I just got off the phone with Marcus Epstein, the conservative activist who organized the “race and conservatism” debate in 2006 that has become a flash point of debate since a photo surfaced of James O’Keefe in the audience. (Like I’ve said before, I also attended the event.)
“I’ve made mistakes, which I paid for and addressed,” said Epstein, who has mostly ceased political activity since the 2009 revelation of his arrest in Georgetown. “I don’t want them to be used in false, guilt-by-association smears against others. I met James O’Keefe a number of times. It’s the Beltway — it’s a small circle. It’s the conservative movement. But he did not collaborate with me, definitely not on that event.”
Epstein went into the background of the event and forwarded me emails that he says he exchanged with Jared Taylor, the editor of the white nationalist American Renaissance magazine. He was, at the time, working at the Leadership Institute, as was O’Keefe.
“At that time, I was the only person involved with the Robert Taft Club,” said Epstein. Other Taft Club organizers like Daniel McCarthy (now of the American Conservative) joined later when he organized larger events with speakers like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) — by that time, said Epstein, O’Keefe had left LI and Washington.
Marcus Epstein (left) at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 1, 2007 (Photo by: Dave Weigel)
According to Epstein, LI did not fund the event — the only outside group to aid with Taft Club events was the American Cause, where Epstein worked from 2006 through 2009. The event was originally scheduled to take place inside of the Leadership Institute, but was moved across the street after police — who, said Epstein, had been monitoring the One People’s Project investigative reports on the event — warned LI to expect protesters. Epstein paid $250 of his own money to rent a new room, and offered to pay the travel expenses of the speakers: Jared Taylor, John Derbyshire and Kevin Martin. Derbyshire, who was coming from New York, declined Epstein’s offer. (Derbyshire, who is or was a member of a controversial listserv on “human biodiversity,” appeared at another Taft Club event in 2007.) Apart from that, Epstein paid for pizza by “passing a hat around.” The literature table that has attracted so much attention was not, he said, set up by the Taft Club. Much of the 40-odd member audience was composed of LI interns and staffers who’d heard about the event at work.
Epstein stood by the content of the event, describing it (accurately, in my view) as a debate, not a forum for Taylor. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the event,” said Epstein. “Jared Taylor has debated Queen Latifah and [anti-racist writer] Tim Wise.” At one point, remembered Epstein, Derbyshire laid into Taylor’s tactics and racism, calling him a “sower of discord” and remarking that “we know where sowers of discord end up” — that is, hell.
“I thought that was a bit extreme,” said Epstein, “but there’s nothing wrong with having a debate.”
Epstein acknowledged that his dabbling in extremist politics, and his 2007 arrest, had made him a sort of toxic figure.
“I’m used to being smeared, and these guys have more or less successfully harmed my career, so I don’t see what else they could do to me,” said Epstein. “A lot of stuff they said about me wasn’t true, but I definitely made a few mistakes. I just don’t want anyone to use me to smear James O’Keefe.”