Lisa De Pasquale is a conservative writer of both fiction and punditry who, to date, was the longest-serving head of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). She organized the behemoth conference from 2006 to 2011. During her time behind the scenes, she's seen and done things that read less like a job and more like a Fox News fever dream.
In an interview with Jezebel, Lisa walks us through the whirlwind—who's actually cool, who actually isn't, and who she accidentally threw up in front of—as well as the current struggle over gay acceptance in the American right. You can read more about her views on Breitbart, TownHall, et al; you can read a lightly fictionalized version of her adventures and misadventures in her 2014 novel Finding Mr. Righteous. You can read about her controversial dismissal from an increasingly intolerant-to-gay-people CPAC right here.
How did you come to be the director of CPAC?
Through my previous job as program director of a conservative women's organization, I had been attending CPAC since 2000. CPAC had three directors from 2000 to 2006 and given that I was from a small organization, I always tried to be helpful because I figured if CPAC was a success it would help our organization, too. I helped CPAC get speakers I had relationships with like Ann Coulter, Dr. Laura, and former Miss America Erika Harold. In 2006, when the CPAC Director announced she was leaving, both she and the former director recommended me for the job. I remember it as the last day a group of two or more conservatives liked me.
What did you enjoy most about the job?
The most enjoyable part of the job was making memorable experiences for attendees. Like getting photos of volunteers with speakers they liked (this was before the Selfie Age) or giving people the opportunity to introduce their heroes. I also loved those surprise moments for the audience, like newly-elected Senator Scott Brown introducing Mitt Romney. My two favorites, though, are surprising a "Red Eye" super fan by sitting Greg Gutfeld, Andy Levy, and Bill Schultz at her banquet table and introducing Rush Limbaugh at CPAC 2009.
The least is trying to make the over 150 participating organizations happy. In 2011, my last year, it was especially difficult because GOProud, a now defunct organization of gay conservatives and their allies [insert joke], was allowed to fully participate as a cosponsor for the second year in a row. There were several ACU/CPAC board members and organizations who led a campaign to get GOProud out and keep invited speakers from attending. In the end, I was fired and the anti-inclusion forces won. It's hard to believe that my first CPAC in 2000 was more inclusionary than the one in 2015. Over the years people have rewritten the history and timeline of what happened with GOProud, which is why I wrote about it in my book, Finding Mr. Righteous.
It sounds like behind the scenes, you've had to play many roles. What's the most unexpected, random task you've had to do behind the scenes at CPAC?
The oddest thing I had to do was babysit the chalkboard Glenn Beck wrote on during his speech at CPAC 2010. I thought it would be good to preserve what he wrote, so every few hours I sprayed it down with a varnish. It was in a small room, so after a few trips I think the fumes started to get to me.
Tell me about the time you barfed in front of Dick Cheney.
Let me first say that I am probably the only person who never drank at CPAC, so it wasn't alcohol-related. Running CPAC was non-stop, so I had to grab meals when I could. I accidentally ate a couple Chick-fil-A nuggets too fast, so out they came while Vice President Cheney did the gentlemanly thing and pretended not to notice. It was embarrassing and a waste of Chick-fil-A, a true low point in my life.
What's the biggest near-disaster you've had to fend off as director of CPAC?
It was my first year as director and there was one banquet that was one disaster after another. The banquet emcee forgot to announce a major award, a group of vets from Walter Reed were backstage smoking pot (good for them!), a drunk student threw up on me, and right before a speech by Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister of the Ukraine, the fire alarm went off. We joked it was the work of Russian spies. There were some other things, but I don't want to implicate anyone. They know who they are. I thought that was going to be my last CPAC, but they ended up keeping me around for four more conferences. I set the record at five and it hasn't been broken.
If you had it to do all over again, what would you change about the conference?
On the conference, I would have made sure board members had all the information on the fake boycott because of GOProud's participation in 2011. Most of the groups who signed on to a letter to boycott had never sponsored before, so some board members were led to believe that the boycott would hurt the conference financially. In reality, it was the most successful conference in my five years there.
On a personal note, there was one man I met in a bar after one of the banquets in 2008. He was at the conference to do a book signing. Someone introduced me to him and he said, "You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen." I was so in conference mode that I thought he was just angling for a speaking slot. Looking back I'm sure it was just an honest compliment and, if I was lucky, a pick-up line. That man was single and named Marcus Luttrell (author of Lone Survivor). I regret not sticking around and finding out what could have been… sigh.
It seems like a lot of people at CPAC are looking to flirt with each other. Has it always been that way?
Yes, not only is it filled with college kids; it's also filled with people away from their significant others. People tend to behave badly when you mix alcohol and lack of sleep. I wrote a little bit about the debauchery in my book. It's not Stephan Glass-level orgies, but some people do take a break from morals. It's due to the isolated conference atmosphere. If it were a conference of doctors or teachers I think the same things would happen.
