- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2014


Few young conservatives even remember Phil Crane, who passed away over the weekend, but he was one of the most significant conservative leaders and politicians of his generation. He was an intellectual, an educator, an inspiring speaker, served 18 terms in Congress, ran for president and helped recruit thousands of young conservatives to the fledgling conservative movement beginning to take off in the 1960s.

A Midwesterner, Crane graduated from Hillsdale College when it was far less well known than it is today. He studied at the University of Vienna in Austria and Indiana University, where he joined the faculty after receiving his doctorate in 1961. He later taught at Bradley University and worked as director of research for Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign.

Before and after the Goldwater campaign, Crane lectured at campus and local gatherings around the country, leading seminars and encouraging young conservatives. Young Americans for Freedom and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute hosted him on literally hundreds of campuses as he was considered one of the brightest and most articulate conservative spokesmen of the era.

In 1969, newly elected President Nixon appointed Donald H. Rumsfeld, then an Illinois congressman, to head and clean up the Office of Economic Opportunity. Crane and a half-dozen others jumped into the primary to fill Mr. Rumsfeld’s seat, and young conservatives from all over the country flocked to Evanston to knock on doors for one of their own at a time when few movement conservatives were being elected anywhere. Crane wasn’t given much chance by the experts, but he won the primary, the general election, and kept winning in a congressional career that would span five decades.

At the time, most conservatives believed that he would one day be president. He founded the House Study Committee in 1971, headed Ronald Reagan’s 1976 Illinois campaign and was elected chairman of the American Conservative Union in 1978. He led the fight against President Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty and the Salt II treaty and, fearing that a seemingly reluctant Reagan might either not run or not wage a sufficiently aggressive campaign to win the presidency in 1980, announced in late 1978 that he would run himself. It’s almost impossible to believe looking back, but in 1979 and early 1980, many conservatives and political analysts didn’t believe Reagan would run or do very well if he did.

Crane said in announcing that if Reagan actually ran, he would drop out, but by the time Reagan announced, Crane had been bitten by the presidential bug and stayed in the race, a decision from which he never recovered. Reagan’s success forced him out, of course, as a new generation of conservatives emerging in the ‘80s and ‘90s relegated Crane to the sidelines. Like the young warrior he had once been, even in old age, he didn’t know when to quit and eventually lost his seat.

Alcohol was more accepted during his early congressional years. He struggled with alcoholism, but he had managed to beat it after the Republicans took the majority in 1994 and his closest friends, including Rep. Henry Hyde, urged him to get help. He did, gave up his beloved Heinekens and never backslid. A former historian, he had kept meticulous notes during his congressional days, so moving out of his office was a Herculean task, and he complained about the number of boxes that had to go home or to a new office. Within weeks, though, he was a historian once again and anxious to begin his memoirs. He retired to rural Virginia to write, but his wife Arlene’s health deteriorated, and he suffered a stroke that left him unable to write, though his speech and thought processes seemed unaffected.

A few years ago, my wife and I joined another friend in bringing Phil and his wife a turkey on Thanksgiving. By that time, neither he nor his wife got out much, so we went to them. It was an enjoyable way to spend the holiday with a man I had admired during my student days, worked and traveled with over the years and who served as chairman of the American Conservative Union for much of the time I served on the organization’s board. I’ll always be glad that we took the Cranes that turkey, and I’ll always be proud of the fact that we were friends to the end.

Phil Crane should be remembered in any history of American conservatism, for without him and the hard volunteer work he put in over so many years, many conservatives more familiar to today’s generation might never have become a part of the movement at all.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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