Conservatives of Manhattan Unite to Smoke, Drink, Cry Over Clinton

Cigarette smoke hung in the air at the Princeton Club on the evening of March 2. Smoking was a point of honor for many people in the room, especially the ones with a libertarian streak. For this was a gathering of the Fabiani Society, a salon that functions as a support group for right-leaning people in Manhattan.

One of the smokers was Andrew Hazlett, 28. He’s the host of the society, meaning he reminds the regulars to show up and books the readers or lecturers. Mr. Hazlett works as the director of the book program at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a right-wing think tank; the Manhattan Institute also pays for the Fabiani Society’s wine, beer and everything on the cheese board. Tonight, Mr. Hazlett was wearing a charcoal suit over a sweater vest. He took a drag-no, it was more of a puff, really-on a Marlboro and a sip of a Heineken.

“There’s a small, energetic and very sincere right-of-center element in New York,” said Mr. Hazlett. A man passing by congratulated him on a book review he had written for The Wall Street Journal . “The thing is, half the people here probably disagree with each other as strongly as any member of the New York Times editorial board would disagree with them. You have theo-cons affiliated with First Things magazine, libertarians, followers or admirers of Ayn Rand, a sprinkling of New Democrats.”

He surveyed the room. A little more than 60 people had shown up to hear Russian-American author Cathy Young discuss her new book, Ceasefire! Why Men and Women Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press). Ms. Young began her talk with an anecdote from Rand’s The Fountainhead , which is a crime almost anywhere else in Manhattan.

The Fabiani Society was named for White House lawyer Mark Fabiani, who, in 1995, came up with a 331-page memo and flowchart detailing how negative stories on the Clintons made their way from the far right into the mainstream press. “If they think there’s a conspiracy, and that we’re plotting against them, we might as well,” one Fabiani member said at the time. Those were gleeful days for conservatives. They were cultural outlaws who had a good time razzing the liberals. But now, Bill Clinton seems like a historic inevitability-and, after years of Clinton sex scandals, the liberals are harder to shock.

Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent and Clinton attacker, was at the salon on March 2. She wore a black Donna Karan suit and Ferragamo shoes. Her drink was red wine and she chain-smoked American Spirit cigarettes through a gold Dunhill cigarette holder. “I’m a regular,” she said. “I’m sort of a lightning rod now in the conservative movement and there are a lot of parties I can’t go to without some ugly scenes. So it’s nice to come and talk to people who are supporters and polite.”

Was she depressed about Mr. Clinton’s survival?

“The man’s been impeached,” Ms. Goldberg said. “Anything after that is just extra hot fudge on the sundae.”

Here was a middle-aged woman in a three-piece, leopard-and-rhinestone-patterned pant suit and wearing a black gold studded cowboy hat. “I’m basically a conservative,” the Rev. Selina Stinson said over a cranberry juice. “I’ve gotten this way by reading and observing and applying common sense. Right is right and wrong is wrong, any way you look at it.”

Ms. Stinson lives in Harlem and runs a nonprofit organization for disadvantaged children, Looking Toward Tomorrow Inc. She said her biggest political influence was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I know Dr. King would be right here with these sensible people,” she said.

About an hour after Ms. Young, the writer, gave her talk, it was cab time. Ms. Young, a Muscovite who immigrated to New York in 1980, had a couple problems with the right.

“I personally think there has been too much personal obsession with Clinton,” she said. “I think that really has, in the eyes of many people, damaged the conservative movement. I don’t like a lot of things Clinton has done, don’t get me wrong, but I think it has reached now an almost obsessive level.”

The cab was moving uptown.

“I think some conservatives like to flaunt politically incorrect behavior, like cigarette smoking and all that,” Ms. Young said. “I mean, I don’t like some of the more extreme antismoking regulations, but I also happen to think smoking is a really filthy habit, and I hate it! So I think there are some people who go to pretty conservative gatherings who just think it’s cool to smoke, because it’s really politically incorrect.”

