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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.

If the rich distort our lives, why is Aquaro so adamantly opposed to anything that could help the helpless poor? As usual when I'm dense, Aquaro sighs and draws despairingly on his pipe. "Big business," he explains patiently, "is pro-Big Government, and Big Government is pro-minority because it makes people easier to control." This is usually where our wrangles can go on for hours.

Aquaro says that what he fears most is brainwashing, the destruction of his spontaneous mind. "Teachers: They clip your wings. If you don't learn to think for yourself early, you're dead from the neck up. I don't want to be a soldier in the army of the walking dead."

"I was 11 when President Reagan was shot. I remember March 30, 1981, the way liberals cry over Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated--except that my Camelot was just starting." --UCLA activist

YOUNG AMERICANS for Freedom was born the year before the formation of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, its nemesis. YAF veterans cheerfully admit borrowing their confrontational style from SDS; they like the comparison. "We're today's counterculture," proudly asserts UCLA graduate Colin Metcalfe, a Canadian young conservative and YAF campus chairman who came south to bask closer to the glow of the Reaganite revolution. "If I'd stayed in Canada, I'd have toed the party line. In California, I've learned that ideology, not party, comes first."

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

Many YAFfers were recruited through college or Young Republican clubs. Most now view Young Republicans with amused contempt as "country club conservatives."

It's not always easy for an outsider to grasp the nuances of YAF's factional disputes. For example, YAF is proud of its libertarian strain. Yet when Cal State Northridge senior David Knatcal, former L.A. county YAF chairman, recently broke away with several other chapters (including San Jose State, Pierce College and Antelope Valley College), one of his complaints was that his chief rival, Jim Bieber, was "too libertarian." Knatcal also frankly admitted that he was getting out because Bieber, not Knatcal, had been appointed California state chairman. One of the disarming things about YAF is that its members hardly bother to disguise their personal rivalries as lofty philosophical disagreement.

This sort of internecine warfare is meat and drink to a true-blue YAF member. Despite or perhaps even because of it, YAF has sustained an impressive continuity over 30 turbulent years that saw the demise of other right-wing youth groups. One reason for its staying power is the steadying presence of its OAFs.

"When I was a USC student, I got along better with the Marxists than the old-line FDR New Dealers. We were both trying to bring down the liberal establishment." --Steve Wiley, former YAF national vice chairman

JOVIAL, TWINKLY Steve Wiley could have doubled for James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life"--including the part about bailing out the insolvent bank. Four years ago, Wiley, now 39, went back on "active duty," leaving his flourishing contracting business in Torrance to help drag YAF back from the brink of ruin because of bad debts and poor morale. "Reagan's victory was almost the worst thing that could have happened to us," he says. "Our best guys either went home or used the Reagan connection as a stepping stone to jobs." Younger YAFfers sneer at YAF alumni who "sold out" to become Reaganite "big fat consultants."

A wry, hard-working family man, Wiley is YAF's "Good Sam," the guy who does the drudgery but hardly ever gets the applause. Unenvious by nature, he's terribly proud of YAFfers who have moved on and up. YAF graduates--those who survive its grueling test of self-education, picket-line confrontations, endless meetings and chronic back-stabbing that members tend to accept as part of a rough game--can go surprisingly far in American politics. YAFfers abounded in Reagan's White House as speech writers (Wiley himself still ghostwrites for Reagan) or Cabinet undersecretaries, including Jim Lacy at the Department of Commerce and Michelle Easton at the Department of Education. California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Lomita) is an ex-YAF member, and Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) is a current member. Wiley claims that up to 90% of United States conservative groups are staffed by YAF alumni and that most Reagan-era YAF government appointees were kept by George Bush.

"YAF is the boot camp of American conservatism," Wiley says. "Our purpose is to train leaders, not win popularity contests. Very few people occupy the national 'choke points'--the molders of opinion, the definers of debate in the media, colleges or government. We're training journalists and bureaucrats and professors. It's our job." Paradoxically, YAF nurses its talent best in hard times for conservatives. But wherever ex-members go, "Once a Marine always a Marine--we try to instill this."

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