How a Goldwater-era Teen Camp is Training the Next Generation of Conservative Leaders

How a Goldwater-era Teen Camp is Training the Next Generation of Conservative Leaders
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner speaks to a group of young people at Camp Lincoln. (Photo: Mason Adams)

A group of lawmakers had made quick work of a stack of bills and appeared to have completed the day’s business when, with just a spare few minutes remaining in session, a delegate rose with an unexpected motion.

“Mr Speaker, I move we suspend the rules to introduce a new bill and move it to third reading.”

The motion carried, and the delegate read the bill.

“This bill is called Parent’s Right to Know bill,” she said. “Whereas it is not legally necessary for mothers to know that their daughters are having an abortion; whereas an abortion’s effects can be not only physically damaging but also emotionally; whereas minors should receive at least some sort of counsel before making such a huge decision; therefore, let it be resolved that legal guardians of a daughter seeking to have an abortion be informed of her decision but not able to make a decision for her otherwise.”

With so little time left, the speaker allowed only one speaker from each side.

Before the vote was called, a voice rose from the back of the room: “Is this new legislation? Why are we introducing new legislation? Why are we suspending the rules and allowing new legislation when you have three minutes left?”

The sergeant at arms answered, “The body wants to do it, so…..”

The delegates approved a motion to close debate, and seconds later, the bill passed on a voice vote.

This was not the bill approved by the West Virginia legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice earlier this year — but it was modeled after it. Instead of elected lawmakers, these were roughly 35 West Virginia teenagers, ranging between 14 and 18, with most on the younger end of that range, practicing the art of politics.

Conservative leadership camp

Between 35 and 60 campers annually descend on Camp Lincoln, located just outside the town of Cowen in Webster County, West Virginia, for a week-long immersion in the inner-workings of politics and government. In between traditional camp staples such as sing-alongs, talent shows and a dance, attendees run campaigns, stage court hearings, debate policy and meet with high-ranking state Republicans.

They attend classes on politics and conservative philosophy and spend hours practicing the arts of persuasion, debate, campaigning and legislative maneuvering in mock sessions that provide them with hands-on training for the real thing.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who famously shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress, is an alumni. So is Saira Blair, who attended the camp in 2013 and went on the following year to knock off a two-term incumbent in a Republican primary en route to winning election to the West Virginia House of Delegates as the youngest person ever elected to state or federal office. Her victory came in 2014: a landslide election where Republicans won a majority in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in over eight decades.

Camp Lincoln gave Blair the chance to practice legislating with other teenage conservatives a couple of years before she reached the Capitol in Charleston, and that experience has paid off. Blair is assistant majority whip — a job that involves enforcing political discipline on close votes — and serves as vice chair of three committees. The camp gave her the chance to network with counselors who worked in political offices and speakers who held key elected positions in West Virginia politics.

Camp director Todd Gunter, known as the Grand Wazoo, works the rest of the year for U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who visits the camp about every other year. This year’s speakers included U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner and West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry.


“Young people voted for Barack Obama in historic numbers,” Gunter said. “There’s a reason for that. The liberal left, they — I don’t want to use the word ‘indoctrinate’ — they invest in young people more than the conservative movement does. The left has the public education system. The left has the higher education system. The left has the media. There are all these things that are influencing these young people. The conservative movement for so long has not followed the left’s lead, and we continually lose young people. To me, it’s about investing in these young people.”

This year wasn’t Jenkins’ first visit to the camp, which he praised as an opportunity for young people to develop leadership and policy skills. A few of the campers had already signed up to volunteer for his U.S. Senate campaign even before he spoke to the group.

“These are youth that have conservative feelings and a keen sense of the issues,” Jenkins said by phone after he had made an appearance at the camp. “This is an opportunity to not only grow in their areas of interest, but also test the waters and to learn about public service in the form of holding elective office. These are eager youth that want to make a difference. They’re not sitting on the couch at home but instead are getting out there and getting busy.”

