When Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich arrived in Washington in the 1960s, he found the conservative movement existed mainly in the imagination of right-wing intellectuals. But he changed all that, and spent next 40 years shaping the movement with structure, discipline and eventually influence over the Republican Party.
He also co-founded Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation with Edwin J. Feulner in 1973.
Mr. Weyrich, 66, died Thursday in Fairfax after a long illness. He had fought against health problems and the amputation of both legs to remain active to the end, organizing summit meetings on the future of conservatism and writing opinion pieces for his foundation and for news organizations.
Within the past few weeks he had seemed to be reinvigorated. A lover of trains, he went by Amtrak with his wife, Joyce, and two of his sons — Peter and Andrew — to New York City to see the Rockettes at Rockefeller Center.
A Wisconsin native and former broadcaster, Mr. Weyrich brought the conservative movement and Republican Party together. In turn, the GOP began winning elections. But he recently complained that in the last seven years or so, too many of the Republican leaders in Congress and the White House abandoned many of the principles that the party and he had preached.
All the while, his Wednesday luncheons at the Free Congress Foundation were a Washington institution. They were attended faithfully by powerful Republican Senate and House members, an occasional conservative Democrat, Republican emissaries from the White House, center-right interest-group leaders and political strategists.
“He may well be remembered as the man who gave social conservatives a seat at the policy table,” Mr. Feulner said. “Weyrich coined the term ‘moral majority’ and broadened the mainstream conservative movement by bringing millions of devout believers into the political process.”
Along with Barry Goldwater, Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Weyrich was “most responsible for the launching and the success of the conservative movement,” said Richard A. Viguerie, another founding father of modern conservatism. He added that Mr. Weyrich’s passing “leaves a leadership vacuum that conservatives will greatly miss as we wander through the political wilderness in the Obama era.”
“Paul was the most serious person in Washington, period,” said Donald J. Devine, a Reagan administration official who, like Mr. Weyrich, sometimes tangled over principles with GOP presidents and other partly leaders.
Elections-laws attorney Cleta Mitchell, who with Let Freedom Ring founder Colin Hanna organized a September salute to Mr. Weyrich in Georgetown, received this message from him Sunday night after he watched the video of the event, which he had attended in a wheelchair.
“For the first time since the event I had the chance to review the 29-gun salute,” Mr. Weyrich wrote. “It is a good thing most of what was said went over my head that evening because had I heard it as it was I would not have been able to speak.”
“In watching it tonight I could not hold back the tears,” Mr. Weyrich continued. “I know of nothing I have ever done to deserve such an outpouring of sentiment. Thank you again for your kindness beyond belief.”
Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, another key player of modern American conservatism, said of Mr. Weyrich’s passing: “When Paul came to Washington in the mid-1960s, the conservative movement had no vision of victory. We thought we were the Biblical Remnant, just doing our little bit against the tidal wave of socialist advance.”
Mr. Weyrich, she said, “set about to create an effective movement of cultural conservatives,” training generations of young conservatives “how to form coalitions on particular issues to target specific goals, to support the right candidates, to speak out against faulty presidential nominations and to plan to win instead of lose.”