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NRA chief David Keene, a gentleman who sticks to his guns

Feb 16, 2013

Fairfax, Va. - For the leader of what may be the most polarizing interest group in America, National Rifle Association chief David Keene is a genial hard-liner.
He loves guns. He loves politics. He loves talking - even with journalists, who are viewed in gun circles as overwhelmingly hostile to their cause.
The son of pro-labor Wisconsin Democrats, Keene grew into one of Washington, D.C.'s ultimate conservative insiders, a Goldwater-Nixon-Agnew-Reagan-Dole Republican, a lobbyist, strategist and lifelong political player.
He enjoys the fray, and now he's in a big one.
Keene jokes about getting death threats from people who can't shoot, saying, "If your opponents are crazy, that means my mildly insane views will be taken as more normal."
After the Newtown, Conn., shooting, the 67-year-old grandfather of six got a letter accusing him of having done "everything within your power to make it possible for someone to kill 20 elementary school children," inviting him to acknowledge "the cosmic scale of the grief that you and your co-workers have caused," and promising to throw a party when the National Rifle Association goes bankrupt.
"Until then, F--- THE NRA," wrote the letter writer, who signed off, "With hate, malice and deep repugnance."
Keene said he wrote back congratulating the man for the "most hate-filled letter I've received in the past year."
The NRA is on war footing these days. Its critics say it is paranoid and absolutist and tin-eared, out of step with a mainstream post-Newtown desire for "common-sense" gun regulation.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former GOP lawmaker, calls the group an "extremist" organization, telling viewers of "Morning Joe" recently, "Their extremism is destroying them."
Keene argues the organization will come out of this fight just fine, partly because it has fought and won similar battles before.
"They thought that everything was going to change because of Newtown," Keene says of gun control advocates. "I'm not sure that's happened."
He says guns and shooting sports are more popular, and the constituency for gun rights more cohesive, than two decades ago, when the NRA suffered its last really big defeat: passage of the assault weapons ban, which has since lapsed.
"The difference between today and 15 years ago is that today, guns are cool," says Keene.
But the NRA also argues, and tells its members, that gun rights are under special threat right now, from the president's push for gun restrictions and from the financial resources of the nation's richest gun control booster, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, declined to comment for this story.) The NRA has historically far outspent gun control groups, and put nearly $19 million into the 2012 election cycle, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
"This is the first time that we've really been up against unlimited dollars. That doesn't necessarily mean that they win, but it makes it very tough," says Keene, who was interviewed in both his Maryland home and the NRA's northern Virginia headquarters, which boasts one of the nation's top gun museums and a 365-day-a-year underground shooting range converted from a basement parking garage.
Serving an unpaid, two-year term as president, Keene's leadership is temporary, unlike that of Wayne LaPierre, the group's longtime paid executive director.
Keene's term was timed to coincide with the 2012 election, so there'd be an experienced political guy in the top job, says conservative activist Grover Norquist, an NRA board member. Then the gun debate erupted in December, elevating the stakes, making Keene's job that much more visible.
In the past, Norquist said, "We've had as president the best shotgun shooter around, the best gun collector around." Now, he continued, "We have a wartime consigliere as president" - borrowing a line from "The Godfather."
Soft sweaters, radio voice
Keene fits squarely in the unyielding NRA tradition of conceding almost nothing on gun rights. But with his snow-white hair and round glasses and soft sweaters and radio voice, he doesn't come across as an angry gun guy.
He's a compulsive and colorful storyteller, of hunting stories, gun stories, campaign stories - stories that veer from Bill Buckley to Bob Dylan to Lewis and Clark to Mikhail Kalashnikov (father of the AK-47).
In tone, Keene is a far less severe messenger than LaPierre, who wrote last week that Americans needed guns to survive growing threats under Obama of "terrorists, crimes, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest, or natural disaster."
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a friend of Keene's, calls him a "very good spokesman . . . but let's face it, his side of the issue is very unpopular with the news media."
When Keene was introduced as the guest last month at a long-running D.C. reporters' breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, host Dave Cook reminded journalists to preserve the event's traditionally "civil approach" despite the controversial nature of the gun issue - an appeal Cook had never made at a previous breakfast. (Everyone behaved.)
"One of the biggest problems the NRA has is (it) has been much more insular, and 'circle-the-wagons' and 'don't talk to anybody,' " says outgoing NRA board member Cleta Mitchell, a partner in the D.C. law office of Foley & Lardner.
"He's about the only one who knows a lot of the media and can really communicate," she says of Keene.
Keene says he gets letters from "hard-liners" on his side complaining about his easygoing manner on TV.
