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The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains In The Emerging Conservative Movement (21 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 21 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

In this excerpt we chronicle the growing pains experienced by conservatives as they shifted their primary allegiance from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, and as the original movement leaders of the Goldwater era Reagan and Goldwaterwere eclipsed by the leaders of what became known as the New Right.

This New Right represented a sharp break with the inherited conservative leadership of the founding days and the Goldwater movement.  It’s true that the Old Right had emphasized economic issues while the New Right stressed social issues, but there really wasn’t much outright disagreement between the two groups on issues.  Their key differences were in temperament and operational style – in short, they implemented different types of activism.

“We organize discontent,” explained Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, “just as all successful movements do.”  And the one thing that the New Right brought to the table that the Left had not was the marriage of computerized direct mail and the political process.  Use of this new technology would make the New Right’s foundations and PACs and special interest groups far more effective than those of the Left over the course of the Seventies.

Growing pains: from Goldwater to Reagan

As the conservative movement grew, fed by a rising tide of direct mail, it experienced growing pains.  That’s probably inevitable.  Part of the pain involved a switch over the years from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan as the movement’s titular leader.

Barry Goldwater had not wanted to be a movement leader – or presidential candidate – in the first place.  But after being drafted for the job and going through the pain of 1964, he didn’t seem to want to vacate the post, either.  That, too, is probably just human nature and inevitable.  The growing movement needed a more involved and activist oriented leader, though, and it knew where to look – California.

Actor Ronald Reagan, at that point Governor Reagan, had no hesitation or second thoughts about assuming leadership of the conservative movement.  He was willing to speak anywhere that conservatives gathered.  He helped raise funds and visibility for conservative organizations, candidates, and issues.  And he accomplished all this through direct mail as well as his eloquent podium presence.

Matters between Goldwater and Reagan came to a head in 1975 when Goldwater said, in a Los Angeles TV interview, “I happen to believe that Nelson Rockefeller would be a good president…. I believe Rocky would be a damn good president now that he has ended his liberal drift.”  Nobody but Barry had noticed that end to Rockefeller’s liberalism, and this was a stab in the back to conservatives, who were already envisioning a promotion for Reagan from governor to president.

Conservative Digest, a monthly published by The Viguerie Company, had grown in little more than a year – utilizing direct mail, of course – to become the political journal with the largest circulation in the nation, Left, Right, or center.  It now took the lead in encouraging conservatives to honor Goldwater as a legend but to look elsewhere for leadership.  The Arizona senator objected to some of the things said about him in Conservative Digest, but the magazine backed up its statements.  William Loeb, editor of the influential Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, wrote to thank Conservative Digest for “a very fine service to the conservative cause for being so kind and polite about [Goldwater], but at the same time pointing out what had to be pointed out.”

At the National Press Club in November 1975, Goldwater had stated, “I don’t want those 27 million [who voted for me] to think I’m trying to lead them…. I never for any moment assumed I had a position of leadership over anybody.”  Conservatives decided to take him at his word, and turned to Ronald Reagan for energetic leadership.  It was a bloodless revolution as these things go.

Growing pains: from Old Right to New Right

An ascending movement needs an energetic leader to serve as its most visible spokesman and to promote the cause.  But we’re not a banana republic, so we need a lot more than one supreme leader at the top.  A mass movement in a democratic republic requires lots of organizational leaders, pooling their energy and their complementary skills to push the movement ever forward.

That sort of movement leadership emerged in the 1970s, and gradually became known as the New Right.  The phrase “New Right” had first appeared in a different context in 1962, when Lee Edwards wrote an article for the Young Americans for Freedom magazine, The New Guard, called “The New Right: Its Face and Future.”  Conservative columnist M. Stanton Evans then used the phrase in 1969 to describe the emerging conservatism on college campuses, contrasting it with the New Left.  But John Filka of the Washington Star was the first, in 1975, to use the term in talking about the “social conservatives” who were reshaping the conservative movement.

