NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—In a bustling sports bar filled with lanyard-wearing Conservative Political Action Conference attendees, an anxious Jonathan Krohn stared at the blank screen of his worn-out smartphone.
"My battery's dead again," he sighed, wanting to monitor what people at the conference were saying about him online while he took a break to eat a cheeseburger.
Krohn, an 18-year-old journalist, had good reason to feel stressed-out. Earlier that day, a group of CPAC attendees had cornered him in a hallway and peppered him with questions about why he was there. There was shouting. Two people mocked his clothes, and one cursed at him. (Krohn cursed right back.) Krohn answered their questions and, when he asked to be left alone, they pressed him even more. The incident had left him shaken.
Four years ago, Krohn was a featured speaker at the conference. A precocious 13-year-old with outspoken conservative views, he had authored a book, "Defining Conservatism," which landed him the conference speaking gig. The video of his remarks went viral online, and he was invited to share his views on the "Today" show, CNN and Fox News. He hung out with Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Karl Rove, Bill O'Reilly and Andrew Breitbart. A star was born.
But in the years since, Krohn began to question his political beliefs. He devoured books on political philosophy and realized that he didn't actually have all the answers. In an interview with Politico's Patrick Gavin in the summer of 2012, Krohn conceded that he had veered away from the political views he so strongly defended as a young teen. If he were old enough, Krohn said, he would even vote to re-elect President Barack Obama.
The reaction from the conservative world was swift and fierce. Friends of Krohn's family vowed never to speak to them again, and CPAC attendees who knew him in 2009 anonymously derided him in online news stories.
Since disowning the conservative movement last year, Krohn has written articles for several liberal publications, including Salon and Mother Jones, the magazine that exposed Romney's secretly taped "47 percent" video.
Krohn's Twitter feed is filled with snarky posts about conservative ideas, but he bristles when labeled a "liberal." Sure, he told Yahoo News, he has opinions about issues, but he's open to the idea that he doesn't have all the answers. And he regrets giving the CPAC address in 2009.
"I shouldn't have done that speech," Krohn told Yahoo News at CPAC. "It was a bad idea."
Krohn returned to CPAC this year to cover the conference for Salon, trading the crisp suit and tie he wore in 2009 for a leather jacket, a wrinkled plaid shirt, baggy jeans and sandals. His hair was shaggy and his face, adorned with dark-rimmed glasses, was scruffy with facial hair.
His coverage style resembled that of the older journalists roaming the three-day conference with him: He tweeted jokes about the speakers, chatted up conservative activists in the hallway and crashed the afterparties.
But as Jonathan Krohn the Apostate, he wore a giant target on his back at CPAC.
On Saturday, Krohn found himself in the middle of a shouting match. After watching part of a Breitbart.com panel about Islamic jihadism that included a speech by Michael Mukasey, an attorney general for former President George W. Bush, Krohn struck up a conversation Jamie Weinstein, a conservative opinion writer for the Daily Caller who has a background in Middle East foreign policy issues. Krohn said he'd been offended by what he had heard inside, particularly when Mukasey suggested that he could support a congressional investigation into Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based news organization.
Krohn, who plans to move to northern Iraq to write for a Kurdish news outlet, grew increasingly passionate as he spoke. Waving his arms in the air, he drew the attention of Katie Pavlich, editor of conservative magazine Townhall, who approached them in the hallway.
"Are you Jonathan Krohn?" Pavlich asked, interrupting Krohn's conversation with Weinstein. Standing next to her was Breitbart.com writer Brandon Darby.
Krohn looked up and replied with a nervous, "Ya."
"So you were the kid who was here a couple of years ago," Pavlich said. "You used to be a conservative, and now you're a liberal."
"I'm not a liberal," Krohn replied.
Within seconds, at least eight other CPAC attendees joined in and formed a semicircle around Krohn, whose back was against the wall of the hallway. Some of the people in the crowd pulled out cameras and cellphones and began recording.
Weinstein tried to defuse the situation. "Don't make fun of him," he said.
"I'm not, I'm just asking questions," Pavlich replied, and turned back to Krohn. "So why are you here?"
"I'm a journalist. I'm here for Salon," Krohn said.
"Well considering you made news here a couple of years ago and now you're working for Salon, I think that's a story," Pavlich said. "I'm just asking you why you changed your perspective."
"I changed my perspective because I felt that my views hadn't been completely developed at the time I was 13," he said, an answer he told anyone who asked him that question. "That was completely absurd for me to believe that. I spent a few years taking time off thinking about things and I said, you know, I don't know everything so I'm not going to put myself out as a particular ideology."
"Why did you do it when you were 13?" Pavlich asked.
Growing visibly frustrated, Krohn raised his voice. "Because I was 13! I didn't know what I believed. I grew up in a conservative household with people who supported everything I said when I was 13."
"All right, I don't think you need to interrogate him," Weinstein said.
"I'm a reporter, and I can ask questions, thank you very much," Pavlich said. "I don't need you to tell me what I can and cannot ask him."
"I don't do political commentary," Krohn went on. "I'm just here to see what's going on and to write as a journalist. I'm not here to rant or to come up with opinions on people's political views. ... I don't know why you want to make this a confrontation."
As the cameras and cellphones rolled tape around them, Pavlich and Krohn continued to argue. The loud conversation soon turned to Krohn's opinion of how Muslims were treated at the Breitbart panel. Krohn shouted that he was offended, because he felt that some at CPAC were unfairly portraying all Muslims as terrorists.
Darby swore at Krohn, accusing him of feigning outrage.
"Brother, listen to me," Darby said. "Let me explain something: You're 18. This type of loud angry display is why people gather around you."
There was more shouting, including by Krohn.
"Don't yell in my face," Darby said. "Man, if we were outside and you were yelling at me like that, we would have an issue. Don't talk to me like that. I'm trying to talk to you calmly."
When Weinstein tried again to persuade them lay off of Krohn, Palvich turned to him and said, "I think it's sad as a journalist that you think asking questions is confrontational. Maybe you should get another job."
Leah Sargent, an editor for the website MisfitPolitics.com, chimed in from the side of the group. "Why are you being so defensive?" she asked Krohn, in the same way an older brother would ask why you keep hitting yourself. "You know what? I hope that in the next five years you keep reading and you actually get yourself an education. I would like to recommend 'Atlas Shrugged' to you." She and some of the others began to walk away, but then she turned back around. "Also, if you want to be taken seriously, tuck in your shirt."
(Later, when talking to a group of friends about the incident, Sargent said, "I just want everyone to applaud my self-control for not slapping that stupid brat.")
As Krohn knows full well, politics ain't beanbag, and controversy comes with the territory. He would later write in his piece for Salon that most of his interactions at CPAC were positive, but his past still haunts him. "I don't want this to affect my career and my life," Krohn said once he'd settled down after the hallway shouting match.
Of course, it will. And that's OK. Krohn may want to put that part of his life behind him, but it's still part of his story. The Internet will never forget the video clips, books and articles he published as a young conservative, but as he grows in his career, Krohn will have plenty of opportunities to redefine himself.