Whether those differences can change the potential outcome of a future election remains to be seen.
As the years progressed, so did Keene’s career, playing a prominent role in the Reagan and Bush administrations. He also worked for New York Senator Jim Buckley, the brother of National Review founder William Buckley.
As someone who had an inside look at the George H.W. Bush administration, he had an inside view of the people who were quite antagonistic toward Israel, a level of antipathy that hadn’t been seen since the Carter administration. The most infamous of the anti-Israel officials was James Baker, who served as the National Security Advisor before moving to Foggy Bottom to run the State Department. While many attribute Baker’s attitude to downright anti-Semitism, Keene has an interesting perspective on the erstwhile secretary of state.
“James Baker was a corporate lawyer. He viewed everything as a negotiation process. In corporate law, during mergers and acquisitions, the way you work things out is by putting everything on the table. Literally everything. The problem is that when you are dealing with national security issues, the parties involved will very likely take things off the table. Some things were non-negotiable to the Israelis. You’ll notice that the two areas in foreign policy where the Bush administration had the most trouble were in the Middle East and with regard to dealing with Taiwan. In both instances, the countries were unwilling to negotiate certain aspects that they felt would adversely affect their security. This was against Baker’s worldview. Corporate negotiations were part of his genetic makeup and he never quite adjusted to this new reality.”
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Perhaps the biggest legacy David Keene has left the conservative movement hasn’t been his work with the National Rifle Association, which he led for many years. It was the establishment of an organization no longer directly associated with his name, yet changed the political landscape for Republicans forever.
“1974 was an especially depressing time for conservatives. This was during the Watergate scandal and things weren’t looking good for those of us of the conservative political persuasion. We wanted to create a venue where young conservative activists could meet, see and be seen, and hear from their intellectual leadership. This was very important to us. As we all know, the colleges are very liberal, and conservatives can feel very lonely in that environment. A convention such as this one would allow them to see that they are not alone. There are others out there who share their views and are eager to move the country in a different direction. It would also be an opportunity for those who were seeking to enter the world of politics to network and meet the people they could end up working for.”
With that in mind, the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, was born. “We had 125 people that first year. Reagan came and spoke and everyone enjoyed it. From there, it just took off. Brian Lamb of C-SPAN fame told me that the CPAC convention was the first out-of-studio event they ever covered. At our conventions now, we have tens of thousands who come to participate.”
There may be no greater indication of CPAC’s success than the fact that the original mission statement has practically been turned on its head. While the organizers had initially viewed it as an opportunity for the young college students to gain exposure to their leadership, it has now become the venue for any Republican with national ambitions to tout his conservative bona fides to the grassroots. Keene thinks it’s really two sides of the same coin.
“The young college students who come to CPAC are the ground troops, so to speak. They are the ones who are going to be out there working for the candidates, getting the message out. So yes, it has become a place where you have to stop and get to know those who will be doing that work. The symbiotic relationship that has formed is a mark of its success.”
To today’s generation, though, the name David Keene is most closely associated with the presidency of the National Rifle Association, an organization that is at once one of the most admired and one of the most vilified in today’s political world.
After the tragic school shooting in Newtown in December of 2012, Democrats made the NRA the poster child for everything they believed to be wrong with America’s gun laws and tried to paint the NRA leadership as an insidious group of lobbyists who are willing to see children murdered to protect their special interests. In fact, the campaign incited such hatred that there was actually a video game available on the internet in which the player’s goal was to “kill David Keene.” And yet, despite the concerted efforts of Democrats and a newly re-elected President Obama, who expended a lot of his political capital to get new gun restrictions passed, the campaign yielded no new gun laws on the federal level. Those that were passed on the state level had consequences for their Democratic supporters. In Colorado, two state senators who led the drive to pass new restrictions were removed from office in recall elections. A third resigned to avoid a similar fate. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, formerly seen as a serious presidential contender, saw his stock diminished through the effort.
Some, Democrats mostly, view this as further evidence of the long arm of the NRA. Others point out that the results just show that the American people were never behind the push for gun control. It’s the voters who cast the ballots, removing the senators from office, evidence of the fact that the silent majority of Americans were on the side of the NRA all along.
As Keene reflects on that painful battle, he points out that the evidence was there all along – for those interested in looking for it. “The polling on this issue yields consistent results. After every major push for gun control legislation, support among the public falls. This has happened time and time again. And that’s because after the emotional reaction fades, people evaluate the proposals on their merits. The question that always needs to be answered is, ‘Would this have prevented the tragedy from happening?’ And the answer always is no. The American people realize this and they vote accordingly.”
And yet, the question remains. There are other political issues, other political PACs, yet no one seems to be as successful in getting their way as the NRA. Why is that? Keene explains: “The gun issue has become about something much larger than guns alone. It’s become about freedoms, liberty, and what kind of vision you have for this country. Think about it. Until the ‘60s, guns were not a political issue at all. There was little to no difference between the parties on this. From our perspective, this is still true. We don’t support a political party. We have remained true to our message, and the people respect that. Here is an anecdote that illustrates this perfectly. One of our largest donors told us that he spent a full year researching where to spend his money for a cause that he believed in. He looked into various options and, after all his efforts, he determined that the NRA was the place where he knew his money would be most effective. We are an organization that will stay true to our beliefs and support those who align with our values regardless of political persuasion.”