At the heart of the New Right leadership were six energetic and creative individuals – Richard A. Viguerie, whose direct mail fueled the movement; Paul Weyrich, founder of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress; John (Terry) Dolan, chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC); Howard Phillips, founder and national director of the Conservative Caucus; Morton Blackwell, who trained young activists nationally; and Ed Fuelner, president of the Heritage Foundation.  The growing movement had other key activists as well, such as Phyllis Schlafly in St. Louis, but these five and their allies were all located in the Washington, D.C., area, where they could meet frequently and regularly to organize the conservative agenda.

This New Right represented a sharp break with the inherited conservative leadership of the founding days and the Goldwater movement.  It’s true that the Old Right had emphasized economic issues while the New Right stressed social issues, but there really wasn’t much outright disagreement between the two groups on issues.  Their key differences were in temperament and operational style – in short, they implemented different types of activism.

Temperament.  The first generation of conservative leaders – the Old Right – did heroic work defining conservatism and defending it against insuperable odds.  The arduous nature of that task, though, tended to make them more defensive than aggressive in the political arena.  They often seemed more interested in being right, more interested in winning the debate than in winning the election.  The second generation – the New Right – was younger, more impatient, and more aggressive, or proactive.  For them the goal was winning campaigns and gaining power.  They were more interested in winning the election than in winning the debate.

Operational style.  As we’ve already mentioned, the Old Right tended to see the conservative movement as a pie with a fixed size.  Adding new organizations and causes meant all the existing groups (run by Old Right leaders) would get a smaller share.  The New Right leaders were supply-siders before that term came into vogue:  We can constantly grow the pie, they said, allowing everyone’s slice of the pie to grow along with the overall movement.  The Old Right was suspicious of the new technology – direct mail.  The New Right embraced it.  And the Old Right took a rather lackadaisical approach toward political organizing, while the New Right planned and organized at a feverish pace.  As one New Right leader put it, he would wake up every day thinking, “What meetings can I call today?  What six things can I do today to weaken the Left and strengthen the conservative cause?”

Someone who understood well the difference between the Old Right and the New Right was Wesley McCune, director of the AFL-CIO front, Group Research Inc., one of the Left’s top conspiracy hunters.  McCune saw a threat to democracy in everyone to the right of Nelson Rockefeller.  You could sense his grudging respect for the New Right as he told a reporter: “The Old Right didn’t fight, it opposes.  The New Right members are fighters, scrappers.  And the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is mainly a difference in their pragmatism.”

“We organize discontent,” explained Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus, “just as all successful movements do.”  He added, on another occasion, that “there are an awful lot of [Old Right] conservatives in America who think their role is to lose as slowly as possible.” 

The leaders of the New Right unhesitatingly adopted and adapted some of the techniques used successfully by liberals for years – a process called reverse engineering.  Japanese products after World War II provide a good example of reverse engineering.  At first Japanese products were poor copies of American products.  Then, Japanese products became better copies.  And then, a lot of their products ended up better than ours.  In the same way, the New Right learned from the liberals and the Left.  The Left had foundations – so the New Right started the Heritage Foundation at this time.  The Left had political action committees – so the New Right started the National Conservative Political Action Committee.  The Left had an array of single-issue groups – so the New Right started its own.  A spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education admired his opponents’ methods.  “After all,” he said to the National Journal, “the New Right is just using all the techniques we’ve used for years.”

The one thing that the New Right brought to the table that the Left had not was the marriage of computerized direct mail and the political process.  Use of this new technology would make the New Right’s foundations and PACs and special interest groups far more effective than those of the Left over the course of the Seventies.

The person most responsible for the New Right’s deliberate policy of reverse engineering was Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress.  He told the National Journal how he had come to Washington as an aide to Colorado’s Senator Gordon Allott and soon begun

wondering why liberals were constantly winning victories and conservatives were not.  Then, one time, I got a rare opportunity to sit in on a strategy session on some civil rights matter with other Senate aides.  There before me were all the different liberal groups, inside and outside Congress, the journalistic heavies, and it was a magnificent show.  They orchestrated this particular bit of legislation in a very impressive way, each group playing its role – producing a study in time for the debate, drafting an amendment, planting stories.  I saw how easily it could be done, with planning and determination, and decided to try it myself.

