When Paul Weyrich died in December of 2008, two questions were frequently heard throughout the conservative community nationwide: What would become of the Free Congress Foundation that Weyrich started and made into an influential political force and who would succeed Weyrich — one of the most significant figures in the modern conservative movement — at the FCF helm.
In recent weeks, those questions have been answered. Now finishing its fourth decade, the Free Congress Foundation will go into its fifth, offering forums on key issues as well as opportunities for cultural and economic conservatives to meet with key members of Congress. And succeeding Weyrich in the FCF presidency is former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who also served as his state’s attorney general. In ’08, Gilmore was briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination for President and then his party’s nominee for U.S. senator—losing badly to Democrat Mark Warner as Barack Obama was becoming the first Democrat to carry the Old Dominion State’s electoral votes since 1964.
As the choice of the FCF board for the presidency of the foundation and assuming Weyrich’s mantle as a national conservative voice, Gilmore embodies Ronald Reagan’s axiom that “there are second acts in politics.”
“Paul Weyrich blazed the trail for many conservative themes and I want to continue that leadership,” Gilmore told me recently after one of the Wednesday gatherings of Washington conservatives that many still call the “Weyrich lunches.” Gilmore recalled vividly how Weyrich was a leader in terms of putting such cultural issues as abortion and marriage high on the public agenda and emphasized that “I don’t want that to diminish.”
But, the former governor quickly added, “It is the assault on limited government and freedom that is central to the debate of today. That’s what we, as conservatives, must focus on: high government spending, enhanced government control, and record-high deficits.”
The debate on these issues, says Gilmore, “is nothing less than the debate over the future of our country.”
Communication by and among conservatives is another issue Gilmore plans to grapple with. Gilmore says that a serious problem with the contemporary conservative movement is that “conservatives tend to talk to one another. We need to reach out geographically, listening to and dealing with local opinion leaders. They are the ones who can most influence elective officials and, in the process, influence public policy.”
In terms of the means for communicating a message, Gilmore believes that “the world has changed, and in a big way. We are a big-media society. Unless you were in the media, you had to buy media.”
Weyrich certainly also believed this, and launched a conservative-oriented cable television network in the 1980s. Gilmore thinks that in the 21st Century, “we have now moved beyond television, into a new media age that includes Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.” By mastering this new media, the new FCF head maintains, conservatives can overcome the barriers that have been put before them by the national media.
Onetime Republican National Chairman Gilmore also feels that the recent Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that allowed corporate money in independent political campaigns is a definite plus for the conservative cause. In his words, “anything that limits freedom of speech is a barrier to conservatism.”
Along with the Free Congress Foundation, Gilmore will head up a sister educational foundation that will deal with public policy and develop new ideas.
“And that’s what we need to do — develop sound policy and good ideas,” he told me. “All too often, conservatives just react to what the liberals are trying to do. We must be very pro-active and come up with positive alternatives to the programs of the left.” As an example, Gilmore cited reduction of the Medicaid rolls by giving the states greater control over who qualifies for the federally based health assistance program, much as welfare reform was based on turning much of the authority for the program over to the states.
New ideas, new means of communication, and new ways of applying conservative principles to the problems of today were causes Paul Weyrich pursued from the 1970s right up until his death in 2008. Now it is Jim Gilmore’s turn — not simply to keep Weyrich’s flame but to see that it burns brightly in the 21st Century.