Howard J. Phillips, conservative activist and three-time presidential candidate, dies at 72

Howard J. Phillips, a paladin of conservatism who helped lead the New Right movement in the 1970s and later ran three times as a third-party presidential candidate to defend the bedrock values he believed many Republicans had abandoned, died April 20 at his home in Vienna. He was 72.

He had frontotemporal dementia, said his sister, Susan Phillips Bari.

Long involved in Republican campaigns and causes, Mr. Phillips rose to prominence in Washington when President Richard M. Nixon named him acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Mr. Phillips’s chief task, widely understood at the time, was to dismantle the social programs created through Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

A federal judge ultimately ruled such action to be illegal, and, to Mr. Phillips’s profound disillusionment, Nixon complied. Mr. Phillips resigned. He had been in office for only months but long enough to conclude that the conservative movement desperately needed a new burst of energy.

“At OEO I was confronted with evil, pure and simple,” he once told National Review, referring to what he and conservative colleagues regarded as the agency’s record of funding liberal organizations. “I was not there very long when I discovered that OEO was the warroom for those that were trying to overturn what had once been America.”


Howard J. Phillips, acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, testifies before a House subcommittee on February 27, 1973 in Washington, D.C. Phillips, a paladin of conservatism who helped found the New Right movement in the 1970s and later ran three times as a third-party presidential candidate, died April 20. (AP/AP)

In 1974, he founded the Conservative Caucus, a grass-roots organizing machine that he would lead as chairman until 2011. His group quickly gained momentum, and Mr. Phillips joined Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and other conservative leaders who met weekly at Viguerie’s home in McLean to rally what became known as the New Right.

“If there ever was something resembling Hillary Clinton’s vast right wing conspiracy, ” Viguerie joked in an online tribute to Mr. Phillips, “this was it.”

While the Old Right focused on economic conservatism, free market economics and a vigorous national defense, the New Right stressed conservative positions on abortion, gun control, school busing, prayer in schools and other social issues that would transform U.S. politics over the following decades.

Mr. Phillips “was our true north,” Viguerie said in an interview Wednesday. “If he thought we were not being exactly consistent with our principles . . . he was very quick to remind us that we had wandered off the reservation.”

Describing organizations behind the New Right movement, The Washington Post once called the Conservative Caucus “the most militant group of them all.” Mr. Phillips said that his group was “engaged in guerrilla warfare on 435 different fronts,” referring to the 435 congressional districts, and crisscrossed the country in unflagging organizing efforts.

“Conservatives used to believe their job was to lose as slowly as possible,” Mr. Phillips once told the New York Times. “I don’t just want to slow the train down; I want to put it on another track.”

In 1975, he, Viguerie and others leaders met with former California governor Ronald Reagan at the Madison Hotel in Washington and tried to persuade him to run for president the next year as an independent — an opportunity, in their view, to further invigorate the conservative movement.

Reagan declined, The Post reported, on the grounds that he was a Republican first and conservative second.

Reagan failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 but had landslide general election victories in 1980 and 1984. For Mr. Phillips, Reagan’s conservative bona fides were lacking. After the president’s dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Phillips called him a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Along with other New Right leaders, Mr. Phillips clashed with Reagan over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whom they regarded as insufficiently opposed to abortion rights.

“All they’ve done,” Mr. Phillips said of the Reagan administration, “is throw us a few bones to keep the dogs from biting their heels.”

President George H.W. Bush, too, proved insufficiently conservative. In 1992, disaffected with Republicans, Mr. Phillips founded the U.S. Taxpayers Party, later renamed the Constitution Party.

The group opposed abortion in all cases and advocated for the elimination of the federal income tax, for U.S. disengagement from international organizations such as the United Nations, and for the restriction of government to functions such as the national defense and mail service. At times, Mr. Phillips spoke of the “Satanization” of the United States and vowed to “restore American jurisprudence to its biblical premises.”

He ran for president on his party’s ticket in 1992, 1996 and 2000. “If God wants us to win, we’ll win,” he told an interviewer in 1996.

That year, his best performance, Mr. Phillip received 0.20 percent of the vote.

“Every vote I get is a victory,” he said.

Howard Jay Phillips was born Feb. 3, 1941, in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in Brighton, Mass. His father was an insurance broker, his mother a homemaker. Both parents were Jewish, and Mr. Phillips was raised Jewish. He converted to Christianity in adulthood.

While studying at Harvard University, he participated in the founding of the organization Young Americans for Freedom at the home of conservative author and intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn., in 1960. Two years later, Mr. Phillips graduated from college.

Before coming to Washington, he served as chairman of the Boston Republican Committee and managed Republican Richard Schweiker’s successful 1968 campaign to unseat Sen. Joe Clark (D-Pa.).

Mr. Phillips’s survivors include his wife of 49 years, Margaret Blanchard Phillips of Vienna; six children, Douglas Phillips of San Antonio, Amanda Lants of Purcellville, Bradford Phillips of Nairobi, Jennifer Phillips of New York, Alexandra Phillips of the District and Samuel Phillips of Vienna; his sister; and 18 grandchildren.

Mr. Phillips was unyielding in his views and said victory was not always easily measured. “In the long run,” he once said, “we lose only if we fail to fight.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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