The Magazine

Progressive Summer Camp

From the June 14, 2004 issue: Among the anti-Bush organizers.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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BENJAMIN CLARY--pale, spindly, and 18 years old--is on message. It's late in the afternoon on Thursday, June 3, in a dim corner of the Wardman Park Marriott hotel, a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C., and Ben is working the Wellstone Action booth at the Take Back America conference, an annual gathering of progressive activists. But you know, Ben says, he should be back home.

Back home is Minnesota's Twin Cities, where Ben will graduate from his high school, St. Paul's Academy, in a few days, and really, he says, he ought to be worried about prom, diplomas, senior night, and then college. But more important is an educational experience he had awhile back. More important is the time he spent at Camp Wellstone.

There are many Camp Wellstones. The one Ben went to was in Minnesota, home of the camp's namesake, the late liberal Democratic senator Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in October 2002. Shortly afterwards, his two sons founded Wellstone Action, a political advocacy group that runs training camps for candidates, campaign staff, and activists. "We just did one in West Virginia," Ben says, eyes beaming. "We have another in D.C. next week, then California, then Massachusetts." Ben did the campaign staff track. I ask him if he had fun at camp. "It was great," he says, without hesitation. "We need to continue the senator's work."

Ben is busy. This is the largest Camp Wellstone of them all. There are over 2,000 Democrats, Greens, activists, progressives, liberals, moderates, peaceniks, politicians, centrists, senators, and journalists swarming the Marriott, which sits like a fortress atop a hill overlooking the capital's Rock Creek Park. They came here to discuss how to defeat George Bush in particular and the right wing in general. They came to form a progressive movement that will shape American politics for years to come. And they came to rub shoulders. Ben rubs shoulders with Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who rubs shoulders with Howard Dean, who rubs shoulders with billionaire financier George Soros, who rubs shoulders with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Hillary Clinton is here, as is Arianna Huffington. Amazingly, Al Franken is not.

It's dizzying. Standing at Ben's Wellstone Action booth, you can see booths for Common Cause, Progressive Majority, United Steelworkers of America, Public Campaign, and so on. There's the conference book shop where one can purchase the collected Chomsky, along with Jim Hightower and Paul Krugman and Howard Zinn, or maybe The New Pearl Harbor (as in the one FDR let happen), which argues that President Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (The New Pearl Harbor, incidentally, is outselling the works of Hightower, Krugman, and Zinn at Amazon.com.) Over there is the booth for Fenton Communications, the lefty public relations firm that flacks for MoveOn.org and sundry others, including the antiwar September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

But if the celebrities are a draw, what the organizers really hope the Bens of America will take home are the techniques and expertise they pick up in smaller break-out sessions. Like the one in the Roosevelt Room, where a small crowd assembles for a panel discussion on "Guns, God, and Gays: The Role of Social Issues in the 2004 Election." A pixieish woman from Progressive Majority walks to the front of the room and leans against the wall, her frizzled hair splaying out in several directions. It's packed and muggy here. She looks exhausted. "Anyone not heard my spiel yet?" she asks. A few people raise their hands. She sighs. "Only one? Two? Okay then." Pause. "We are a nonpartisan organization. I must say that." Another pause. She looks around the room. "Having said that, let me introduce our panel." There's Joe Sudbay, formerly of Handgun Control; Barb Menard of Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group; Beth Shipp of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group, and Tanya Clay of Ralph Neas's People for the American Way.

Sudbay goes first. He's an optimist. "The guns issue works in swing districts," he says, meaning that swing voters and moderates are supportive of restrictions on gun ownership. There are murmurs of disbelief. "Yes," Sudbay continues, "that's inconsistent with the spin here in Washington." The spin here in Washington is that the guns issue works against liberals. But that's only because "liberals are easy scapegoats when things don't go right."