CPAC: the first day back at school after a long summer

"Mean Girls" cafeteria scene

Regardless of your views on CPAC, there’s no denying the feeling of community —positive or negative— that it can bring. It reunites old friends who share similar ideas and beliefs, can make you feel really well-liked or out of place, and lends itself to both pleasant and awkward run-ins.

Upon being stopped by old friends and colleagues every couple of minutes at CPAC, Kyana and I determined that the gathering is similar to the first day back at school after a long summer. For us, CPAC is like high school because we enjoyed those years and always looked forward to starting each new semester, which allowed us to get back in the swing of things with our respective social circles.

At Georgetown's Serendipity 3!
With Kyana
Reunion with Katie, one of my awesome former interns
With goofy Derek

For those who dislike CPAC (perhaps journalists with centrist or left-wing outlets who are forced to cover the event), it’s more like the first day of middle school, which I’m fairly certain is universally horrendous for all. You are a  pariah and dread bumping into those with whom you have a bad history. You don’t want to be there, but you have to attend. You cope with this thing by writing away in your journal, or in the contemporary world, your blog, and tweeting about your problems with the cream of the crop folks.

Though I don’t identify with a political party, I liked the first day of CPAC. It was a nice reunion with my former interns, coworkers and bosses, and DC friends.  You have the chance to see how they’ve changed over an extended period of time and what they’ve been up to lately. You may even be on the lookout for a former flame. A friend of mine was scoping out CPAC attendees all day in search of his ex-girlfriend. I’m glad I didn’t spend my day worrying like that. Oh, the tangled web of nerd love.

Thankfully, all my interactions have been positive. I even met some of my Twitter followers, and the encounters made me think of high school students who instant message each other constantly but never interact in person. I’m not here for the politics, but to be with my friends and feel a sense of community, which I’m still lacking in New York. It’s like spending a lonely summer at home and being so thrilled to return to school, where you can actually hang out with people all day.

While CPAC 2012 encounters were just what I needed to remind myself that I have a strong social network, I know plenty of individuals here who would probably rather be with a different crowd. After all, CPAC undoubtedly has a hierarchy. It’s the adult equivalent of a high school cafeteria. The really popular speakers get the Marriott Ballroom for speeches whereas the lesser valued folks are only granted the Marshall Ballroom. The media is divided into tiers as well. Those from big time news organizations get a large room, free coffee and snacks, and a pink media sticker while bloggers are limited to a tiny seating area with too few extension cords. The popular people give short speeches and make themselves scarce because they’ll get mauled if they don’t keep a low profile. Some just dodge the area as much as possible to minimize the number of uncomfortable moments they’ll have. Sarah Palin is the superintendent you always hear about but never see. Speaker Boehner is the likable principal you want to befriend but know is too busy to meet with you one-on-one. Ann Coulter is Homecoming Queen, and Andrew Breitbart and Matt Lewis are on Homecoming court. Mitt Romney is student body president and Newt Gingrich is his charming rival who rubs many the wrong way and simply isn’t diplomatic enough to dethrone the current leader. Rick Perry is the football star who not so long ago seemed to be on top of the world and Homecoming King material, but lost his appeal overnight. Herman Cain is the wannabe cool kid who has a few acquaintances in the in-crowd but is always last to be invited to big events and parties. Gretchen Weiners, anyone?

Gretchen Weiners in "Mean Girls"
"Mean Girls" still

Then there are those who seem to have less-than-grand CPAC stories. Though I have absolutely no clue what he thinks of CPAC, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher published a hilarious tweet Thursday that reads, “@andrewbreitbart just almost knocked me down [the] escalator.” It’s all too reminiscent of the generic insufferable school days in which nothing seems to go in your favor. Maybe someone whacks your textbooks out of your hands or accidentally spills his/her lunch on you in front of the whole student body. My only comparable experience took place at the end of sixth grade, when one of my bullies kicked my rolling backpack (thanks, mom and dad for making me an even bigger nerd by making me wear that) with so much force that the wheel broke, provoking laughter and hysteria from passersby and even some callous teachers. We all have stories like this, and while they probably don’t occur at CPAC, it’s
easy to feel like an outsider at this conference.

It’s been awesome to get together with good people this week, even though I’ve had to sit through some really dull, underwhelming speeches (read: boring classes!) throughout the experience. Like in school, there’s no shortage of excitement here, especially with the Occupy protesters chanting outside. As long as I have the chance to see people I care about, I’m fulfilled enough, regardless of what happens on stage. I took the same approach to education: My most valuable experiences were not born in the classroom, but in the presence of classmates and friends.

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