masthead-highres

Friday, December 19, 2008

Paul Weyrich: Someone Who Led the Fight for All We Believe In

Joyce and Paul Weyrich
Joyce and Paul Weyrich in 1992

It was with great sadness that we at the National Center for Public Policy Research learned today of the passing of conservative leader Paul Weyrich.

Paul was never officially affiliated with the National Center, but we learned so much from Paul over the years that when we purchased our national headquarters building in 2004, we named the first floor in his honor. That should tell you something about the appreciation we have for Paul, as nonprofit organizations usually reserve naming opportunities for major financial donors. It also will tell you something when I say that we haven't yet named any of the other floors.

I first met Paul in 1982, when I gave him a call at the suggestion of another conservative leader. The National Center for Public Policy Research was brand-new back then, and no one had ever heard of it. Paul was about 39 and already prominent; I was 22 and utterly anonymous. He was out when I called, but he called me back within an hour. He had no idea who I was, but he still called me back himself. Many would have had an underling do it.

That week I started attending the coalition meetings run by Paul's Coalitions for America. That's where Paul's genius for leadership really showed. Those meetings were the center of the conservative movement. In the pre-Internet days; these meetings were by far the main information-sharing mechanism for many dozens of influential organizations and elected officials, but there was a lot more to them than that. Information about a problem or goal on a public policy issue would be shared by one of typically 5-8 guest speakers per meeting. The speaker would make one or more specific action requests (and woe to the speaker who came without action requests). Then the organization representatives assembled would volunteer to help (and woe to us if enough of us didn't). And then Paul typically would add his two cents: he'd name other things that could be done; other people who could help; offer to call legislators or others on the speaker's behalf to move roadblocks, or whatever else might be needed. On the fly, he'd design a complete victory strategy and recruit a team to get the victory accomplished.

Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing would be done in ten minutes or less? That was the rule. Speakers had five minutes to convince everyone about the seriousness of their issue and what help they needed to prevail or, well, Paul would help. And when he did, let me tell you, you'd be able to hear him in the back.

The news media typically describes Paul as the founder of the Heritage Foundation, as the CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, and as the major Religious Right figure who coined the phrase "Moral Majority." All true, but can you imagine the impact of Paul's meetings, week-in, week-out, held from the 1970s and continuing today? And the impact made, then and for years after, by the conservatives who sat in his meetings and learned how Washington works? How it really works?

Another thing about Paul that set him apart from many is that he was no toady. If you were a prominent elected official and you squished out or made lame excuses, Paul let you have it, no matter how many years of seniority you might have or how famous your name might be. (In fact, the more power you had, the harder he might be on you, because he expected more from those who ought to know better.) Typical Washington behavior is to toady-up to power (part of the reason so many of our legislators are so bad). Not Paul's style at all.

I remember a meeting Paul attended in the White House back in 1983. We had assembled a half-dozen prominent Congressmen and Senators and a group of heads of conservative organizations to urge then-President Reagan to stay stalwart against the nuclear freeze (the left-wing suicidal lunacy of the day) and to use his presidential bully pulpit more often to condemn the proposed freeze. We all talked about our meeting strategy before the President came in, mutually agreeing that we would speak strongly and forcefully, firmly and specifically listing examples of opportunities we thought the Reagan Administration was failing to take that could help bring the American people to its side on these critical defense issues. It was also agreed that the most prominent people in the room, the well-known defense-hawk Congressmen and Senators, would take the lead. The rest of us would back them up.

But when President Reagan came in, a funny thing happened. In Reagan's presence, most of the Congressmen and Senators morphed into wimps. The heartfelt concerns they had for how the Reagan White House was conducting public outreach on defense issues were not spoken of. In their place were platitudes of praise. Despite being Congressmen and Senators (and well above average ones at that), they were too intimidated by the President's presence to be constructively critical.

Do you suppose the same thing happened to Paul? (You won't suppose so if you are among those who knew him.) In tone and demeanor, he was every bit as respectful to the President as were the elected officials, but when Paul talked, the President understood what was on the table. Paul wasn't the only one of us to speak, but his firm approach carried the day. Had we left it to the elected officials, the meeting would have been little more than a photo op.

I was present in only a very minute fraction of all the meetings Paul attended with powerful people over the years, but I believe his willingness to be frank when needed about the real issues (the hoary cliche', 'speak truth to power,' for once, fits) would have given many others who otherwise might have been intimidated into silence the courage to speak. Only the Lord knows how much good has been done.

I suppose you could almost call Paul a populist leader, not in the sense that he was led by public opinion (Paul was led by principles and merits), or ever motivated by anti-intellectualism, but in the sense that he held everyone to the same equal standard regardless of lofty position or lack of it: You'd better pitch in and stick to your conservative principles, or you'd hear about it, whether you were a Senator or you were an intern. But if you did do those things, you could get as much praise as an intern as you would as a Senator (maybe more).

I posted at the top of this post a picture of Paul with his wife, Joyce, I took at a party in 1992. I think it captures Paul's vibrancy and personality more than stock photos. You could not do what he did, and he did a lot, without being constantly active and working very, very hard.

Many of the anecdotes I've heard and read about Paul today are only about conservatism. I bet here's one you aren't seeing in many places: Paul could make up bad -- and I mean really bad -- puns better than anyone.

Paul also was there for friends. There are many people who were much closer to Paul than I was, but on one occasion some years back when I was going through a rough patch, Paul called and told me that if I was ever having a sleepless night, and needed somebody to talk to, even if it was 2 or 3 in the morning, I could call him and he'd talk with me for as long as it took to make me feel better. To demonstrate he really meant it, he then sent me a hand-written note in the mail with the same message.

I never called him in the middle of the night, but there were many times I remembered him making the offer. I can only imagine how many times he made a similar offer to others, but I bet he helped many. Journalists covering Paul's passing are telling us Paul coined the phrase "moral majority," and so he did, but which of these things is a greater epitaph?

Not counting the Christmas card we received from Paul and his wife today, the last time David and I heard from Paul was yesterday. He sent us a handwritten note thanking us for something he needn't have thanked us for at all. Most of the note was personal, but it included this one paragraph about policy:
Guys, the Obama Administration will be difficult for us as Obama tolerates no opposition. We must win the so-called 'Fairness Doctrine' fight. If not we can kiss goodbye to any revival in 2010 and 2012. I know you will help.
That was Paul. Even gone, he leads us.

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Posted by Amy Ridenour at 12:15 AM

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