"They say I'm way too soft and I don't go into everybody's face, and I say, 'Oh really?' I say, 'I'll talk to anybody, (but) I won't surrender.' "
Keene "delights in" politics, says his old friend, Al Regnery, a University of Wisconsin Law School grad and former publisher of the American Spectator. Keene's response to accusations of absolutism or extremism is to laugh them off, which is meant to suggest his opponents are the irrational ones.
In the center of things
If you want to vilify him, be his guest. It's hard to say which wall decoration in his Maryland home is less politically correct, the mammoth looming head of a Cape buffalo overlooking his bar (shot on a hunting trip to Zambia), the crocodile skin on the floor below it, the zebra rug in the other room, the 50-caliber black-powder deer rifle over his desk, or the framed photo of Spiro Agnew in the study, right next to the Dick Nixon poster. Keene was Agnew's political assistant in the White House until Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973.
Norquist once dubbed Keene the "Forrest Gump" of the conservative movement because he's been present throughout so much of its modern history.
Keene was raised in Fort Atkinson, his father a machinist and union organizer, his mother head of the women's auxiliary of the United Auto Workers. Keene says he turned to the right reading Friedrich Hayek, the influential economist who championed individualism. At UW, where he once lived with future governor Tommy Thompson, he became national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom. He got to know William Buckley, volunteered for Nixon, and joined two friends on a six-week automobile trek behind the Iron Curtain during the Prague Spring to see Soviet Communism up close. He lost his one bid for political office - a race for the Wisconsin Senate, but landed a job as Agnew's political aide. He worked on Capitol Hill for New York Sen. James Buckley.
"We shared the idea that government is best that governs least," says Buckley.
Keene ran the Southern states in Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination in 1976, and went on to strategize for Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Mitt Romney.
Until 2011, Keene was the head of the American Conservative Union, building the annual Conservative Political Action Conference into an extravaganza of presidential wannabes, right-wing pundits and grass-roots activists.
Keene's old-fashioned, small-government conservatism predates the rise of neoconservatism and the religious right, and he has had occasional skirmishes with both. His decision to allow a conservative gay Republican group to participate in CPAC a few years ago angered some social conservatives, who tried organizing a boycott of the event.
"I've had clashes with everybody," says Keene.
He has also forged some surprising alliances, part of a "strange bedfellows" phenomenon occasionally seen in Balkanized Washington, joining the left in that political space where the two wings sometimes meet: civil liberties and distrust of government power.
No 'hyper-partisanship'
It's almost surreal in today's politics to think that the current president of the NRA has enjoyed a warm working relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union on issues ranging from curbing the Patriot Act to prison reform. Keene has advocated for habeas corpus for detainees, DNA-testing for death row inmates, reducing the prison population, rolling back mandatory sentencing, and making employment more accessible to ex-cons.
"He's been someone who to me represents what I thought a conservative represented, someone who believes in limited government and free speech and privacy and individual liberty," says Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the ACLU.
"He'll work with anybody. . . . I wish there more people like him," says Ginny Sloan, a lawyer and former Democratic congressional staffer who founded the nonpartisan Constitution Project. She said Keene has been a leader in convincing his fellow conservatives that just "being tough on crime is not the right way to go."
Keene is a board member of Sloan's group, and co-chairs a committee on liberty and security with Georgetown's David Cole, a liberal academic and vocal critic of the government's antiterrorism tactics.
"He doesn't get caught up in the hyper-partisanship that makes the atmosphere here so toxic," says Cole.
Of course, that common ground between left and right can be more elusive on the Second Amendment than it is on some constitutional issues.
The ACLU's Murphy says, "I still think the NRA can be extreme, but I think the sense of extremism is moderated somehow when it comes out of Dave Keene's mouth."
Keene's interest in prison reform was fueled in part by an episode in his own family. At the age of 21, his son David, who had behavioral problems growing up, was convicted after a "road rage" incident in D.C. He fired at another motorist, striking the driver's car. The son, now 32, served 10 years in prison and is leading a regular working life, says his father.
"His problem it turned out was a chemical problem," says Keene, who says the incident didn't change his views about guns.
"There should be consequences. You can argue about the length of (the sentence). But he's not allowed to own a firearm because he's a felon. I'm fine with that, so is he. That should tell people where we stand on punishing firearms crimes."
The NRA supports keeping firearms from people who have been adjudicated to be mentally ill and potentially violent (though there was no such diagnosis in his son's case).
Keene's presidency of the NRA ends in May, after which he plans to spend more time on his hobbies: woodworking, fishing, hunting - mostly ducks.
He views this post as the culmination of his career.
"It's the biggest fight I've personally had to lead," he says.
"You get into a war like this - the president has proposed 87 things. We'll lose a battle here or there. But we won't lose the war."