It was no surprise that Brian Hackett began his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. by ripping into Barack Obama. “I would just like the president to know,” the fiery TCNJ senior declared, “these teleprompters are not on, and we’re all speaking off-the-cuff because we’re passionate about what we believe in!”
The two-minute rallying cry barreled on.
“And we know what we believe in!” Hackett unleashed, to whoops and whistles from the eager crowd before him. The teleprompters he so passionately decried, as fate had it, would later be read from by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Glenn Beck, all of whom headlined CPAC – the annual February gathering of conservative politicos and activists from across the country. In a follow-up interview, Hackett did not comment on whether those individuals’ teleprompter usage also implied a lack of stridency and/or conviction.
Gesturing to the crowd in the same brisk, polished manner normally observed among politicians seasoned in campaign-speak, Hackett radiated with ambition for elected office – though he is notably coy when asked to comment on future political aspirations.
On the Amtrak ride home from Washington, Hackett said his Blackberry lit up with calls and emails from Republican officials in Middlesex County who urged him to consider mounting an effort to replace outgoing New Jersey State Senator Bill Baroni. Hackett would have considered doing so, he said, if not for one glaring obstacle: “I appreciate the confidence,” he wrote back to his courters, “but I have to be thirty.” Indeed, the State Constitution has enshrined within it such prohibitive statutes that would have legally prevented Hackett from taking a seat in the legislature’s upper chamber.
The State Assembly, however, is a different story.
In June 2009, at age 21, Hackett sought the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein in New Jersey’s 14th legislative district. A resident of Monroe Township in Middlesex County, Hackett successfully secured the backing of the Middlesex County Republican Party.
But in Mercer County, which traditionally holds more sway in the 14th district’s candidate-selection process, Hackett’s prospects were dimmed. According to a PolitickerNJ.com report, party operatives there worried that “working and middle-class people would not take Hackett seriously” due to his age – and therefore lack of experience paying property taxes. He would have been the youngest person in New Jersey history elected to statewide office, but ultimately Hackett’s bid ran out of steam. He lost the Republican primary, though not by a devastating margin.
“The absence of electoral victory does not mean the lack of political successes,” Hackett said of his run during the CPAC speech. “And boy, did I rustle feathers.”
Today, Hackett is as well-versed as any in Republican Party internal dynamics and mechanisms. He can rattle off talking points and conservative mantras with a degree of precision and shrewdness impressive even to those offended by his politics. He has an acute sense of how to succeed in the political arena – or as he describes it, “the institution at hand” – with all its requisite networking, handshaking, and trust-building.
Thanks to a winning entry in a student essay contest on the importance of freedom, Hackett attended CPAC on a “diamond package” – an all-access pass to banquets, cocktail receptions, and other exclusive events throughout the weekend. A VIP of sorts, he mingled delightedly with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, and other mainstays of modern American conservativism. Hackett unexpectedly found himself at the butt of a few jokes when a steak dinner forced him to reveal his decidedly anomalous vegetarianism. “Go figure,” he sighed.
The subtly-tanned Hackett, now 22, was invited to address the conference as part of a panel of young leaders being honored for “spreading freedom in their local areas.” Though most of the speeches consisted primarily of generic conservative applause-lines, one panelist caused controversy when he used his allotted two minutes to denounce the conference’s planners for accepting an LGBT rights organization as a sponsor. The inclusion incensed some social conservative heavyweights, including the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, which withdrew its participation in the conference as a result.
“I’d like to condemn CPAC for bringing ‘GOProud’ to this event,” lashed Ryan Sorba, the twenty-something California activist, only to be met with mostly groans (mixed with some sporadic cheers) from the audience. “The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do,” he taunted the unsympathetic onlookers. “Bring it.”
“It was an inappropriate tirade,” Hackett reflected, while carefully not condemning the substance of the remarks. “The time in which he chose to express himself was not proper.”
GOProud was not the only conference sponsor to draw strong reactions from attendees and outside commentators. The John Birch Society – a vehemently xenophobic organization that had been banned from CPAC since the 1960s for its perceived hostility towards Jews, nonwhites, and even Mormons – this year had a booth at the event. William F. Buckley, the recently deceased author who for many represented the intellectual anchor of today’s conservative movement, rigorously maligned the Society as unfit to dwell even under the Republican Party’s “big tent.”
This year, the tent apparently expanded to encompass the movement’s most fringe-like elements, but Hackett dismissed the notion that nonwhite and non-heterosexual Republicans might have felt disenfranchised. “[RNC Chairman] Michael Steele is black, and he spoke there several times,” Hackett said. “There were many black conservatives in attendance. Inflammatory rhetoric doesn’t necessarily mean racism.”
The John Birch Society’s presence at this year’s conference, Hackett insisted, should be taken more as a testament to conservatives’ value of diversity than an attempt to demean or degrade any particular constituency. “I wouldn’t associate myself with all of it, but that’s the joy of CPAC.”
For Hackett, another appealing joy of CPAC lies in its spirited nightlife. “Conservatives have the most fun,” he said with an easy smile. “Unfortunately I couldn’t go quite as wild the night after my speech as I did the night before, because people would say – that guy dancing on the bar, he’s the one from the panel!” No word on whether incriminating photos have subsequently appeared on Facebook.
Glenn Beck, perhaps the media’s leading conservative provocateur, delivered the conference’s keynote address to mostly glowing reviews – but Hackett wasn’t bowled over. “For me, Beck’s a little melodramatic,” he said, “but he plays an important role in the movement.” Indeed, Beck has been characterized by some as the ever-analyzed Tea Party’s titular “leader” – someone whose emotional outbursts and conspiratorial bombast appeals primarily to those on the rightward end of the conservative ideological spectrum. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a darling of all Republicans; Beck has made some stomachs queasy within the Party establishment. Each day on Fox News, he rouses populist fervor among those sickened by current political trends in Washington, railing against Congressional Republicans who purportedly fail to uphold true conservative principles.
And if it is from Beck that the Tea Party gets its marching orders, their commanding general is Sarah Palin. In what some interpreted as a blatant shun, Palin headlined the first annual Tea Party convention in Memphis, Tennessee while skipping out on CPAC. Of those currently considered likely to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, she was the only one not to attend the conference. “I really like Palin,” Hackett said, “but I don’t think right now she’s prepared.”
Hackett was resistant to declare preference for a 2012 candidate at this early stage. If forced to do so, however, his choice as of now would be Mitt Romney, with whom he chatted at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Ranch in October of last year. “At first I had some doubts as to whether he was a true conservative,” Hackett said of the former Massachusetts governor. “But now I’m convinced.”
Despite his continual politicking, Hackett is not yet willing to announce any post-graduation plans – but he is having new business cards made. His only worry is deciding which of his many titles to affix them with. “I wear several different hats,” he added. Indeed, for this most well-known TCNJ Republican, hats abound – Hackett is now working as a campaign advisor for an especially close ally: his father. Keith Hackett, a retired State Police captain, is running for sheriff in Middlesex County. But the endeavor is not a profit-reaping one.
“For him?” Hackett quipped. “No charge.”