Paul Weyrich: Architect of the Conservative Movement

Paul Weyrich, who died Thursday, was a great architect of the post-Vietnam conservative movement. Much of the resurgence and success of the American conservative movement is a direct consequence of the institutions he built, the coalitions he forged, and of his bringing together like-minded conservative individuals into a powerful, unified whole. Though his name was not known as much among citizens as the names of Bill Buckley, Pat Buchanan or Ronald Reagan, among conservative activists in the Beltway he was a titan.

He understood that being a conservative was not enough, but that the movement needed actual conservative solutions to problems facing the country.  He recognized that an active conservative media was necessary to distribute these conservative solutions to policy makers, legislators, and citizens.  Thus he was an original founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that is instrumental in providing workable policy solutions to those seeking to bring conservatism from theory to reality, from journals and pamphlets to decision-making tables in Washington.  Unlike many Republicans prior to the era of Ronald Reagan, Weyrich was not satisfied with merely having conservatives sit unobtrusively at the table, but, better, in the congressional and executive seats that run the government.

After Heritage, he founded the Free Congress Foundation, which issued statements and policy papers regarding every issue facing the country, be they long-term questions or the issue of the day. Free Congress became a clearing house for conservative ideas and a meeting place for conservative thinkers and doers. But it mostly prided itself on being “nuts and bolts practical” — on getting things done.

Long before Fox News, Weyrich had the vision to create the first conservative media center with daily programming, interviews, and news. Years ago, he wisely purchased a headquarters building in the not-yet gentrified Senate Square section behind Union Station, a three-story building situated in what is now a strategic Northeast neighborhood in walking distance to the Senate.  He had foresight not only regarding politics but real estate as well.

Many important players in the current conservative movement received their internship at Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation.  Michael Schwartz, for example, the chief of staff of Sen. Tom Coburn, was a host of one of the shows produced by NET, the television network founded by Weyrich at Free Congress Foundation.  Paul hosted his own television show, wrote daily columns, faxed position papers and consistently held power lunches at the Free Congress headquarters that brought together congressmen, senators, lobbyists, media people, and activists who could strongly influence the outcome of pending legislation in Congress or decision-making over at the White House.

Paul’s great strength was his direct relationships with the highest conservative and Republican officials in Washington, to whom he frankly and firmly conveyed the concerns and expectations of the conservative grassroots.  These contacts remained possible over decades because everyone knew that Paul would not break his word, nor reveal a secret, was not vindictive, and that his motives were never for personal gain but for principle and what was best for the conservative movement.  Paul was not a horse-trader: he would not forfeit bedrock conservative principles for momentary political gain.  Unlike those whose conservatism can be sacrificed on the altar of expediency, he was reliable; one looked to him for the authentic conservative position.

He played a role in deciding which conservative should be chosen to run in certain congressional districts and often propelled to prominence people heretofore unknown but whom he knew to be steadfast and energetic conservatives.

I appeared on Paul’s program often as well as other shows of his NET network.  While waiting in the Green Room, I was always impressed by the number of high-powered and influential people who chose Paul’s NET as their vehicle for framing the political debates of our time and influencing the outcome of day to day events.  He was among a handful of individuals who were the “go-to-person” if one needed something done regarding policy. But he was not a “Don” for brokering political deals or engaging in pay-for-play.  He was the quintessential altruistic man of policy and principle — a man who lived for the cause.

Over the years, I met with Paul and worked with him quietly on numerous occasions. We often spoke of the need for conservatives to build their own colleges and agreed that conservatives need to have a hand in the cultural arena if we are to win minds in the political arena. What are needed are conservative novels, mysteries, movies, plays, theme parks, TV shows, conservative book and movie reviewers, and conservative historians and essayists. It is the final but necessary frontier.

He was one of the most serious men I’ve ever met.  To him politics was not a game, nor was it even fun. It was not about gossip, nor about who was in and who was out.  It was about America and the way of life the Founding Fathers, and he, cherished.

Paul was Midwest as Midwest can be, even after 40 years in D.C.  That is why he, a devout Christian and from Wisconsin, and I, an Orthodox Jew and from Ohio, understood each other.  We shared the heartland values and language that for both of us characterized America. Our camaraderie was possible for it transcended disparate religious doctrine in favor of our mutual understanding of what constitutes historic Americanism.

While he dealt in the world of politics, he himself was not adept at office politics.  Unfortunately, his single-minded focus on policy and getting things done often made him unaware of maneuverings behind his back to wrest control from him the very entities he had created. Although these betrayals hurt him personally, he continued unhesitatingly doing whatever had to be done for the sake of the conservative movement.  His last years were filled with much physical pain, yet he worked almost as long and as energetically as during the younger years.

At present, there is much debate within the Republican Party as to where our conservatism lies.  Paul had no such dilemma. He was a political, social, economic, and religious conservative. He might not have had the glitz and the flair that have propelled others to fame and prominence, but for me and others who knew him well, he was “Mr. Conservative.”