They started speaking again after nineteen years. Both have been quite open in saying why they held one another in “minimum high regard.” Their animosity toward each other is well known in national political circles.
But Paul Weyrich, one of the godfathers of the modern conservative movement, put all of that aside last week when he strongly endorsed John McCain for President. In giving me his first-ever interview on why he supports McCain, the 65-year-old Weyrich underscored what he felt was the critical importance of electing the Arizona senator President over Barack Obama.
“Although I have had differences with John McCain — and feel conservatives might be arguing with him on certain issues — I also think he would be good for the country in that he would sincerely pursue the cutting of government spending and would also back a missile defense system,” said Weyrich.
Weyrich’s organizational skills have helped launch such modern pillars of conservatism as the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. His blessings for former antagonist McCain came days after onetime television reporter and U.S. Senate staffer Weyrich was honored with a banquet attended by a standing-room-only crowd of 400 at Washington’s Four Season Hotel.
With numerous Members of Congress attending and President Bush sending a congratulatory letter, Weyrich was hailed as one of the premier “movers and shakers” of conservative activism. More than thirty leading lights of conservatism were featured in filmed tributes to Weyrich, including Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, and syndicated columnist George Will.
In discussing his endorsement for President, Weyrich also explained the origins of his years of estrangement from McCain, which started with the conservative’s successful leading of the opposition to McCain’s close friend John Tower to be secretary of defense in 1989.
“I knew John McCain’s father [Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.] and in fact hosted a lunch of conservatives in the Capitol for John after he returned from captivity in Hanoi in 1973,” recalled Weyrich, noting that the luncheon “drew more than 300 people and was the largest of its kind.” He also vividly recalled McCain’s first election to the House from Arizona in 1982 (when the first-time candidate defeated three established office-holders) and his early days in Congress. Weyrich noted that “we disagreed on some things, as many conservatives did with McCain, but nothing major.”
But the two sharply parted company in ’89, after Weyrich testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about Tower’s alleged bad social behavior and how he felt the former Texas senator should not be trusted as the top civilian defense authority. Other senators who had clashed with Tower in the past thereupon weighed in against him and the Texan was denied confirmation. (President George H.W. Bush later nominated then-Wyoming Rep. Dick Cheney to be defense secretary and he was confirmed; Tower was killed in a plane crash in 1991).
One senator who was strongly on Tower’s side in the fight was freshman John McCain of Arizona, who had worked closely with the Texan when he had chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. As one former McCain aide put it, “John hated Paul Weyrich after that confirmation fight.” Weyrich told me that McCain “devotes about nine pages in one of his books to me and it’s not very complimentary.”
But the two have now put all that behind them. After he nailed down the Republican nomination, Weyrich told me, the Arizonan “came to my office to see me. We talked things over and he asked for my support. Now I had been planning to vote for [Libertarian Party nominee] Bob Barr for President. Now I’ve been voting against liberals since 1964 and never truly worried if they won because I felt, despite all their differences from me on issues, they still love their country. But after reading about Obama and some of the people around him — especially those advising him on foreign policy and national security issues — I am truly worried about what would happen to the country if he became President.” Accordingly, Weyrich decided to support former nemesis McCain even before the senator tapped vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whom the conservative elder believes is “an outstanding choice and someone who will rally conservatives to John McCain.”
Will conservatives argue with a McCain White House over key issues, just as they did with the Nixon Administration when the young Weyrich was press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allott (R.-Colo.)? “Probably, on about 35% of these issues,” Weyrich said, “I don’t agree with him on transportation issues, like his voting against Amtrak and opposing a light rail system in Phoenix. But on the major issues of spending and defense, he’ll be fine.”
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