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Doing the Right Thing : Founded a Generation Ago by William F. Buckley, the Young Americans for Freedom Are the Shock Troops of U.S. Conservatism

April 29, 1990|CLANCY SIGAL | Clancy Sigal, a journalism professor at USC, is also a journalist, novelist, critic and BBC broadcaster.

"Hitler was a liberal." --YAF member, USC

THEY THROW fake money at Alan Cranston. At gay activist rallies, they carry "No Special Rights for Sodomites" placards. Dressed as doctors, they bash the heads of dummy babies outside the offices of pro-choice Republicans. Depending on whom you believe, they rig campus elections or are systematically cheated of votes by "radical-riddled" student councils. They make life miserable for liberals, whether college professors, Democrats or Republicans like Pete Wilson. They love noise, argument, debate, counter-demonstrations, media attention. Blink an eye and they're short-haired Abbie Hoffmans or Jerry Rubins standing on their heads.

Meet today's campus tummlers-- Young Americans for Freedom.

For years, I'd vaguely heard of YAF as a right-wing rent-a-mob. A bunch of cranks, nerds and bigots, my friends said. Then a YAFfer enrolled in my writing class at USC. He liked books and stood up to me in class and seemed passionate about something other than himself. Another, dubbed the "Fascist funster," went around campus like Zorro, stamping "KGB APPROVED" on radical student posters. They milled around Tommy Trojan on the quad, outshouting the feminists and anti-apartheid activists. Loudmouthed rabble rousers, they reminded me of somebody I'd almost forgotten: me, 40 years ago.

For the record:
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 24, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4B Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In the story April 29 by Clancy Sigal, a quote was attributed to a UC Northridge YAF member. Our apologies to Cal State Northridge for the copy-editing error.
--The Editors

"We in YAF love trouble." --YAF former national chairman Sergio Picchio

IT WOULD BE EASY to underestimate the influence of YAF on the American right. Despite its national paper membership of 55,000--California, with up to a fifth of its members, increasingly packs the leadership and calls the shots--YAF is constantly on the brink of breakdown, dissolution, terminal splits. It once even expelled the son of its founder, William F. Buckley.

Most mainstream Republicans scorn YAF as "too extreme." But President Reagan still sits on its advisory board, and party seniors are wary of criticizing YAF for fear of dousing the fire in the GOP belly. Republican party regulars, afraid of alienating the undecided voter, keep their distance, but I suspect they are secretly fond of, and at times badly need, YAF. In critical contests, YAF foot soldiers can make the difference.

On campuses, most students see YAF either as too "weird" or too serious. Mention YAF in my classroom, and there are nervous giggles. Yet, by thriving on exclusion and avoiding respectability, YAF keeps going as the dark conscience of American conservatism.

Although anti-Marxist by definition, YAFfers are the "Leninists," the fiery ideologues of the right in their dedication to sustained analysis over short-term acceptance. Their idea of a lousy time is not having anyone to argue with.

"I want perfection, not compromises or seconds, the bold banner versus the pale pastel." --Jim Bieber, California state chairman

YAF GOES ITS own furious way, drawing in its wake students as young as elementary school age who are bonded by the thrill of ideas and a conspiracy theory of liberal control. Self-starters by nature, often loners but occasionally the most popular students, they are--for American youths--amazingly at ease with European-tinged ideas and geopolitics that other kids glumly trudge through in Poly Sci 101. They are a classroom delight or nightmare, depending on how tolerant the teacher may be of hard-line prodigies.

I'm used to it. For the past 30 years, I've lived abroad, mainly in Britain, where ideology is taken as seriously as the weather. Anyway, thinking ideologically is a habit that had already hooked me when I was a student Communist at UCLA in the postwar 1940s.

When I tell YAF members that I used to be a Red, they don't skip a beat. "It's OK by us," shrugs one YAF member at USC, "because at least you're not a liberal."

"No advance without confrontation." --Richard Delgaudio, former YAF national board member

YAF WAS FOUNDED in 1960 in the Sharon, Conn., mansion of William F. Buckley, whose immediate aim was to push a Barry Goldwater presidential "boomlet." Buckley, aided by a young ex-Communist, Marvin Liebman, wanted YAF to be the spearhead of a new kind of student movement, a Jesuit-style cadre to push conservative ideas as well as combat what Buckley viewed as the cancerous disease of liberalism that he had loathed since his Yale undergraduate days.

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