On his knees in a suit and tie, a man on a hotel balcony pressed his lips to the snout of an elephant-shaped ice sculpture, waiting for his friend to pour a shot of Fireball whiskey into a hole at the top, which would carry the liquor through a chilling tunnel, down an icy channel, and into his waiting throat. “Ready?” the pourer asked, and tipped the bottle. The golden liquid streamed from the top of the mammoth’s head, down the trunk, and into the open mouth of the man below. He slurped it up and basked.
The pachyderm had been discreetly wheeled, hidden beneath a blanket and undetected, through the crowded lobby of the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center to the seventh-floor hospitality suite rented for the weekend by College Republicans, which served as a hub for young men and women of the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Upon reaching the suite's balcony, the ice sculptor lifted the fabric and unveiled his handiwork: a shimmering block of ice carved in the shape of a grinning elephant wearing a tie and an Uncle Sam top hat with stars along the brim.
A group of College Republicans named the elephant “Nixon,” brought out the whiskey, and CPAC after dark was ready to begin.
It was the second night of a three-day party for young conservatives, who used the suite as a retreat from the bustle of the conference below. Each evening after the official events at CPAC concluded, this was pre-game central for young conservatives who crammed inside to load up on beer and shots before dinner. Attendance at the conference is a rite of passage for college Republicans and conservative activists, about a thousand of whom came to the Gaylord in Oxon Hill, Md., to strengthen their bonds with one another as well as their ideology.
While the annual confab of right-wing activists gets most of its attention for the lineup of famous Republicans and wannabe presidential contenders, sunset is when the real conference begins for the young conservative set.
Confoundingly, this is the time when many journalists who cover the event pack up their gear and head home.
It's a wonder why, after the 1997 CPAC, a reporter named Stephen Glass felt the need to fabricate stories about the party scene here. Glass’ fake stories were so monumental that they were later made into a feature film; one of the most memorable of his yarns included his allegation that a group of college Republicans at CPAC had sipped a minifridge full of liquor bottles. The hotel hosting the event that year didn’t have minifridges.
At CPAC, there’s no need to make stuff up. The stereotype that conservatives are a bunch of buttoned-up fuddy-duddies who don’t know how to party just isn’t true. Right-wingers can rage.
On Thursday—the day before the elephant ice luge’s unveiling—Republican National Committee co-chair Sharon Day, a grandmother of five, made her way through the same crowded suite to address the group of boozing college students. A makeshift bar was set up in the pantry offering a treasure trove of liquor and beer, stocked to sate the appetites of hundreds of thirsty students for three full days.
After Day finished a brief speech, the kids handed her a Coors Light, which she sipped to shouts of “Sharon! Sharon! Sharon!” Then the students and their adult leader gathered in the center of the room for an epic selfie, as those in the background waved their beer cans and Solo cups in the air.
Day stayed around for pictures until a group of guys in the back began to chant, “F--- Obama! F--- Obama!” — her cue to call it a night. Soon after this, the party organizers announced last call and released a stream of tipsy students to the streets of National Harbor to find the next party.
And that’s the thing: At CPAC, there’s always a next party somewhere. In hospitality suites throughout the hotel and in the bars and restaurants in National Harbor, someone, somewhere was paying for an open bar.
That same Thursday night at Public House, a bar across the street from the Gaylord, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform hosted a cocktail hour free-for-all. A few doors down from that, at a dueling piano bar, a group called the National Bloggers Club threw their own packed-house event, where hundreds of conservative activists took hits from three-foot high beer towers with Drudge Sirens blaring on top. Over the course of that night, former Florida Rep. Allen West, author Dinesh D'Souza, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers all made appearances at the party.
Around 8 p.m. on Thursday, West took the stage and attempted to speak over the raucous bar scene. The crowd seemed more interested in their beer towers than a former one-term congressman. But West, a 21-year Army veteran who once shot a pistol next to the head of an Iraqi police officer to make him talk, was unfazed.
“HEY SHUT UP!” he boomed. The level of noise only increased, as some cheered and others talked louder to be heard over him. “You keep talking, you come up and we’ll do some push-ups together!” he threatened.
Some in the bar tried to hush the people around them, but as anyone who’s ever been three beer towers deep knows, bar hushers always fail. The blog bashers continued to bash. West did not like that, and stopped his speech. "Lotta people gonna get a smackdown from me!"
Still noisy. Because it was a bar. With beer towers.
Meanwhile, another bar down the street was crammed with 20-somethings for the “Millennial Madness” party, where Paul, Perry, and Michigan Rep. Justin Amash also made cameos for the throng of buzzing, eager young people who practically mauled them for selfies.
The fact that conservative young'uns use CPAC as a venue to get their rocks off has long been a source of contention among some of the older attendees, who find the bragging of boozing and sexual adventurism in the hotel rooms above the conference unbecoming. In 2012, some conservative bloggers, particularly Erick Erickson and Melissa Clouthier, were aghast at what they saw. Erickson told of his horror at seeing “a half dozen young men, each with CPAC credentials around their necks and each buying condoms” at a pharmacy near the conference. Clouthier described some of the women she saw as dressed as “two-bit whores.”
The most impressive party this year occurred Friday night, nine miles from the conference, behind the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill. There the D.C. bureau of Breitbart News resides in a beautiful row house owned by a mysterious Egyptian friend of the site, who has opened up the home to Breitbart’s writers since 2011. In front of the house, beefy guards stood watch, checking each guest on paper lists. Inside, Breitbart had transformed the home into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, complete with a 17-piece big band dressed in tuxedos, a cigar roller out back who made Breitbart-branded stogies, a spread of food, and two bars stocked with top-shelf liquor.
In front of the band, which had set up in the downstairs living room, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert showed off his skills as a swing dancer, while guests poured Champagne from a kegerator.
In the parlor, reporters from the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, websites that have been at the receiving end of scorn from Breitbart’s conservative media critics, tended bar, pouring shots and mixing cocktails. Even McKay Coppins, a BuzzFeed reporter who recently found himself in a feud with Breitbart News over a profile about Donald Trump, made an appearance. (He declined to bartend.)
On Saturday, the final night, outgoing Texas Rep. Steve Stockman threw a shindig on the fourth floor of the hotel, where he offered $20 to anyone who would jump in the hot tub on a balcony of the suite. At least one man obliged, and was reportedly paid for his troubles.
For many, the mornings after — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — were spent hazily piecing together the previous night’s festivities by wading through a flurry of regrettable tweets, Instagrams, and texts.
For some, the party at CPAC is all that matters.
“I didn’t come for the speeches,” one reveler said. “I’m here for the booze and the girls.”
To you, sir, Nixon tips his icy, star-spangled top hat.