The Cow Palace

Camp Lincoln was founded in 1960 as part of the growing grassroots conservative movement that crystallized four years later with the Republican Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater for President. Lincoln was one of four national young leadership camps, but the only one to survive more than five years. It sputtered during the ’80s and ’90s, but otherwise has operated on an annual basis, first by the Republican National Committee, then the West Virginia Republican Party and now as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Non-profit status means the organization is no longer officially run as a Republican training ground, but party figures remain supportive. Gunter’s boss Capito contributes to it, as well as state lawmakers and business owners, he said. Many contributions go to $250 scholarships to support campers; Blair was the recipient of such a scholarship in 2013.

Although it is non-partisan and encourages campers of all political stripes, Camp Lincoln remains a conservative bastion. Part of Gunter’s mission is to encourage exploration of those beliefs.

“The camp is known as a conservative leadership camp,” boomed retired Col. Monty Warner as he addressed the campers in the Cow Palace  — the same building where campers debated legislation, named in honor of the San Francisco venue which hosted the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated Goldwater for president.

Warner attended Camp Lincoln as a teenager, several years after experiencing a political awakening while working for the Goldwater campaign at age 8. Forty years later, in 2004 he ran for West Virginia governor but was defeated by Joe Manchin. Today, Warner serves as CEO for the YMCA of Kanawha Valley as well as Camp Lincoln’s “dean.”

Clad in khaki shorts, an Army sweatshirt and U.S. flag neckerchief, Warner paced back and forth along the wall at the Cow Palace, laying out the philosophical underpinnings of his conservatism in a lecture titled “Yin and Yang of Politics 2.” For the next hour, he walked through a series of themes, describing the dueling sides in questions of whether humans are inherently good or evil, American versus world leadership and economic theories.

The campers listened quietly, occasionally responding when prompted. When Warner said he personally believed humans are good and not evil — a belief he described as more liberal than conservative — one girl raised her hand to challenge him based on biblical teachings about original sin.

Warner came to a poster depicting a yin yang symbol drawn on a sheet labeled “individual’s role.” On one side, “citizen.” The other side had a question mark.

“What’s the opposite of citizen?” Warner asked the class.

Long pause. Warner pressed. Isolated voices began to respond.

“Subject.”

“Alien.”

“Terrorist.”

A counselor at the back of the room added, “Leeches.”

Warner suggested “resident.”

“A resident occupies somewhere,” he lectured. “A citizen serves the body politic with the three T’s: time, talent and treasure.”

After the economics discussion, Warner had built his argument to the point where he distinguished the modern-day Democratic and Republican parties.

“Whether you choose to be a Democrat or Republican I don’t care, but you need to be one or the other,” Warner said. “It’s the yin and yang of American politics. You’re either this or you’re this. That’s it. Those are your choices. Now if you want to vote yourself off the island and not be part of anything, that’s fine. You now have just made yourself a resident. I want you to be citizens. You have to pick. And when you do, you become involved. And then you become 10, you become 100, you become 1,000, and when you do: you change the world.”

Warner continued on, discussing the American military’s role as the protector of Western Civilization, a global force built on four pillars: Jewish monotheism, Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christian love. Beneath that structure, Warner said, was yet another foundation: military superiority. Warner added a pinch of Adam Smith’s capitalist theories and concluded with his vision of an American-led world.

“Everybody’s boat will rise in a rising ocean of the economy,” Warner said. “All we need to do is deter war in the process, and let free trade take care of the rest. As long as we maintain military superiority to beat the crap out of anyone who stands up against this idea, the four pillars will exist and Western Civilization will advance. Too cool or what?”

Does a fight over marijuana explain modern conservatism?

Attendees at Camp Lincoln form into two parties, the Federalists and Nationalists. Counselors make up a third party, the Whigs. None of the party labels mean anything so far as ideology; they’re generic.

“Some of them come here conservative, some come here liberal, and some come without any political ideology,” Gunter said. “They leave here having had provocative discussions about politics. If they take something away that’s conservative, that’s success.”