So, Weyrich started the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in 1974 to counter the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress.  House Republicans started a Republican Study Committee in 1973 as a counter to the liberal Democratic Study Group.  A conservative Senate Steering Committee was started the following year to counter the liberal GOP’s Wednesday Club.  The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 to counter the research conducted by the many liberal study groups, including Ralph Nader’s organizations.  The Conservative Caucus was founded in 1974 to counter the Left’s Common Cause.  And the National Conservative Political Action Committee was formed in 1975 to counter the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education and other liberal PACs.  All of these conservative groups except Heritage were partially or totally funded by direct mail through The Viguerie Company.

“I’ve jokingly said,” Weyrich observed a few years later, “but there’s some truth to it, that I’m sort of a Japanese mechanic of the New Right, copying – and hopefully making a little better – the operations of the Left.”

All of this planning and organizing, involving so many groups (and we’ve given you just a sampling of the major organizations), requires, of course, a lot of meetings to coordinate everything for the greatest impact.  Lots of meetings.  The top operatives mentioned here began meeting in the ’70s for breakfast every week at the McLean, Virginia, home of Richard Viguerie.  Then most of these top operatives would hold their own regular meetings, extending the networking.  Weyrich held his “Kingston Group” meetings for conservatives on Friday mornings, “Library Court” sessions for pro-family activists every other Thursday, and “Stanton Group” meetings on alternate Thursdays to discuss foreign policy and defense developments.  Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-IL) held monthly “ecumenical luncheons” at the Capitol Hill Club.  And Morton Blackwell convened “PAC lunches” every two weeks.  To stroke the fears of liberals who saw all these meetings as evidence of a grand conspiracy, Terry Dolan deadpanned to the Baltimore Sun:  “It’s very extensive.  We have meetings every 15 or 20 minutes.”

(As a side note, during the Reagan years, the Viguerie inner-sanctum meetings morphed into two weekly sessions.  The organizational operatives continued their weekly breakfasts at the Vigueries’ McLean home, and this was followed by another gathering in the evening where they were joined by six or seven key Republican congressmen, with Newt Gingrich as their leader.  The organizational leaders thought of themselves as the movement’s “outside” leadership group, with the congressmen as the movement’s “inside” leadership group – and there were never that many congressmen who thought strategically, the way Gingrich did.  “I remember one session in particular,” Viguerie recalled.  “Everyone had left except for Gingrich, Howard Phillips, and myself, and we were sitting on the sofas in my living room as Gingrich laid out his strategy for how he would run for president.”  Obviously, not all of the New Right’s goals have been accomplished.)

Throughout this period, the leaders of the New Right consciously thought of themselves – not the Republican Party – as the alternative to the Left and the Democrats.  And thanks to the independence provided by direct mail fundraising, none of their organizations depended upon the Republican Party for their existence.  The great majority of these leaders were people who did not hold public office, and had never held public office.  Conservatives did not look to elected officials for their leadership.  The politicians were necessary to organize votes for or against something, of course, but generally they did not provide the leadership on key issues.  That came from the New Right leaders, who utilized alternative media.  You could say the New Right was funded by the post office because it depended on the post office to get its message out.

It’s important to understand, too, that Watergate allowed the development of the conservative movement to transpire without too much resistance in the Republican Party.  President Nixon became preoccupied with Watergate in 1973, and the Republican Party was in disarray or simply drifting throughout the two years of the Ford-Rockefeller White House and into the Carter years.  Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so the conservatives filled that vacuum and provided leadership for the Right in America.

Viguerie recalled:

It was as though we were on an airplane, and that plane was meandering in all directions.  We the passengers were getting increasingly nervous and unhappy, so five or six of us walked up the aisle to the front of the plane and knocked on the cockpit door.  You know, we wanted to suggest some ways to fly this plane better.  There was no answer, so we opened the door.  And what did we find?  Nobody was flying the plane!  The cockpit was vacant!  So we put down our coffee cups and legal pads, and we had a blast for six or seven years – flying the plane!


America’s Right Turn
serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  20. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
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