When Free Congress Foundation President Paul M. Weyrich arrived in Washington in the 1960s, he found the conservative movement existed mainly in the imagination of right-wing intellectuals. But he changed all that, and spent next 40 years shaping the movement with structure, discipline and eventually influence over the Republican Party.
He also co-founded Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation with Edwin J. Feulner in 1973.
Mr. Weyrich, 66, died Thursday in Fairfax after a long illness. He had fought against health problems and the amputation of both legs to remain active to the end, organizing summit meetings on the future of conservatism and writing opinion pieces for his foundation and for news organizations.
Within the past few weeks he had seemed to be reinvigorated. A lover of trains, he went by Amtrak with his wife, Joyce, and two of his sons — Peter and Andrew — to New York City to see the Rockettes at Rockefeller Center.
A Wisconsin native and former broadcaster, Mr. Weyrich brought the conservative movement and Republican Party together. In turn, the GOP began winning elections. But he recently complained that in the last seven years or so, too many of the Republican leaders in Congress and the White House abandoned many of the principles that the party and he had preached.
All the while, his Wednesday luncheons at the Free Congress Foundation were a Washington institution. They were attended faithfully by powerful Republican Senate and House members, an occasional conservative Democrat, Republican emissaries from the White House, center-right interest-group leaders and political strategists.
“He may well be remembered as the man who gave social conservatives a seat at the policy table,” Mr. Feulner said. “Weyrich coined the term ‘moral majority’ and broadened the mainstream conservative movement by bringing millions of devout believers into the political process.”
Along with Barry Goldwater, Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Weyrich was “most responsible for the launching and the success of the conservative movement,” said Richard A. Viguerie, another founding father of modern conservatism. He added that Mr. Weyrich’s passing “leaves a leadership vacuum that conservatives will greatly miss as we wander through the political wilderness in the Obama era.”
“Paul was the most serious person in Washington, period,” said Donald J. Devine, a Reagan administration official who, like Mr. Weyrich, sometimes tangled over principles with GOP presidents and other partly leaders.
Elections-laws attorney Cleta Mitchell, who with Let Freedom Ring founder Colin Hanna organized a September salute to Mr. Weyrich in Georgetown, received this message from him Sunday night after he watched the video of the event, which he had attended in a wheelchair.
“For the first time since the event I had the chance to review the 29-gun salute,” Mr. Weyrich wrote. “It is a good thing most of what was said went over my head that evening because had I heard it as it was I would not have been able to speak.”
“In watching it tonight I could not hold back the tears,” Mr. Weyrich continued. “I know of nothing I have ever done to deserve such an outpouring of sentiment. Thank you again for your kindness beyond belief.”
Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly, another key player of modern American conservatism, said of Mr. Weyrich’s passing: “When Paul came to Washington in the mid-1960s, the conservative movement had no vision of victory. We thought we were the Biblical Remnant, just doing our little bit against the tidal wave of socialist advance.”
Mr. Weyrich, she said, “set about to create an effective movement of cultural conservatives,” training generations of young conservatives “how to form coalitions on particular issues to target specific goals, to support the right candidates, to speak out against faulty presidential nominations and to plan to win instead of lose.”
He made, she said, the “conservative pro-family movement into a fighting brigade instead of just a collection of naysayers.”
Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and House Republican Conference chairman, said Mr. Weyrich’s “influence reached from the corridors of power in our nation’s capital to the town halls and churches of heartland America and he will be deeply missed.”
In a profile in the June 17, 2005, issue of The Washington Times, Mr. Weyrich said conservatism, though built on ideas, is not an ideology. “It’s anti-ideology, a way of looking at the world, a way of life. … Conservatism gets off course when it becomes an ideology.”
Mr. Weyrich lived to see what he described as the happy phenomenon of the Republican Party - the shedding of its country club elitism and defining itself as America’s conservative party.
Mr. Weyrich exercised considerable influence over the years, helping build support for President Reagan’s sweeping tax cuts by bringing religious conservative leaders together with Jack Kemp, a then-New York congressman and the prime exponent of those proposed cuts. Mr. Weyrich served as the invaluable nexus between Catholics and evangelical Protestants on the one hand and conservative activists and Republicans on the other.
Much of Mr. Weyrich’s early years in Washington was spent tutoring religious leaders and activists in the ways of practical politics, telling the Rev. Jerry Falwell there was in America a “moral majority” - unaware of their potential power but waiting to be organized.
Mr. Falwell liked the phrase and adopted it for his movement.
One of Mr. Weyrich’s most public shows of force came right after George H.W. Bush became president in 1989. Mr. Weyrich testified against the defense secretary nomination of former Republican Sen. John Tower of Texas by raising questions about his moral character and personal life. That dealt the Tower nomination a fatal blow.
A Wyoming Republican named Dick Cheney would end up heading the Pentagon instead.
Early in his Washington career, he and another young conservative congressional aide, Mr. Feulner, learning from the Civil Rights movement, formed a network on the right and persuaded businessman Joe Coors to donate the seed money to start the Heritage Foundation.
But when Heritage’s financial backers didn’t want it to get into social issues, Mr. Weyrich split to found the Free Congress Foundation, Free Congress Political Action Committee and Coalitions for America.
Mr. Weyrich then formed three influential strategy groups to cover all the bases in Washington. His organizational innovations were nearly boundless. Meeting separately once a week for off-the-record sessions, for example, the Kingston Group devoted its firepower to economic issues, while the Stanton Group did the heavy lifting on defense-foreign policy and the Library Court (now called the Family Forum) strategized over social issues.
Mr. Weyrich is survived by his wife, the former Joyce Anne Smigun, sons Peter, Stephen and Andrew, daughters Diana Weyrich Pascoe and Dawn Weyrich Ceol, and 13 grandchildren.
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