“Conservative” be applied to positions in a variety different policy spheres, some of which conflict with each other. This spectrum of conservative ideology was on display during another camper debate over a bill proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

One delegate argued against it: “Marijuana is a known gateway drug. We already have a hard opioid crisis in West Virginia.”

Another responded, “The science on whether marijuana is a gateway drug or not can go either way. But West Virginia’s economy is suffering. This should really help with tax revenue. People are going to jail which taxpayers pay for, because of marijuana. Smoking marijuana I think shouldn’t go to jail or anything like that.”

The debate continued.

“I like the idea, but I feel it’s very flawed. It’s not clear how you can use or what restrictions are placed on it.”

“There’s more to recreational marijuana use than just smoking weed. There’s a whole industry. People could use marijuana to make soaps and lotions and things of that nature. We’d be creating jobs for people who decide to go into the hemp industry. There’s more than just smoking.”

“I think marijuana stinks. I don’t want to be walking down the street and walk into a cloud of marijuana smoke.”

“I am not interested in the smells. I’m interested in the jobs.”

After a hard-fought 12-minute debate, the congress voted — first on a motion to end debate, and then to kill the bill, 17-6.

Not all bills were that serious. The camp delegates argued over a series of more frivolous legislation such as whether to serve ice cream at next year’s camp luau. Another bill would allow female counselors to skip calisthenics and sleep in. That particular legislation turned surprisingly controversial when it was revealed that one of the counselors had paid a camper to introduce the bill. An argument over ethics ensued, but the bill was passed nonetheless.

A cheat sheet for Robert’s Rules of Order — outlining parliamentary procedure — hangs on the wall of a room at Camp Lincoln. (Photo: Mason Adams)

Gunter explained that these sort of situations occasionally arise. The bill presented an ethical conundrum, but one that’s often a standard part of doing business in Charleston or Washington, D.C. The concept of a third-party “paying” for the introduction of a bill through a campaign contribution or gift is one with which future leaders must grapple. So why not engage the campers with the question now?

Many of the campers come repeatedly as teenagers, giving them plenty of exposure to these questions. A cluster of 17- and 18-year-olds moved on from the camp to college last summer, and this year’s batch consisted mostly of younger campers aged 14 and 15. The group is a mix of boys and girls, with girls holding some of the prominent leadership positions, including the 2017 president. The campers also displayed a variety of personalities and debate styles while in mock session, indicative of the broader mix you’ll find in any group of teens.

Changing the world

After lunch the campers had lunch with Monty Warner’s brother, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner. The secretary was introduced by his son, who — prompted with a few planted questions from campers — told stories about his experiences sweeping for mines and improvised explosive devices during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Mac Warner picked up the theme, spending most of his time talking about his own years as a state department contractor in Afghanistan — helping to develop its legal institutions before briefly addressing his effort to purge about 120,000 people, or about 10 percent, from West Virginia’s voter rolls. Warner also introduced Juma Nazari, an Afghan lawyer and interpreter who worked with Warner and who is now seeking citizenship for his family in America. Afterward, a few campers lingered to speak with Warner and trade contact information.

These visits give the campers the chance to build a burgeoning network that can open doors within the world of politics. With the exception of Gunter, all of the volunteer counselors previously attended the camp, and some found their way into political jobs in part through connections made at Camp Lincoln. Others, including Blair and Wilson, parlayed the experience into real-world success winning elections and enacting policy.

Gunter said the camp aims to arm its participants with leadership skills that will help them no matter where they end up in life or which political party they join. Clearly, though, camp leaders hope that campers will go on to more deeply imbue Goldwater conservatism into the world.

During his lecture outlining the yin yang of American politics, Monty Warner repeated more than half a dozen times a quote attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the mock congress, after the last-minute bill notifying parents of a planned abortion was introduced and passed, the campers staged a bill-signing ceremony. The president only vetoed a single bill — a bit of legislation that would purchase handheld vacuums for each camp room. She signed the rest, including the parental notification bill, as campers applauded.

If you squinted, it looked like the future.

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