When Steve Baldwin, the executive director of an organization with the stale-as-old-bread name of the Council for National Policy, boasts that "we control everything in the world," he is only half-kidding.
Half-kidding, because the council doesn't really control the world. The staff of about eight, working in a modern office building in Fairfax, Va., isn't even enough for a real full-court basketball game.
But also half-serious because the council has deservedly attained the reputation for conceiving and promoting the ideas of many who in fact do want to control everything in the world.
For many liberals, the 22-year-old council is very dangerous and dangerously secretive, and has fueled conspiratorial antipathy. The group wants to be the conservative version of the Council on Foreign Relations, but to some, CNP members — among the brightest lights of the hard right — are up to no good.
The CNP meets this weekend at a Washington location known to fewer insiders than the identity of the vice president's undisclosed chunk of bedrock.
Look for them if you're at a ritzy hotel in Tyson's Corner, Va.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is the headliner. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales will speak, as will Timothy Goeglein, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. There have been no public announcements, and there won't be. The 500 or so members will hear private, unvarnished presentations.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said Gonzales' remarks would not be released. The CNP's bylaws keep out the press and prevent disclosure of the transcribed proceedings — unless all the speakers give their assent. Few do.
In a 2000 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the CNP says it holds "educational conferences and seminars for national leaders in the field of business, government, religion and academia." It says it produces a weekly newsletter keeping members abreast of developments, and a biyearly collection of speeches. Executive Director Morton Blackwell was paid a little more than $70,000. The organization took in more than $732,000.
Baldwin said he doesn't get many calls from the press. But he's happy to answer some basic questions.
Of the group's reputation, he said, "There's a lot of stuff out there claiming we're a lot more than we are."
What they are — or rather, what sway they hold — is a source of some dispute.
In 1999, candidate George W. Bush spoke before a closed-press CNP session in San Antonio. His speech, contemporaneously described as a typical mid-campaign ministration to conservatives, was recorded on audio tape.
(Depending on whose account you believe, Bush promised to appoint only anti-abortion-rights judges to the Supreme Court, or he stuck to his campaign "strict constructionist" phrase. Or he took a tough stance against gays and lesbians, or maybe he didn't).
The media and center-left activist groups urged the group and Bush's presidential campaign to release the tape of his remarks. The CNP, citing its bylaws that restrict access to speeches, declined. So did the Bush campaign, citing the CNP.
Shortly thereafter, magisterial conservatives pronounced the allegedly moderate younger Bush fit for the mantle of Republican leadership.
The two events might not be connected. But since none of the participants would say what Bush said, the CNP's kingmaking role mushroomed in the mind's eye, at least to the Democratic National Committee, which urged release of the tapes.