Thursday, January 15, 2009

In Memoriam: the Paul Weyrich Whom I Knew and Admired

By Stuart Rothenberg

Paul M. Weyrich, one of the founders of the “New Right,” passed away shortly before Christmas. Many of the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings in the nation’s capital today have never heard his name or know only what they read in a few obituaries published in the days following his death.

Those who remember Paul and are familiar with his activities, particularly during the late 1970s and 1980s, likely see him either as a principled conservative who helped build a movement based on “traditional” values and a strong defense, as well as mobilized millions of socially conservative evangelicals, or as an intolerant right-winger who sought to impose his views on others.

It’s easy to see how those two very different views of Paul Weyrich came about. Paul had strong opinions, was outspoken and rarely pulled his punches. This made him many friends and at least an equal number of enemies. It also turned some of his friends into enemies, as when he attacked the appointment of Texas Republican Sen. John Tower as secretary of Defense in 1989 (Tower was never confirmed by the Senate).

I first met Paul when I moved to the nation’s capital during the summer of 1980, less than six months before Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans made substantial gains in the House and Senate. Hard as it is to believe, I had never heard of Paul when I began as a reporter for the Political Report, a newsletter he published.

Paul initially made his name in candidate and grass-roots training — teaching candidates how to put together successful campaigns and local activists how to mobilize supporters. Later, with Republicans in the White House or in control on Capitol Hill, he changed his focus much more to D.C., even trying to launch a conservative television network (well before Fox hit the airwaves).

Paul’s foray into TV did not prove successful. He was the ultimate “idea” person and a creative strategist, but he was not nearly as successful in completing projects or building institutions.

After he helped start the Heritage Foundation, Paul quickly moved on to found a variety of much smaller organizations, from the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress (a political action committee) to the Free Congress Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt educational organization, to Coalitions for America, a 501(c)(4) organization, which can advocate legislation.

Paul never built those organizations into true institutions. Instead, for the most part, each merely was a platform for Paul. He was the top fundraiser, strategist, spokesman and face of each.

But focusing only on Paul Weyrich’s political successes and failings, his assets and liabilities, his weaknesses and strengths, ignores the human side of a man who was much kinder, compassionate and, frankly, more reasonable than his critics know.

This, after all, was a man who was obsessed with trains. He published magazines about trains and trolleys and loved to talk about anything from light rail to Amtrak.

A one-time reporter in Wisconsin, Paul valued straight reporting and independent analysis so much that he published two newsletters that were free of ideological bias. This surprised both his enemies and his friends.

I recall one example vividly. In 1984, I wrote an article in the Political Report that raised doubts about then-Sen. Roger Jepsen’s ability to win re-election in the face of a challenge from then-Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Jepsen, a conservative Republican whom Paul helped elect, telephoned Weyrich to read him the riot act about the story and analysis, only to be told by Paul that he, as the publisher, stood behind the piece. (Harkin defeated Jepsen by almost a dozen points in that race.)

Another time, when Paul’s foundation published a brief monograph about campaign finance reform that did not argue for the elimination of the Federal Election Commission, a high-profile Virginia conservative who was one of Paul’s closest political allies asked him to withdraw the monograph and discipline the writer because the monograph’s conclusions were at odds with the “conservative movement’s” position. Paul did no such thing.

I am certain that veteran political reporters who spoke with Paul often over the years will attest to his ability to be both dispassionate and analytical when dissecting politics even though he was, at the same time, committed to a particular outcome.

This isn’t to say that Paul didn’t have a vision for the country. He did. But the values that he admired and cherished went beyond his strongly held pro-life, conservative political views to include intellectual and personal integrity, analytical ability, and the importance of one’s personal religious views and one’s family.

A Catholic who is most often credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) with bringing conservative evangelicals into the political arena, Paul took great pains to bridge the gulfs that existed between evangelicals and Catholics and between evangelicals and Jews.

Though it was never publicized, Paul put together a meeting of politically conservative Jewish political and religious leaders and intellectuals and of high-profile evangelicals to talk about common interests and break down walls of distrust. As far as I could tell, he didn’t have an ounce of racial or religious intolerance in him.

Paul Weyrich’s style and agenda rubbed many the wrong way. That’s understandable. But the man from working-class roots was one of the most astute political observers and strategists in the country for years, and, in spite of a well-known volcanic tempter, he was always incredibly fair, loyal and kind to me.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 12, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.