Friday, September 19, 2003

Before Rush Limbaugh, there was Richard Viguerie. Many conservatives today listen, learn and heed the advice articulated by the radio talk show icon. But before Rush, conservatives for nearly 40 years looked to Richard Viguerie, the funding father of the conservative movement, for the “right word” on policy and politics. Before Mr. Limbaugh, it was Mr. Viguerie whose mail was delivered over hill and dale, through rain, sleet, and snow, to conservative donors and activists, prodding them to take action.

While he no longer funds an estimated 70 percent of the conservative movement’s revenues — a calculation made by his political enemies — Mr. Viguerie, who turns 70 this month, no longer has to, because Viguerie-trained acolytes are active from coast to American coast.

As a “graduate” of the Viguerie school of conservative activism, I attest to the influence he had, not only on U.S. politics, but on the many young men and women fortunate enough to have learned at his side. In fact, Morton Blackwell, another well-known graduate, deserves credit for the “funding father” tag.

Mr. Viguerie pioneered political “direct mail” four decades ago as the newly hired executive secretary for Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Shy about personally visiting contributors, Mr. Viguerie realized he could contact 1,000 or 10,000 potential donors by mail without spending any more time, effort or money than it would take to personally solicit a single contribution from one potential donor. Thus was launched a storied career as the guru of direct-mail political fund-raising.

Legions of candidates, from the courthouse to the White House, have benefited from Mr. Viguerie’s expertise, and legions of others have tasted defeat as a direct result of his ability to raise money and promote action simply by sitting down at his typewriter.

This one-man financier of the U.S. Postal Service has mailed an estimated 2 billion letters during his careers. Some of them have been humdingers.

I remember, for example, former Lt. Gov. Henry Howell’s unsuccessful campaign for the governorship of Virginia. A liberal Democrat, “Howling Henry,” as he was frequently called (due to his bombastic and garrulous demeanor), blamed none other than “Viguerie and his direct-mail machine” for his defeat. Many commentators blamed Howell’s defeat on his liberal views, but “Howling Henry” had it right: Without Mr. Viguerie’s steady stream of letters reminding Virginia voters of Howell’s out-of-step views, Howell might have pulled it off.

About the same time, former U.S. Rep. Mervyn Dymally, a Democrat then running for re-election as lieutenant governor of California, attributed his defeat to two people: “Ronald Reagan on the West Coast and Richard Viguerie on the East Coast.”

As a political lightening rod, Mr. Viguerie had his detractors, of course. The complaints are usually the same: that he or his “subsidiaries” keep too much of the money he raises. Or put another way: that the organization in whose name the money is raised doesn’t get enough.

In fact, Mr. Viguerie’s charges are not out of line at all. In the 60 Plus Association’s first year, for example, Mr. Viguerie’s direct-mail efforts generated $1.3 million in revenues. 60 Plus received every cent. But we were only able to use $100,000 to support our programs. The remaining $1.2 million had to be paid for vendors: $586,000 to the U.S. Postal Services (USPS) $500,000 to the companies that supplied envelopes, paper, and did the computer work. Mr. Viguerie’s company received just $74,613.

I am sure USPS officials would be shocked to learn they were a Viguerie “subsidiary.” However after mailing 2 billion letters, Mr. Viguerie should be given an ownership stake in the “company.” As a good “conservative,” the first thing he would do, I’m sure, would be to disavow USPS’ status as a government-sanctioned monopoly.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was sitting in Mr. Viguerie’s office on Election Night, monitoring returns from around the country. I listened to Richard place a call to his father in Houston. After the call, I asked why he had used his personal credit card to make the call, rather than direct dialing from his desk. He told me it was because he was calling his father, not making a business call. That’s the squeaky-clean Richard Viguerie U.S. liberals love to hate.

In its farewell issues, George, the lively political magazine founded by the late John F. Kennedy Jr., named the 100 top political forces in the 20th century. Richard Viguerie was listed as No. 62. That’s a colossal achievement for a shy, bald guy from Texas who for 40 years has been the bane of America’s liberal establishment.

On behalf of the hundreds of people you have mentored over the years, the dozens of successful organizations you have helped launch, and the millions of Americans who have benefited from your political principles, I wish the Funding Father of American Conservatism a Happy Birthday.

James L. Martin is president of the 60 Plus Association.

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