Gene Wisdom, a 55-year-old conservative from Nashville, Tennessee, was no fan of Barack Obama. Clutching a book called "The Communist," he was waiting eagerly to meet the book's author, Paul Kengor, so that he could sign it. The book, which detailed the life of black American journalist and labor activist Frank Marshall Davis, bore a startling subtitle: "The untold story of Barack Obama's mentor." That worked for Wisdom. "It is very convincing," he said.

Believing that the president is more or less a communist would be surprising in many political circles, including many Republican ones. But Wisdom was not just queuing at another book launch. He was one of the crowd at the largest and most important conservative gatherings in the American political calendar, where the outlandish is commonplace.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted by the American Conservative Union, does not do moderation or restraint. At times it appears to maintain only a loose connection with political realities. This is an annual shindig of conservative clans from across the nation. But this year the conclave took place against the somber backdrop of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's disastrous defeat.