The Man Who Helped Found Modern Conservatism

Intending only to attend the funeral service for Paul Weyrich, a towering figure in modern conservatism who died last Thursday, I found myself inexorably drawn to make the long drive to the gravesite and thus to spend some time with his family and wide circle of friends.

The service for the 66-year-old Weyrich was at the Holy Transfiguration Melkite Church in McLean, Virginia. It began at 10:00 and, as several friends had predicted, I wound up standing in the back of the church.

“Deacon Paul,” was how his colleagues in the Church referred to the man we knew as political strategist, commentator, and thinker. The Church that he joined in the 1960s was, according to one of his fellow lay leaders, one of the three passions he had, along with trains and politics. Weyrich rose to become a proto-deacon in his church, participating in services and ministering to fellow members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (which recognizes the Pope as its spiritual leader).

“Deacon Paul once told me,” a concelebrant of the service told the mourners, “that even if all of the changes of the [Roman Catholic] Second Vatican Council could be rolled back, he would not leave this church because he so loved it.”

Although I had known Paul Weyrich for decades, I learned a lot about him I had not known. There was a reason, I learned, for his deployment in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe of the political organizational skills his Committee for a Free Congress mastered to elect so many conservative House and Senate members over the years: Weyrich’s beloved Church had deep roots in Russia and Eastern Europe, and he would make up for the many generations in which their work was stifled under Communism.

And there was the pain from a spinal injury that made the last eight years of his life difficult. While I knew that the loss of the use of his legs and their eventual amputation must have been painful, the concelebrant spelled it out in no uncertain terms: “When I asked Deacon Paul about the pain, he said ‘on a scale of 1-to-10, it’s 10, and I feel it 24-7. I would take my own life were it not a sin against God.’”

After the service, former Reagan Administration official and veteran conservative activist Don Devine suggested we ride together to the burial, and we did. There, in subzero weather, as conservative leaders ranging from direct mail czar Richard Viguerie to Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner to Rep. Roy Blunt gathered, Paul Weyrich was laid to rest.

What struck me about the service, burial, and the meal back at the church was less what was said about Weyrich than who was there. His fellow church leaders, as well as his fellow leaders in conservative activism, all came. American Conservative Union President Dave Keene was there, along with outgoing Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R.-N.C.), who shared a cab with Sixty Plus Seniors Association President James L. Martin, and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao all paid their respects. Younger cultural conservative leaders such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition came to say farewell to one who had first seen the potential of mobilizing religious conservatives into battle. So did, I was later told, the police chief of Moscow, who recalled Weyrich’s early spadework in his country to see that democratic practices took hold.

They all said warm and moving things about the friend who had left us. But these were said as they waited in line for their meal — a tradition in the Melkite Church after funerals — and at the table. There was no time offered for people to get up and talk about it before a microphone, as there are at so many services when time is offered “to offer your own reminiscences about the dead.” There did not need to be.

Paul Weyrich, I was reminded, was a man of parts — and all good parts. No, I didn’t get back to the office or home early as I intended. But I did come back better for my time away.