Wyoming senator headlines conservative conference

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Photo by David Whipple.

He was only in town for a day — but Wyoming Senator John Barrasso could not resist a quick foray into New Haven politics.

The keynote speaker for this year’s William F. Buckley Jr. Conference, Barrasso spoke at a dinner at the Omni Hotel Friday night to hundreds of students and alumni. Barrasso touched on the future of political conservatism and even included a shout-out to Paul Chandler ’14, the Republican candidate for Ward 1 Alderman, who was seated in the back of the room.

“He’ll accept campaign contributions from anyone in this room,” Barrasso joked.

Barrasso — a conservative member of the U.S. Senate — capped off the day-long program, which also included a series of panels with topics ranging from conservative stances on social issues to the enduring legacy of William F. Buckley Jr. ’50. The third-annual conference drew 245 attendees, many of whom were donors to the program. According to co-director Harry Graver ’14, who organized the affair with the help of program founder Lauren Noble ’11, the conference aims to encourage open political discussion on a campus noted for its liberal climate.

Graver said the conference aims to nurture intellectual curiosity amongst students and alumni — which he said “has grown a bit damp at Yale” — by generating conversation about political conservatism.

“I’m for equal opportunity, not equal outcome, and I think that’s a conservative message,” Barrasso said in a interview with the News before his speech.

Barrasso, who has served as a senator since 2007, was joined at the conference by James Buckley ’43, brother of Buckley Jr. and a former New York Senator and federal judge. The program also featured panels from figures such as National Review Editor Rich Lowry and Michael Barone LAW ’69, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

Panelist Jonah Goldberg, a conservative author and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, spoke about the conservative movement’s recent lack of direction. Goldberg’s comparison of liberal college students to “lemmings” drew chuckles from the audience.

Despite the conference’s uniformly conservative speakers, its organizers and attendees said that their goal was to promote debates about conservative ideology.

“The point isn’t necessarily advocacy. What we’re trying to encourage is a discourse of ideas,” Graver said.

Conference attendee Jack Zakrzewski ’16 echoed Graver, adding that different perspectives exist even within the sphere of conservatism.

Even Barrasso, a devout Republican who opposes tighter gun laws and gay marriage, emphasized that dialogue within the party is necessary. Barrasso said he believes the conference is a good way for people to get together and share their diverse ideas.

Graver said he was happy to continue the string of conservative speakers at the conference, which has previously attracted figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. He added that Barrasso is an individual that does not “run for the spotlight,” but is very conscious of his own principles.

During the dinner, after remarks from William McGurn, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush ’68, Barrasso shared his optimism for the future of the conservative movement, adding that he believes conservatism resonates with the majority of Americans. Barrasso lambasted the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement and emphasized the broad split between liberalism and conservatism.

“If there was one word to define conservatism, it’s freedom — and if there’s one word that defines liberalism, it’s government,” Barrasso said in his speech.

Possibly the loudest applause of the evening was reserved for Barrasso’s mention of Chandler, who said he was “completely surprised” to be pointed out. Despite receiving Barrasso’s support, the aldermanic candidate said he attended the conference as a conservative rather than a candidate, and that he saw the goals of the conference as intellectual rather than electoral.

Other attendees similarly enjoyed the conference as a political forum.

“I don’t think there was, in my day, a place where conservatives could go to feel at home,” said attendee Austin Hoyt ’59. Bill Leyden ’67 said he appreciated the nuanced conversations that served as a discussion, not a “political pep rally.”

Outside of his political position in Washington, D.C., Barrasso is also an orthopedic surgeon who conducted his residency at the Yale School of Medicine from 1978 to 1983.

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