The cab stopped at David Copperfield’s, an English-style pub with brick ceilings, on the corner of East 74th Street and York Avenue. Ben Works, the director of the Strategic Issues Research Institute of the United States, was having a Bass ale. He moonlights as a commentator at CBS and Fox News, where they call him “Dr. Doom.” He had a little analysis to offer on the President’s skirmishes in Iraq: “Either you go all the way or you don’t bother,” he said. “Half-measures in war are an utter flop and kindness in war is the biggest mistake.”

Mr. Works, a 49-year-old Vietnam veteran, recalled being around for the Fabiani Society’s precursor, the Vile Bodies, back in 1990, on the night Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. “I was so hammered I didn’t start analyzing it until the next day,” he said. He looked down the table. “Some of these people grew up in the Reagan years, and they sort of sailed through when conservatism was easy. They all seem a little didactic about right to life or whatever. But I was there in the 60′s and the 70′s, a conservative at Yale, when Bill and Hillary were there. I’m a paleo-conservative. But I believe in the right to the good life.”

Mr. Works went on to say he taught history and economics at a Jesuit academy on the Upper East Side, where he liked the students. “They don’t buy Clintonianism,” he said.

John Fund, a Wall Street Journal editorial board member, discussed the President. “I’ve been to the White House for receptions,” he said. “I find him charming and delightful. If he were here, he’d be the life of the party. There are many people in life that you meet that you like but don’t trust. There are many people that you have a beer with that you wouldn’t go into business with … He has psychic radar. He knows exactly what you’re interested in, he knows exactly what you like to talk about within a minute or so of meeting you, and he’ll talk on your terms.”

Back at the other end of the table, Mr. Works was working it.

“When I came home from Vietnam-”

“Here we go,” said Mr. Hazlett.

Mr. Works mentioned that he attended Yale Law School and was on the board of the film society. “I sold tickets to Bill and Hillary and Lani Guinier,” he said. “I know what porno flicks Clarence Thomas saw! I had to project a couple of them.”

Dinner arrived. Shepherd’s pie. Lamb stew with Guinness. Beer-boiled corn on the cob. Jumbo shrimp. Burgers.

“I want to bring up a very important question,” shouted Dan Mahoney, a political strategist. “How come the salt and pepper is all the way down there?”

Mr. Hazlett was trying to engage Mr. Works in a Generation-X-vs.-baby-boomer argument. “Listen,” said the younger man, “I grew up in the detritus, in the leavings, of the baby boomers, and the fact is, it’s my generation that’s doing, like, the swing dancing and everything. We’re not gyrating randomly to-”

“Oh!” cried Mr. Works. “I never listened to Glenn Miller at Yale?”

“Well, bully for you!” Mr. Hazlett said. After a while, the Republicans’ likely Presidential candidates came up. “George W. Bush,” Mr. Hazlett said, sneering. “You know, the reason people respond to somebody like Jesse Ventura, for all of his idiocies, is because he speaks with honesty and there’s no one in the Republican field who will do that.”

“A Navy Seal!” Mr. Works said with approval.

Soon, everyone switched to coffee. Doug Dechert, a 41-year-old itinerant journalist (of Palm Beach and New York), was recalling his Manhattan childhood days in the Knickerbocker Greys, the drilling corps that meets at the Seventh Regiment Armory. “It was kind of fun,” he said. “We got to have .22 rifle target shooting in the basement on Saturday mornings and we had sham battles. When I was a cadet officer, I used to have to lead my company in the Easter parade down Park Avenue in dress blue uniforms and I’d be marching and all my classmates from Browning would be picketing, because of the Vietnam War. That kind of experience forced me to look critically at the whole ethos of the antiwar mentality.”

Mr. Works had a copy of Foreign Affairs sticking out of his overcoat. “Know thy enemy,” he said.

After more beers all around in another bar, Mr. Dechert was experiencing a wave of flu out on the cold street. “That son of a bitch is home free,” he said. He was talking about Mr. Clinton, of course. “He’s used up the body politic’s antigens. He’s beaten our immune system.”