Do you know anybody who has met somebody at CPAC that they've ended up dating or marrying? Who?
Supposedly Dan and Marilyn Quayle met at CPAC. While I was director a couple asked if their wedding could be performed at CPAC because they met there. It would have been a simple ceremony on stage. They decided they would rather do the traditional wedding with family, so the CPAC wedding never happened. Also, there are a couple CPAC/ACU employees who ended up marrying student volunteers. Over the last week I've seen some people on Twitter and Facebook mention that they met their significant others at CPAC, so it does happen! As I always say, the odds are good, but the goods are odd.
Who is the nicest politician or personality you've dealt with behind the scenes? The meanest? (If you don't want to name names, can you drop a general hint or two?)
Aside from people like Ann Coulter who I already knew, the nicest was Rush Limbaugh. Not only was he extremely nice, but very humble. He didn't have an entourage or any backstage demands. Backstage he asked what had been the biggest news from the conference. I don't remember what I said, but the reality was he was going to be the biggest news of the conference. That he was genuinely interested in the conference made me proud of the work my team and I had done. He also personally signed 100 or so Limbaugh Letters for our volunteers. I should mention that the man responsible for making his speech happen was the recently departed Kit Carson. He was a great man who, like Limbaugh, was always interested in other people's opinions.
I won't name names on the meanest, but I will say it's never the A-listers. It's always the B or C-list people who are demanding and impatient. They act like divas because they think that is how important people act.
What's your most memorable CPAC moment?
Being on stage with Rush Limbaugh in 2009. Barack Obama had just won the election and everyone expected CPAC to be a dismal affair. Rush was electric and the audience was hungry for a positive mood despite the media's expectations that they would be depressed. The speech was carried live on Fox News, CNN and C-SPAN and clips were replayed for several weeks. Seeing myself (and the nasty comments) motivated me to lose over 100 pounds.
What CPAC moment would you most like to forget? (Besides the barfing)
The moment when I had to carry a cardboard box of my things after being fired despite five years of increasingly successful (both financially and in growth) CPACs.
Can you go into more detail about your firing?
I sensed that the organization and the conference would be moving in a direction I wasn't comfortable with, since then-Chairman David Keene was stepping down to be President of the NRA. I actually had a job interview that morning. Being fired caught me by surprise, though, because I had never worked with the incoming ACU Executive Director or talked to the recently elected chairman. I was disappointed that a decision was made to start with a new team without hearing my side of the conference's successes despite the faux boycott. Interestingly, the chairman, executive director, and CPAC director who thought they could all do better are no longer there.
Did people show you their support behind the scenes?
Yes, there were a few board members who reached out to me after I left, but I've mostly lost touch with everyone who was connected to CPAC, even those I considered genuine friends. It's DC; many people are out for themselves. It gets to be very frustrating when people privately tell you that you're right but sit in silence when it matters. I imagine it was even worse for GOProud founders Jimmy LaSalvia and Chris Barron.
Interestingly, just before CPAC this year a person in leadership at ACU called me at 9:30 at night during a holiday weekend. I never worked with him, but during the past year he said he had gotten to see how everything works. He said he just wanted to call and thank me for keeping CPAC successful the years I was there. It was gratifying to hear. Sort of like an ex-boyfriend drunk-dialing me and saying I was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Can you explain more about how CPAC is still keeping gay conservatives out? When do you think this will change?
When I first started to attend CPAC in 2000, Log Cabin Republicans was allowed to be a cosponsor. Other groups that weren't conservative like the ACLU and Marijuana Policy Project were also there as exhibitors. There were years when Arlen Specter and others on the "naughty list" spoke. If someone wanted to be at CPAC knowing that 70 or 80 percent of the conference attendees would be yelling at them, why not let them?
When GOProud was founded in 2009, one of the first things they did was buy a sponsorship for CPAC 2010. They knew there would be confrontations, but they knew it was important to the movement to be there. They were also at CPAC 2011. So, CPAC has a history of allowing groups that are controversial. If you put two conservatives in a room they will fight about something, so it's impossible to get consensus on anything.
Then, leading up to CPAC 2014 and 2015, they made a big deal about welcoming gay conservatives as attendees. I find this very insulting given that gay conservatives have been allowed to have meaningful participation as cosponsors and speakers in the past. Log Cabin Republicans was denied a booth this year, but later accepted a slot on a panel about Russia. While it's a step in the right direction, it's not exactly a victory. CPAC is still several paces behind where it used to be. As board members drop off and younger conservatives who support inclusion grow up and start running organizations, I think it's possible for CPAC to go back to being a more inclusionary conference. I was part of a team that built the conference up from 4,000 attendees to over 10,000 attendees in just five years. I don't want it to fail, but if it doesn't reflect the views of an increasingly younger and more open-minded conservative population it might never be what it once was.
Top image via screengrab.