It was fall 1964. A young Phil Crane, armed with Hollywood good looks and a freshly minted Ph.D., had wangled a job in the research shop of Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential campaign.
Crane saw himself as foot soldier in the burgeoning conservative movement. That year, it had set out to complete a bridge linking the founders’ blueprint for limited government with a modern means to maximize individual freedom amid what Goldwaterites saw as the ruble of liberal statism.
The Goldwater crusade collapsed with his electoral defeat on Nov. 3, 1964. Skeptics concluded that the Goldwater brigades had started a bridge to nowhere.
Crane, like Goldwater, stuck with the bridge, as did other ardent Goldwaterites such as William F. Buckley Jr., Paul Weyrich, Stan Evans, Phyllis Schlafly, William Rusher and others.
In that sense, Crane, who died Nov. 8 of cancer at age 84, helped construct the span that linked the Goldwater campaign failure, over which liberals spent decades gloating, to conservatism’s mixed successes in the Ronald Reagan era and beyond.
One reason Crane was so good at philosophical, ideological bridge-building over his 50 years in public service was that he started out as a conservative intellectual at a time when popular belief held that the left in America — liberal Democrats, democratic socialists, communists — held an exclusive franchise on intellectuals. They held the commanding heights in broadcast and print journalism and in the most prestigious and expensive universities.
Conservatism had its intellectual philosophers, and Crane read and quoted from the right’s top intellectuals, such as Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman.
That empowered Crane to spread their word though a variety of megaphones. He has his professorial lecterns in colleges where he taught and the headmaster job in a preparatory school he started. He lectured conservative student and adult gatherings, formal and informal, all over the country. He served a two-year stint as chairman of the American Conservative Union. He created what amounted to a philosophy-policy-tactics school for lawmakers when he founded and led the first conservative caucus in the U.S. House — the Republican Study Committee. He helped create the Heritage Foundation, first headed by Edwin J. Feulner and Paul M. Weyrich, destined to become the most influential conservative ideas and policy factory of the Reagan era.
For most of his 35 years in Congress, he taught the philosophy of conservatism how to apply it successfully.
Although he was never able to fulfill his ambition to become a presidential candidate, he did take a shot at it, running in 1980 for the Republican nomination. Instead, Ronald Reagan became the nominee, and then president. Crane spent the fall of 1980 working hard for Reagan, just as he had for Reagan’s failed 1976 nomination run.
At times, Crane’s view of where conservatism should take the United States led him to stand athwart history and say “no.” He opposed turning over control of the Panama Canal to Panama — a position Reagan also held. History overrode Crane and Reagan with a “yes.”
But when Crane said the federal government should restore Americans’ right to own gold, history — and Congress — agreed.
Some who knew him well said Crane did fully live up to his potential. For too long, Crane said “yes” to alcoholism. By the time he said “no,” it was too late and his influence had waned.
A few years later, he lost re-election after 35 years in Congress. But he already helped build the bridge from Mr. Goldwater to a modern conservative political philosophy now claiming the public allegiance of most Republicans in Congress and most aspirants to the GOP presidential nomination.
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