Although he doesn’t expound on this specifically, it is obvious that Keene believes that the gun debate has become a victim to the growing divide between America’s dominant political parties. As Democrats continue to advocate for a stronger federal government whose reach extends into many aspects of Americans’ private lives, gun control is bound to follow. With the Republican and libertarian streams promoting smaller, less intrusive government, it is only natural for the NRA’s views to merge with that of today’s political right.
But what bothers gun rights advocates like Keene is what they perceive as the inherent illogic of the argument made by their political opponents. “Liberals won’t blame the criminal who commits the crime. They’ll blame the gun. That’s why there are laws on the books in many states that make a crime committed with a gun a completely separate offense than the actual crime itself. It’s like punishing a drunk driver by crushing his car. The car didn’t commit the crime, the driver did. He is the one who should be held accountable.”
But all the explanations don’t fully explain the cohesiveness among the grassroots on this issue. Even Keene stands in awe of the way the NRA has formed a bond between strangers across the country.
“You know, you can walk into a restaurant with an NRA pin or button and be offered a place to stay for the night by a fellow member whom you’ve never met. People feel like they’ve met someone who shares their values. If you remember, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to match the NRA’s efforts and pour money into the gun control effort. They staged a rally in Washington and a few hundred people showed up. Then the NRA staged a rally and there were thousands in attendance. There is just no comparing the level of support among the grassroots.
“I was invited to give a talk at Harvard during the height of this debate. The university provided lots of security, and there were police officers all over. But the students were actually very polite and very well-behaved. Very liberal, but orderly throughout. But what surprised them most was after the speech, when the police officers all lined up to have their picture taken with the president of the NRA. That’s because in their private lives, they are very likely NRA members. Those involved in law enforcement know the importance of an armed populace. The Detroit chief of police surprised people recently by advocating for more citizens to arm themselves. But for those who have thought about this issue from a law enforcement perspective, it came as no surprise.”
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With the 2014 midterm elections looming, a lot is at stake for Republicans. They’ve been beaten down over the last few cycles, suffering from low morale and lots of internecine dispute. With nearly a half century of political experience behind him, Keene has seen the good times and the bad, and he’s optimistic.
“If they can keep their act together, they’ll have a good fall,” he proclaims.
He admits that that’s quite a big if.
“They have to keep from killing each other, that’s the most important thing,” he says with a chuckle. But beyond that bit of advice, Keene is of the camp that subscribes to the “do as little as you can” camp.
“The midterm elections are a referendum on the current administration,” he explains. “It’s a report card. And right now, things are looking good for Republicans. With the rollout of the health care law in the fall, it’s become clear that this is a big problem for the administration. You know, Americans were willing to give this a shot. They didn’t necessarily agree with the law, but they certainly believed that the president had put a plan in place that at least he believed would be beneficial for the American people. Once it collapsed, and it became known that the White House knew for a long time that the promises they had made to the American people were not true, people started doubting both the administration’s competence and its veracity. That’s a bad combination. If people disagree with you, there are two choices: Either convince them you are right or change your position. But once they think you don’t tell them the truth or you’re incompetent, you’ve got problems.”
Keene illustrates this point by making a comparison others have drawn.
“It’s similar to what happened to Bush after Hurricane Katrina. The Iraq War hadn’t been going well for a while before that, but people liked Bush personally and they thought he was competent. Whether they agreed with his decision to go to war or not, they felt that he had the ability to lead the country properly. Once Katrina came and after the debacle that followed, rightly or wrongly, the blame was placed on the Bush administration. This led people to doubt its competence, which meant that if they couldn’t keep people safe in a hurricane, why should we think they can run a war? I think that Obamacare is having a similar effect on the current administration. It’s not just the health care law or the website. It’s an illustration of the administration’s incompetence.”
That may be all true, but how do Republicans convince the American people that theirs is the right vision for the country?
“It’s true, they need to offer a positive vision,” he concedes. “But the climate hasn’t been better for quite a while. For the first time, pollsters are reporting that more people fear government than trust it. With the failure of the health care law and the NSA spying, people are open to the idea of a less intrusive government. Recent polls have shown how this has affected several senate races, where potential Republican pickups in North Carolina and Louisiana have gone from real toss-ups to where the Republican challenger is now leading in the polls. So now is the time to drive that message home.”
There’s no doubt that it’s still a hard message to convey. The media is no friendlier to Republicans than they’ve been in the past, and Democratic operatives haven’t eased up on the name-calling. The conservative agenda is still not about free money. But like David Keene, there’s a lot that lies beneath surface. It’s the job of conservatives to show that to the American people.