Inside the Council for National Policy

Unlike, say, the Heritage Foundation, which has a media studio in its headquarters, or the American Enterprise Institute, which publishes journals, the CNP is content to operate in the alleyways of downtown Washington. Part of what keeps it so healthy, according to current members, is the same penchant for secrecy that drives outsiders crazy.

As then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton prepared to tell NBC News' Katie Couric that her husband was a victim of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," a senior Clinton adviser asked Skipp Porteous, then the head of a secular watchdog group, for information on the CNP. Porteous' conclusions — "that this is a group that has the ideology, the money and the political backing to cause social change in the United States" — became a part of the White House litany.

Such talk is an apparition, members say. Much ado about nothing.

CNP will forever be nothing more than a "comfortable place" for like-minded folks to brainstorm, one member said.

"What they decided at one point was that people will simply feel more at ease," said another member, Balint Vazsonyi, who joined the group in 1997. "It's certainly not for a political reason. The views discussed here are among those you see on the television or when you open a newspaper."

Vazsonyi, a concert pianist who writes a column syndicated by Knight-Ridder, said CNP gave him a chance to meet people who shared his views.

"I knew very, very few people in the political world. I knew lots of musicians, but nobody in politics. Then someone said to me, 'There's a place for people who are and have been interested in what you're interested in, and you might like to be known by them.'

"That," he said, "was really the hook."

Quiet — Just the Way They Like It

CNP may simply be press-shy because of traditional qualms about the establishment media's secular, often politically liberal perspective, and because "they attribute things that individual members may do to us," Baldwin says.

The London Guardian linked arch-conservative gun-rights activist Larry Pratt with Attorney General John Aschroft by saying "the two men know each another from a secretive but highly influential right-wing religious group called the Council for National Policy."

More recently, when California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon disclosed his campaign's contributors, The Associated Press made sure to note that four members of CNP had donated to Simon's campaign — as if conservatives donating to conservatives was worthy of a news story all its own. (Simon's father, the former treasury secretary, was a CNP member).

Other CNP press leaks have been less the product of liberal media snooping than of internal jockeying. When James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, told a CNP gathering in 1998 that he was thinking of withdrawing support for the Republican Party, rival conservative leaders made sure the national media got word of the speech.

The CNP remains obscure. Experienced Washingtonians often mistake them for another organization, the liberal Center for National Policy. The Washington Times reported Jan. 23 that Sen. John Kerry spoke to the Council for National Policy about AWNR drilling, when, in fact, the Massachusetts Democrat spoke to the Center for National Policy, a very different organization. Both the Council and Center are not to be confused with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Or the National Center for Policy Analysis.

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