- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The year the American Conservative Union began, Ronald Reagan was a newly minted Republican, Nikita Khrushchev had been recently ousted as leader of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was just beginning to deepen its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Fifty years later, the U.S. is extricating itself from war in Afghanistan, Russia’s leader is extending his reach into Ukraine, and the tea party is exerting its influence among Republican voters.

Through all the changes and challenges, the ACU has promoted the values and goals of principled conservatism. Now, the organization is looking to build on that legacy over the next 50 years.

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“The conservative movement has had its very good times and its challenging times, and here we are 50 years later still fighting the good fight,” said ACU Chairman Al Cardenas. “The 50th anniversary is just as important as the first anniversary because it finds us at equally troubled times, but understanding the needs for a victory to get our country back on track.”

The catalyst for the American Conservative Union boils down to one crushing defeat.

It was 1964 and Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, had been trounced by Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, sounding what many thought was the death knell of conservatism. Days after Goldwater’s loss, a handful of conservative leaders who included author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and Rep. Robert E. Bauman, founder of Young Americans for Freedom, gathered to decide the next step.

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“It was a big setback for us, the Goldwater defeat,” said Thomas Winter, first vice chairman of the ACU and a longtime board member. “What we wanted to show, what we did show, was the conservative movement was still strong. Conservatives were still around and could not be ignored.”

That December, the American Conservative Union’s board of directors held its first meeting at what is now the Capital Hilton Hotel and laid out the group’s core beliefs — the primacy of the U.S. Constitution, the preservation of liberty via limited government, the protection of capitalism and private property, and the promotion of individual responsibility.

During its first decade, the ACU worked to gain momentum and expand its membership and reputation. It delved into political action by creating the American Legislative Exchange Council and establishing its Ratings of Congress, which is still used to hold congressional members accountable for their votes.

In 1974, the first Conservative Political Action Conference was held.

Jim Roberts, a former executive director for the ACU, recalled that he was hired as a political director in December 1973. The next month, he was one of the organizers of the first CPAC gathering.

“I can tell you, it was a very frenzied month of January,” Mr. Roberts said. “It was our very first conference. All the infrastructure had yet to be put in place; our mailing list, all sorts of things. It was a very challenging but exciting atmosphere.”

The conference drew about 400 registrants, and nearly 1,000 people filled the Mayflower Hotel ballroom to hear a speech delivered by California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Roberts said he remembered it as one of the first times Reagan spoke about the “shining city upon the hill” and the future president’s introduction of three recently released prisoners of the Vietnam War, including a Navy officer named John McCain.

Former ACU Chairman Stan Evans, who presided over the first CPAC, credits the organization’s work with Reagan as one of the highlights of the ACU’s first 50 years, but that doesn’t mean the path was easy.

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