Politics 2005: Week of August 15

Saluting Conservative Titan Paul Weyrich

Conservatives in Washington and throughout the nation were stunned last week by the news about one of the towering figures in their movement. Paul  M. Weyrich—chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation and conservative thinker, commentator and organizer for a generation—had major surgery at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C., August 10. The operation came 12 years after a fall on black ice seriously injured Weyrich, who already had a bad back, and led to years of severe pain and a successively diminished ability to walk.

Predictably to those who know him, the 62-year-old Weyrich faced his appointment last Wednesday with the surgeon calmly, stoically and, according to friends, was anxious to know when he would be able to return to work.

It is Weyrich’s work—helping in many ways to craft the modern conservative movement and mobilize its activists—that his legions of friends recalled as they prayed for his swift recovery.

From Camera to Congress

For those who have heard Weyrich expound on subjects ranging from legislation before Congress, to the Melkite Greek Catholic faith (in which he was ordained a deacon in 1990), to his passion for trains, one finds it hard to believe that the Wisconsin native did not finish college. After two years at the University of Wisconsin, Weyrich decided in 1964 to make his part-time job a full-time occupation as news reporter and weekend anchorman on the CBS-TV affiliate in Milwaukee. Like the late Peter Jennings, he had been working in the news media since he was a teenager—first as announcer and program director for two stations in Wisconsin and then as a reporter covering state and local politics for the Milwaukee Sentinel.

Weyrich’s interviews featured a number of figures who would become major players in the young conservative movement, among them an Illinois college professor (and Republican Rep.-to-be) named Phil Crane. In 1966, Weyrich moved his young family to Denver, where he became news director for KQXI-TV. His broadcast reports caught the attention of Sen. (1954-72) Gordon Allott (R.-Colo.), who brought Weyrich to Washington as his press secretary in 1967.

Along with revolutionizing the senator’s press operation through a regular television show for constituents, Weyrich began bringing together like-minded conservative staffers on Capitol Hill to discuss the future of conservatism. Coming only a few years after Barry Goldwater’s defeat for the presidency, this “networking” provided a pooling of ideas as well as talent. Among participants at the Weyrich table were Trent Lott, then top aide to Democratic Rep. (1932-72) William Colmer (Miss.) and Ron Pearson and Ed Feulner, top aides to Republican Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio and Illinois Rep. Crane respectively.

A Movement Is Born

Weyrich’s concept of “networking” was actually conceived when, by accident, he attended a meeting during the first Nixon Administration of key liberals who were planning open housing legislation. As Lee Edwards wrote in The Conservative Revolution, “Present were a White House official, a Washington newspaper columnist, an analyst from the Brookings Institution, representatives from several black lobbying groups, and aides to a dozen senators. Everyone took an assignment.

“‘I saw how easily it could be done,’” recalled Weyrich to Edwards “‘with planning and determination and decided to try it myself.’” With funding from Colorado beer magnate Joseph Coors and help from direct-mail expert Richard Viguerie and several other conservative activists, Weyrich would launch the Heritage Foundation, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress (now the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation), the Senate Steering Committee and the Moral Majority. All would become pillars of the conservative movement in the 1970s and ’80s and, without hesitation, Weyrich admitted that they were based on similar organizations that liberals had operated for years. In his words, “If your enemy has weapons systems working well and is killing you with them, you better have better weapons systems of your own.”

Weyrich’s “weapons system” proved highly successful. The Heritage Foundation would become a nationally recognized source of fresh conservative ideas, particularly during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. And the CSFC helped train numerous candidates for Congress. The Moral Majority, a forerunner of the Christian Coalition of today, was one of the earliest forces for mobilizing cultural conservatives into political activism. The Senate Steering Committee served as a counterforce to the Wednesday Club (the longstanding conference of liberal Senate Republicans) and, as conservatives became the majority among Senate Republicans, a driving force in policy.

Tax cuts, devolution of government, the pro-life movement—these are just some of the conservative causes that began to attract media attention and action in Congress in the last quarter-century. They became and remain significant causes, in part, because of the work of Weyrich.

Illness and pain have haunted Weyrich in recent years, but with characteristic outspokenness, determination and self-confidence, he dealt with his ailments and continued to strategize and take action on causes he believed in. The ever-energetic Weyrich has worked in recent years on such far-reaching causes as democracy training in the former Soviet Union and trying—without final success yet—at creating a conservative television network. When we spoke before he entered the hospital, we discussed what conservatism needs most today,.Weyrich cited an axiom from a late friend and longtime associate, Connecticut industrialist Robert Krieble: “Only through addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division, will conservatism grow.” (To write a greeting to Paul Weyrich, send letters to the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, 717 2nd St., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002).

Short Takes

Dancing in the Street in Detroit: Much of the national media focused on embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s second-place showing in the nonpartisan primary in Detroit last week. (He will now meet the first-place finisher, former Deputy Mayor Freeman Hendrix, in a November run-off). But there was also a particularly noteworthy candidate for City Council: Martha Reeves, Motown superstar best known as lead singer in the ’60s with the Vandellas. The 64-year-old Reeves placed ninth among the 18 top-vote-getters for at-large seats on the City Council. Now, Motor City voters will choose nine Council members from the 18 in November.

Reeves, best-known for such hits as “Dancing in the Street” and “Heat Wave,” campaigned on a hard-nosed law-and-order platform. Recalling how local thugs had stopped her from fixing up some of the 18 buildings she owns in Detroit, she told the Associated Press: “Junkies and crackheads have been taking down boards and even held some of the workmen at gunpoint until they ran away. The policing needs to be there and it needs to be visible.”

Bense Bolts, Harris Happy: Two weeks after putting a top campaign team in order (see “Politics,” August 1), Florida Rep. Katherine Harris got some good news in her bid for the Republican nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year. State House Speaker Alan Bense, after weeks of exploring a Senate bid of his own, has just announced that he will not run for the nomination after all. Bense had reportedly been urged to make the race by the Bush White House. Published reports say that the President, top political operative Karl Rove and other Bushmen fear that if Harris (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 90%) heads the GOP ticket in Florida in ’06, the Democrats will go all out to defeat her in retaliation for the former secretary of state’s leading role in delivering the state’s electoral votes to Bush in 2000.

On August 2, at the final White House briefing for reporters before the President left for Texas, talk-show host Les Kinsolving asked Press Secretary Scott McClellan whether Bense’s exit means the administration will finally accept Harris as the Senate candidate. McClellan responded by just insisting that the White House “doesn’t get involved in primaries.”