Keene was adamant about including emerging conservative leaders as speakers at the conference. In February 2010 it was his idea to invite Marco Rubio, who was then a long-shot in the Republican primary against Charlie Crist, to be the opening speaker at CPAC. He knew the value of sending a message to his Republican friends and to the media. I’ve seen him give dozens and dozens of young leaders and unknown activists a place in the spotlight over the years. I was one of them. When Rush Limbaugh was the closing speaker at the 2009 conference it was Keene who suggested I introduce Limbaugh. We knew the speech would be covered by many of the networks and it was a very visible spot. Keene didn’t insist on some well-known Congressman or Senator, a donor, or head of a prominent conservative organization. He suggested me because during one of our planning sessions I said Rush was the person who got me excited about being a conservative. Rush was my Reagan. The same thing happened a few years later when Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at the conference and I confessed that my dad was a big fan of Trump’s candor.
From time to time friends or acquaintances came to me with an idea or project and requested a meeting with Keene. Unless the timing just didn’t work out, I don’t recall any instance when Keene refused to meet with someone. He was always available to give young conservatives advice and to listen to what they had to say. In fact, it is because of Keene that CPAC became a must-attend event for College Republicans and other conservative-minded students. In CPAC’s early years, Keene made a promise to President Reagan that CPAC would never be priced out of reach for students and young activists. He also knew the value of CPAC as a sort of reunion for the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” It wasn’t just about what was happening on stage, but the conversations that happened in the bar, at ancillary events and in the hallways.
Even though I haven’t spoken to Keene in over a year, I’ve wanted to write about my time working with him for a while. In all honesty, I wanted more distance between now and the time I was laid off by the newly-elected chairman. Do I think CPAC has and will continue to suffer without Keene at the helm? Yes. Will I ever attend another CPAC? Probably not. However, after hearing the disgusting attacks on Keene (and other NRA executives) over the last month, I wanted to speak up about his leadership and good works. In the five years I worked for him I learned which battles were worth fighting. I learned the importance of being supportive of friends. While I wish I could have worked for Keene longer than I did, I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me a chance to lead CPAC during an important time for the conservative movement. As a supporter of the Second Amendment during an all-out war against law-abiding gun owners, I am grateful for his leadership at the NRA.
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