Inside the Council for National Policy

Meet the Most Powerful Conservative Group You've Never Heard Of

By Marc J. Ambinder

W A S H I N G T O N, May 2

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.

Partly because so little was known about CNP, the hubbub died down.

The CNP Against Liberalism

The CNP describes itself as a counterweight against liberal domination of the American agenda.

That countering is heavy and silent, in part because few people, outside its members, seem to know what the group is, what it does, how it raises money, and how interlocked it has become in the matrix of conservative activism.

Conservative, it clearly is.

Unlike other groups that meet in darkened chambers, the CNP doesn't seem to favor, as a matter of policy and choice of guests, one-worlders, secular humanists, or multicultural multilateralists.

According to one of its most prominent members (who asked that his name not be used), the CNP is simply and nothing but a self-selected, conservative counterweight to the influential center-left establishment.

Panel topics at this year's convention hew to the CNP's world view, but Baldwin, who wouldn't give specifics, said they reflected many different vantage points.

"We'll probably discuss some of the hot issues that are relevant today. The Middle East … We'll have a number of speakers from different perspectives. We're not of all one like mind when it comes to what's going on there."

He continued: "Worldwide terrorism. Campaign finance reform. Generally, we kind of mirror what's going on in society. We pride ourselves on being relevant and timely, so that members want to come to our meetings."

Still, the group's shadowy reputation deters some high-profile figures from speaking before it — those who directly influence policy.

For example: A knowledgeable person lists former CIA Director James Woolsey as a Friday night speaker and says that on Saturday, Reagan defense official Frank Gaffney will debate former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan about Israel.

The cavalcade of "formers" resembles nothing more formidable than a Fox News prime-time guest lineup.

In the 1990s, social issues tended to dominate the panels, and guests tended to be talking heads who were plugged in to policy circles, rather than operating from within them.

The concoction of federalism, economic growth, social traditionalism, religious activism and anti-secularism goes down well among members because it is spiced with disdain for a common enemy: the creeping influence of political and philosophical liberalism.

Many current and former members politely said they would prefer not to speak on the organization's behalf. Those who did respond to telephone and e-mail messages declined to talk about their interest in the organization. More than a dozen did not respond at all.

"Obviously, membership would imply that there is a commonality, so that goes without saying," said Alvin Williams, CEO of a political action committee that promotes black conservatives. "I don't think it is anything threatening at all."

He declined to elaborate.

Darla St. Martin, associate executive director of the National Right to Life, would only say, "Since everyone else is so skeptical [about speaking], I don't think I should."

Even Judicial Watch's Larry Klayman, the watchdog and open government proponent, would not comment, a spokesman said. His busy schedule — four depositions in two days — precluded a short telephone interview.

Gary Bauer, the former presidential candidate and ubiquitous media presence, asked a spokesman to decline a request for an interview about the CNP, citing the group's long-standing policy against press publicity.

Judging by its 1998 membership roster, which was obtained by a secular watchdog group called the Institute for First Amendment Studies and posted on its Web site, the New Right's many colors are represented, but there are few, if any, neo-conservatives, Republican moderates and libertarians.

Selective name dropping doesn't juice up a conspiracy. The evidence that the CNP is an axis of nefarity is slim. Conservative groups are quick to point out that liberal watchdogs like Common Cause have a great influence in public policy debates, and, for instance, a direct hand in writing the campaign-finance legislation.

A New Force in the Age of Reagan

But even CNP backers claim that the liberal establishment has nothing comparable — no central gathering of its powerful members.

The idea for CNP gestated since the late 1960s, when the American Right, aiming for more cake, desired a vigorous voice to influence policy and elite opinion at the margins. Intellectuals it had, but practical policy seminars were missing. The Moral Majority flashed into being after Roe vs. Wade, but it was oriented toward Middle America, not to not-liberal Washington power-brokers.

CNP was conceived in 1981 by at least five fathers, including the Rev. Tim LaHaye, an evangelical preacher who was then the head of the Moral Majority. (LaHaye is the co-author of the popular Left Behind series that predicts and subsequently depicts the Apocalypse). Nelson Baker Hunt, billionaire son of billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt (connected to both the John Birch Society and to Ronald Reagan's political network), businessman and one-time murder suspect T. Cullen Davis, and wealthy John Bircher William Cies provided the seed money.

Top Republicans were quickly recruited to fill in the gaps; hard-right thinkers met up with sympathetic politicians. And suddenly, the right had a counterpart to liberal policy groups. Christian activist Paul Weyrich took responsibility for bringing together the best minds of conservatism, and his imprint on the group's mission is unmistakable: It provided a forum for religiously engaged conservative Christians to influence the geography of American political power.

At its first meeting in May of 1981, the CNP gave an award to Reagan budget guru David Stockman, strategized about judicial appointments, and reveled in its newness.

Since then, at thrice-yearly conventions, the CNP has functioned as a sausage factory for conservative ideas of a particular goût: strong affirmations of military power, Christian heritage, traditional values, and leave-us-alone-get-off-our-backs legislation. That red meat is seasoned by groups like David Keene's American Conservative Union, researched and vetted by conservative policy groups, chewed on and tested at statewide activist meetings.

There's no denying their influence: Money is transferred from benefactor to worthy cause. Aspirants meet benefactors.

The CNP helped Christian conservatives take control of the Republican state party apparati in Southern and Midwestern states. It helped to spread word about the infamous "Clinton Chronicles" videotapes that linked the president to a host of crimes in Arkansas.

But the CNP is one factory among many. It stands out nowadays because it prefers not to stand out.

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.

Porteous' group, The Institute for First Amendment Studies, posted the CNP's roster on its Web site and managed to slip past security at several CNP meetings throughout the 1990s and soon published details notes of the proceedings.

If their summaries are reliable — and the IFAS swears they are — the from-the-fly-on-the-wall thrill and the occasional agitated quotation for Democratic opposition research files do little to sustain the belief that the CNP is ruling America behind those French doors of the Fairfax hotel conference rooms.

"There's nothing wrong with what they are doing," Porteous said. "It's just that they're ultraconservative and a lot of people don't agree with that."

"I don't think they are out there pounding their chests," said Joel Kaplan, a Syracuse University journalism professor who has studied CNP's ties to conservative projects. "But I don't think that they're hiding either."