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Paul M. Weyrich: 1942-2008

A Father of Modern Conservative Movement

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 2008

Paul M. Weyrich, 66, the conservative thinker who coined the phrase "moral majority" to describe the religious right, co-founded the Heritage Foundation think tank and became the combative intellectual activist who revived the foundering Republican Party with an infusion of passionate believers, died yesterday at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax.

It was not immediately known what caused his death because he was in the hospital for routine tests, his wife said. Weyrich had been in declining health after he injured his spine in a fall in 1996. He also had diabetes, and his legs were amputated below the knee in 2005.

Conservative leaders, in a flurry of statements, praised Weyrich for injecting the movement with new ideas, energy and backbone at a time when Democrats dominated Congress and Republicans had lost their way after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

"Most of the successes of the conservative movement since the 1970s flowed from structures, organizations and coalitions he started, created or nurtured," said Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

"More than anyone else, he studied the organizing mechanisms of the left and applied them to create an effective conservative activist movement," said former House majority leader Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

"Paul Weyrich was conservative long, long before it was cool," said American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene. "He had little time for moderates or those who simply gave lip service to the values he held dear. His goal was to recruit conservatives, train them both ideologically and in campaign techniques and send them off to do battle with the liberals who dominated Washington in those days. He could be ornery, but he accomplished more than almost anyone of his generation."

More than any person, perhaps excluding President Ronald Reagan, whom he attacked as insufficiently conservative, Weyrich stitched the religious, social-issue voters into the secular fabric of the Republican Party. He co-founded the Washington-based Heritage Foundation in 1973 as a counterbalance to the liberal Brookings Institution and launched what became an influential network of conservative think tanks and talk radio shows that contributed to the culture wars of the past three decades.

His Free Congress Foundation virtually invented the use of grass-roots direct-mail fundraising campaigns for conservative politicians and social causes.

At a 1979 gathering of religious leaders, Weyrich talked about a "moral majority" of American voters. The phrase was adopted by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who led an alliance of religious and economic conservatives that went on to help elect three Republican presidents.

A blunt speaker who created enemies even among those who agreed with him, Weyrich was called "the Robespierre of the right" and a "pillar of the modern conservative movement." He was dropped in 1997 by National Empowerment Television, the ideologically driven network he had founded three years earlier, after he repeatedly accused Republican leaders of not hewing to the conservative line.

"We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals," he said more than a decade before, "working to overturn the present power structures in this country."

He denounced former senator John G. Tower (R-Tex.) as a womanizer and a drunkard in widely televised testimony that ditched Tower's 1989 nomination for defense secretary. He threatened former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin L. Powell in 1996 with a withering examination about social issues if he dared to run for president.


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