Friday, June 17, 2005

When Paul M. Weyrich came to Washington 40 years ago, the conservative movement was largely a playpen for right-wing intellectuals.

He helped bring it structure, discipline and, gradually, dominance over the Republican Party, which has been winning elections ever since.

Mr. Weyrich, the founder and chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, said conservatism, though built on ideas, is not an ideology.

“It’s anti-ideology, a way of looking at the world, a way of life,” he explained.

What’s more, “conservatism gets off course when it becomes an ideology,” he said, shifting his weight in the wheelchair that has been getting him around town since a fall in 2001 exacerbated a 1996 spinal injury.

He doesn’t complain. Not about that. What rankles him is the tendency of some conservatives to make the movement a mirror image of the left.”When conservatism becomes an ideology, then, like the liberal ideology, reality has to fit into the ideology,” he said. “So you can’t have any deviation from the ideology. Orthodoxy demands that you take this position, and that has never been the hallmark of conservatism.”

Mr. Weyrich said he is happy that the Republican Party has shed its country-club elitism and finally come to define itself as America’s conservative party. But the relationship has become too close for comfort.

“Right now the conservative movement has an all-too-cordial relationship with the Republican Party that has prevented many conservatives from speaking out, for example, about the absolutely out-of-control spending that occurred in the last Congress,” he said.

Mr. Weyrich has exercised considerable influence over the years. He helped build support for President Reagan’s sweeping tax cuts by bringing religious conservative leaders together with Jack Kemp, a New York congressman at the time and the prime exponent of those proposed cuts.

“When Jack Kemp came up with supply-side economic theme in the 1970s, the religious right had no idea what this meant or how it fit in with anything they cared about,” Mr. Weyrich said. “So Kemp came over and briefed our whole assemblage at the time and convinced the leaders of the religious right to support his tax-cut bill, and that gave it an extra push it wouldn’t have had except for that meeting.”

Mr. Weyrich devoted much of his time in his early years in Washington tutoring religious leaders and activists in the ways of practical politics. He told the Rev. Jerry Falwell there was in America a “moral majority” — unaware of their potential power but waiting to be organized. Mr. Falwell liked the phrase and adopted it for his movement.

“My role was basically as coach to the various groups that are now called religious right — to get them to the point where they could function politically and then to put them into a coalition where they could work together,” he said.

One of Mr. Weyrich’s most public shows of force came right after the first President Bush took office in 1989, when Mr. Weyrich testified against former Republican Sen. John Tower of Texas, who was nominated for defense secretary. Mr. Weyrich raised questions about Mr. Tower’s moral character and personal life and dealt the nomination a fatal blow. Mr. Bush then tapped a relatively unknown Republican from Wyoming — Rep. Dick Cheney — to head the Pentagon.

That was in 1989, 23 years after Mr. Weyrich had first come to Washington as press secretary to a senator.

“I remember, around 1971, there was a major battle on land use under way in the House, with the vote a few days off,” he said. “I heard conservatives were meeting in the Longworth Building, So I went and for 45 minutes listened as differing intellectuals argued arcane ideas about the government role with land.

“Finally I said, ‘Excuse me. Does anyone here have a head count?’ One of the intellectuals said, ‘Head count?’ I said, ‘You know, a list of House members for and against land use and who has yet to announce a position.’ The meeting chairman said, ‘Why would we want that?’ I said, ‘So we can win the vote by knowing where to direct our efforts.’

“The fellow, whose name I have long since forgotten, said, ‘We don’t know what you are talking about. Now don’t interrupt us further. We have yet to settle on what we believe about the issue.’”

That kind of attitude, Mr. Weyrich said, meant conservatives “always got killed in the political process.”

He said, “One day I was privileged to attend a strategy meeting run by the Civil Rights Coalition, and for the first time in my life I saw how they operate.”

He and another young conservative congressional aide, Edwin J. Feulner, set out to form a similar network on the right. They persuaded businessman Joe Coors to donate the seed money to start up the Heritage Foundation in 1973.

When Heritage’s financial backers didn’t want it to get into social issues, Mr. Weyrich left and formed the Free Congress Foundation, Free Congress Political Action Committee and Coalitions for America. Mr. Weyrich then formed three influential strategy groups to cover all the bases in Washington.

Meeting separately once a week for off-the-record sessions, the Kingston Group devoted its firepower to economic issues, the Stanton Group did the heavy lifting on defense-foreign policy and the Library Court (now called the Family Forum) strategized over social issues. They brought together lawmakers, Hill aides, interest-group representatives — and, when a Republican held the Oval Office, White House officials — to exchange ideas and map strategies.

To round out what Hillary Rodham Clinton would eventually label the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Mr. Weyrich helped organize the House Republican Study Committee and the Senate Republican Steering Committee.

He also helped found the American Legislative Exchange Council, to develop conservative policies at the state level, and formed the Council for National Policy, which aims to bring together enough legislators, donors and activists to achieve critical mass.

Despite the achievements of conservatism, Mr. Weyrich worries about the future of the movement in several areas, including foreign policy. “We do not presume to build an American empire,” he said. “We do not presume … that because we have the power we should use it all over the world, whether countries want it or not.”

Such a path, he suggested, could lead to “what George Orwell, in his book ‘1984,’ called ‘a permanent war for a permanent peace.’ ”

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