A Father of Modern Conservative Movement

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.

In the late 1990s, Weyrich began to doubt that a majority of Americans shared his reverence for what he deemed traditional morality. He advocated that conservatives erect schools, neighborhoods and institutions to fight back against what he considered depraved American culture.

"Look at the National Endowment for the Arts as a prototype," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a piddling little organization -- about $100 million budget out of a $2 trillion budget -- and rather inconsequential in national significance. Republicans surely could have been able to shut that down given the fact that it had offended many, many people with the kind of art it had subsidized.

"But the culture overwhelmed the political process," he added. "Why? Because upper-crust, suburban Republican women in the districts of Republican congressmen defended the filth."

Paul Michael Weyrich was born Oct. 7, 1942, in Racine, Wis., to a working-class family. As a teenager, he and friends launched a grass-roots campaign to save a train route from Milwaukee to Chicago.

After two years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he was a reporter at the old Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper and worked at a Milwaukee television station and a Denver radio station. He moved to Washington in 1967 as press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allott (R-Colo.).

On Capitol Hill, he inadvertently attended a political strategy session for a civil rights coalition and realized that Republicans and, more important, conservatives had nothing like it.

"They literally put together a battle plan before my eyes," he told the National Journal. "I saw the interconnection between public policy, outside groups, religious organizations, political organizations, lobbyists and the passage of a particular position in Congress."

He turned to Colorado beer magnate Joseph Coors and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife for the funding to start the Heritage Foundation. He served as its first president and after three years left to start the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. With only $5,000 from Coors, CSFC engaged Richard Viguerie to start a direct-mail campaign and eventually raised $500,000 for conservatives in 1974.

The many groups he established trained a generation of conservative politicians, including Gingrich and former vice president Dan Quayle. In the early 1990s, he formed an institute to train activists for democracy movements in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The political struggle, he said, "may not be with bullets, and it may not be with rockets and missiles, but it's war nonetheless. It is a war of ideology, it's a war of ideas and it's a war about our way of life. And it has to be fought with the same intensity, I think, and dedication as you would fight a shooting war."

A railroad buff since childhood, Weyrich served on the board of Amtrak from 1987 to 1993. As a member of a congressional panel formed in 1997 to study the government-subsidized railway, he spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to abolish Amtrak and devolve most rail service to states that wanted to support it.

He was raised Roman Catholic, but after the changes of Vatican II, he converted to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and served as a deacon.

Before he began using a wheelchair, he was an outspoken opponent of the Americans With Disabilities Act when it passed in 1990 -- and did not change his mind when he began using the curb cuts, elevator accesses and lowered utility switches that the legislation demanded.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Joyce Smigun Weyrich of Annandale; five children, Dawn Ceol of Haymarket, Peter Weyrich of Alexandria, Diana Pascoe of Honolulu, Stephen Weyrich of Fairfax Station and Andrew Weyrich of Fairfax County; and 13 grandchildren.

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