You might expect that the man who is incoming president of the National Rifle Association and was chairman of the American Conservative Union would be a double-barrel ideologue.
David Keene’s friends include liberal-leaning types like Al Hunt of Bloomberg News, former ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson, former New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, and former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.
Keene never hesitates to mention that his mother and father were labor union organizers in Wisconsin or that, as a teenager, he passed out literature for John F. Kennedy during the presidential primary.
Moreover, Keene has stood firm against attacks from within the conservative movement over his decision to keep the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) open to participation by such groups as GOProud, an organization of conservative gays.
At the same time, few have had as much impact on the conservative movement and been so successful over the years at promoting Republican candidates at the national level as Dave Keene.
Keene, 65, began to turn toward conservativism in high school after reading F.A. Hayek’s book “The Constitution of Liberty.”
“The book had been purchased by my high school library,” Keene tells me. “The library thought that it was a book about the U.S. Constitution. When they found out that it laid out a libertarian conservative philosophy, they took it off the shelves. They were going to throw it away, but a librarian knew that I was a reader and that I liked politics, so she gave it to me.”
Once Kennedy became president, Keene remembers watching him give a speech at Madison Square Garden.
“He talked about how he was going to socialize medicine, as in Great Britain,” Keene says. “I said, ‘That’s it.’ He made me a Republican.”
Keene quit the University of Wisconsin at Madison to campaign for Barry Goldwater for president. After returning to school, he obtained a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. While there, he became national chairman of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom.
Keene ran for a state senate seat in 1969. He knew Pat Buchanan, who persuaded President Nixon to endorse him. Keene lost to a liberal Democrat who claimed that he was a rabid radical.
As a leader of Young Americans for Freedom, Keene subsequently met with Nixon in the White House for an hour to share his thoughts. That led Vice President Spiro Agnew to hire him as an aide.
After the meeting with Nixon, columnist Robert Novak ran an item saying that Keene had met with the president after being dispatched by conservatives to get Nixon to “shut up” the vice president, who served as an attack dog for the administration.
“I go home, and my phone starts ringing on Sunday morning with my
friends telling me what a jerk I am,” Keene says. “Somebody says, ‘Go look at the paper.’ I was a 23-year-old kid, but I called information, and Novak’s home number was listed in Maryland.”
Keene went over what he actually discussed with Nixon, points that had nothing to do with Agnew. Two days later, Novak called Keene back.
“Well, kid, I still think my story’s right, but I have to admit my source had no way of knowing,” Novak said. “So I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll retract next Sunday.”
After that, Keene and Novak became close friends. At the time, Novak was a liberal, but that didn’t bother Keene.
“I believe you keep your philosophical objectives in mind, and then you work with whomever you need to work with to achieve them,” Keene tells me over lunch at the Palm. “That’s how I build coalitions, and that’s how I built campaigns.”
At the restaurant, if his tall stature, big grin, and white shock of hair don’t grab attention, then his deep-chested voice and long, rumbling laugh will.
Keene worked for the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Robert Dole, and Mitt Romney. In 1984, he became chairman of the American Conservative Union.
In 2004, Keene married Donna Wiesner, a fellow conservative from Corpus Christi, Tex., who served in the administrations of Reagan and both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
His version is they met at the so-called Wednesday meeting chaired by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. The off-the-record, invitation-only meetings bring together up to 150 conservative leaders to share intelligence, plot strategy, and listen to presentations by members of Congress, Republican presidential and congressional candidates, authors, pollsters, and celebrities ranging from Pat Boone to Bill Gates.
Keene remembers being impressed by a presentation Wiesner gave at the meeting about an arcane change in tax laws. At the meeting the next week, he brought her coffee. When he looked at her, he thought to himself, “That’s her,” meaning the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
Her version, she tells me, is that they met years earlier at CPAC at the Shoreham Hotel.
Run by the American Conservative Union’s foundation, CPAC stirs up controversy each year. This year, some said the conference should have included more social conservative panels, while others said national security issues should have been featured more. Conspiracy theorists hinted darkly that CPAC had been overtaken by Muslim extremists.
As chairman of the ACU, Keene has withstood lobbying by those who want to be speakers or want to ban others from speaking at the conference. To Keene, those who try to define what conservatives should think and try to exclude those who disagree don’t understand what the movement is all about and why it has been so successful.
“Unfortunately, we have conservatives who think that the movement ought to be defined in terms of themselves,” Keene says. “But that’s not the way you build a very popular movement. It’s not the way you attract very many people. And it’s certainly not the way you win elections.”
Keene is fond of saying he is the only perfect candidate who agrees with all his views. He points out that Ronald Reagan’s position was, if you agree with me 80 percent of the time, you are my friend.
For the past 14 years, Keene has written a regular column for The Hill newspaper. One of the country’s most astute political observers, Keene told me for a Newsmax story just after Barack Obama was elected president that he “did not win for the reasons he thinks he did, and he can be counted on to overreach, helping to return Republicans to power.”
Keene is of counsel to the Carmen Group, a lobbying and advisory firm. Neither the ACU nor the NRA position is paid. As NRA president, Keene says, “I'll get to meet and hunt with people from all over and thus make lifetime friends.” Last year, he hunted cape buffalo in Zambia, all filmed for the show “Dangerous Games.”
“I am going to spend a great deal of my time publicizing and expanding the NRA’s program for young people and women.” Keene says. “When most Americans think of the National Rifle Association, they think of the advocacy group. In fact, that’s a small part of what the NRA does. Most NRA activities focus on holding competitions, training police and hunters, and running safety programs for schools.”
As we leave the Palm, Keene mentions a conversation he had over drinks the previous week with Dick Cheney, a fishing companion. He calls the NRA post, which he assumes May 2 after a board meeting, “my way to work my way out of everything. It’s a two-year term. I’ll be 68 years old by the time it’s over, and then I’ll just go hunting and fishing and write my column for The Hill.”
Keene also woodworks at home in Alexandra, Va. Six years ago, two fingers of his left hand had to be partially amputated after an accident with his table saw. He still has “The Constitution of Liberty,” the volume banned by his high school library, in his collection of 4,000 books. He has three children, David Michael, Taylor, and Lisa, from his marriage to his former wife. He adopted her daughters, Tracey and Kerry.
Keene and Donna own vacation homes in Montana and West Virginia, where Wiesner makes delicious blueberry pies from bushes on their land. Keene is a fan of Woodford Reserve, a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
When Keene took over the ACU, the organization’s survival was in question. It had only about 4,000 members and more than $1 million in debts. As he leaves the ACU, it has one million members, is free of debt, and is a powerful player on the political scene. Registration for CPAC this year was a record 11,000, up 16 percent from last year.
Besides running CPAC, the ACU publishes an annual “Rating of Congress,” the gold standard for assessing members’ ideology. Keene will continue to advise the ACU and will serve as vice chairman of CPAC next year.
“Dave Keene has been the perennial insider, advising Republican administrations since the Reagan years,” says Al Cardenas, who succeeds Keene as chairman of the ACU. They became friends when Keene recruited Cardenas to co-chair the 1976 Florida presidential primary effort for Reagan.
“Whenever critical meetings are held, David is always one of the 12 to 15 individuals asked to participate,” Cardenas says. “Everyone can always count on his unfiltered remarks. They are always well reasoned and to the point. For the past four decades, he has been one of the most significant thinkers of the movement.”
“David Keene is a conservative Forrest Gump,” says Norquist, who is a board member of the NRA. “He has been in the center of all things conservative for decades. He is the perfect president of the NRA as we move into the election year of 2012.”
Pamela Kessler contributed to this article.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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