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Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media (22 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 22 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

The 1960s saw the widespread conversion of Catholics from the urban Democratic machines to an increasingly Reagan and FalwellRepublican-based conservatism.  Now, in the 1970s, it was the Protestants’ turn to mobilize politically and expand the reach of the Right.  And they did it by using alternative media.

Next came the 1980 election, with Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over an incumbent president and the conservative siege of Washington.  Seventy-five percent of the money for Reagan’s campaign was raised by direct mail, and behind that was the more than 1 billion pieces of conservative mail that had gone directly to voters in the preceding six years.

Probably never before in American history had a political movement advanced so far in so short a period of time, and yet been so ignored by the establishment.

Creating the religious Right with alternative media

No discussion of this era would be complete without recognizing the importance of the Religious Right in the expansion of the conservative movement.  In the 1960s the conservative movement had benefited from the widespread conversion of Catholics from the urban Democratic machines to an increasingly Republican-based conservatism – largely over the issue of communism.  Now, in the 1970s, it was the Protestants’ turn to mobilize politically and expand the reach of the Right.  A number of issues spurred this development, but none was as important as the legalization of abortion with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority were the first to put the Religious Right on the map.  Falwell is a Southern Baptist preacher who, almost from the beginning, used radio and television in his ministry – at one time his “Old Time Gospel Hour” was broadcast over as many as 500 radio stations across the nation.  But its message was entirely nonpolitical – until that 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.  Falwell determined that conservative and independent Christians had to get involved in politics – something most of them shunned, or at least kept separate from their religious witness.

The Moral Majority was formed in 1979.  Falwell hired Cal Thomas, now a top syndicated columnist, as moderator of his radio program and Bob Billings as the group’s first national director.  When Reagan was elected president, he appointed Billings to the Department of Education in recognition of the support he had received from the Moral Majority, and Dr. Ron Godwin subsequently became the Moral Majority’s national director.  Godwin had been associated with Falwell for years, traveling weekly from Lynchburg, Virginia (Falwell’s home base), to Washington, D.C., to attend the New Right meetings in Richard Viguerie’s home.

“Dr. Falwell is what you’d call a self-made media figure,” Godwin told us.

He got his message out to the nation through the aggressive use of alternative media.  He did it by buying television and radio time, by the use of the news conference, by faxes, by e-mail, by special events in auditoriums and convention centers across America.  And by direct mail.  At our height we were probably the largest religious direct mailer in the country.  We had some 500 employees involved, from the mailing house to the cash receiving and the data processing.

A monthly tabloid, the Moral Majority Report, became a key part of that direct mail campaign.  “I built its readership up to a million a month through direct mail,” Godwin told us.  It was both a fundraising vehicle and an educational tool.  “I remember that when we first took on the issue of prayer in schools,” Godwin recalls, “our donor base was totally lukewarm to it.  We began carrying a series of articles about the importance of school prayer in the Report, and five months later we had outstanding support from our donors.”  Godwin continued:

As time passed, the fax machine came into active play.  Even today, [Falwell] faxes his Falwell Confidential Report to almost 300,000 people, including almost 200,000 ministers.  He’s turned the minister’s pulpit into a bully pulpit.  Until Dr. Falwell broke the barrier, you almost never heard anything political from a conservative Evangelical pulpit.  Today, on any given Sunday, there may be 50,000 churches where you’ll hear the pastor say something that he got from the Falwell Confidential Report or from Dr. Gary Bauer’s daily fax report.  That’s as radical a change as the fundamentalist side of Christianity has seen in a hundred years.

Direct mail: under the radar – like a water moccasin

By January 1978, the New Right was creating enough commotion to be noticed occasionally, but it was still regarded mostly as a nuisance that refused to go away and leave the political ballgame to the pros.  As the National Journal, the Washington insiders’ journal of record, put it: “[The New Right] is, in short, an anomaly on the political scene, but one that both the press corps and the politicians in Washington are watching – if not yet taking too seriously.” 

By the end of the year, they would all be whistling a different tune.  The anomaly would soon morph into a threat to the civilized (i.e., liberal) world.

For the next few months, though, only a few Washington political analysts took the movement seriously enough to investigate at the source.  One of those analysts was the dean of Washington correspondents, the Washington Post’s David Broder.  Broder paid a visit to Richard Viguerie full of questions, for he was mightily perplexed.  This was years into the Carter presidency, when the Democrats also held an almost two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.  Yet Carter couldn’t get his key proposals passed.  Nothing was going through.  Why weren’t Democrats able to implement their agenda?  Broder had just talked to people in Vice President Walter Mondale’s office, and they had not been able to provide a plausible explanation.  Perhaps Viguerie had a clue to unlock this mystery.  And Viguerie did, as he explained how his direct mail operation was sending perhaps 70 million letters a year at that time, for conservative organizations, opposing Jimmy Carter’s initiatives.  Broder was given the mandatory tour of the Viguerie computer room, housing thousands of computer tapes with the names and addresses of all those millions of conservatives on the mailing lists.

Then came the 1980 elections.  The New Right had targeted six powerful Democratic senators – and five went down to defeat, to be replaced by conservatives.  In the House, the “Newt Gingrich class” of conservative candidates – about 35 of them – were sworn in as congressmen.  More of the liberal media became interested in how this was happening under their radar (they hadn’t been alerted by the New York Times).  But they still, for the most part, didn’t get it.

Tom Brokaw, for example, interviewed Viguerie on his Thursday show following the November 7 election.  Viguerie assumed they would be talking about the debut of the New Right, with all those new senators and representatives, but that wasn’t what interested Tom Brokaw.  No, Brokaw whipped out Viguerie fundraising letters for two clients, congressional candidates (and brothers) Philip and Dan Crane.  Two separate candidates but the letters were almost identical – how could Viguerie be that deceptive?  The conservative revolution was beginning to triumph all around him and Tom Brokaw couldn’t see it.  He didn’t have a clue.

The biggest achievement of the 1980 election, of course, was Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory and the conservative siege of Washington.  Seventy-five percent of the money for Reagan’s campaign was raised by direct mail, and behind that was the more than 1 billion pieces of conservative mail that had gone directly to voters in the preceding six years.

The political pros were beginning to understand what had happened.  Eddie Mahe, a well-known Republican political consultant who had taught at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, put it this way: “If you ranked political institutions in this country, organized labor would be first.  The Democratic Party is second.  The Republican Party is third.  The Viguerie network is unquestionably fourth.”

The establishment media still didn’t get it, though, so Viguerie was again called upon to explain what had happened, this time it was one of the breakfasts regularly hosted by Godfrey Sperling, the chief Washington correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.  These breakfasts were for print media only – no electronic guys allowed.

“Mr. Viguerie,” Sperling began, “Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide last Tuesday, beating an incumbent president.  Republicans took control of the Senate and had big pick-ups in the House, in governors’ seats, and in the state legislatures.  We had a political earthquake last Tuesday.  No one saw it coming.  What happened?”

“Excuse me, sir,” Viguerie replied, “you didn’t see it coming, but we tried our best to tell you beforehand.  I can’t tell you how many press conferences we called, and none of the people here in this audience showed up.  Ever.  We put out countless press releases and tried every way we could to tell you what was happening.  You had zero interest in what we were doing.”

Then, out of curiosity, Viguerie asked to see the hands of the reporters present who had ever heard of the Rev. Pat Robertson.  Only about two or three reporters’ hands out of 25 went up.  Point made.  Robertson at this time hosted the 700 Club on religious television and was on his way to becoming an 800-pound political gorilla, but they had no idea who he was.  The establishment media guys obviously weren’t watching the 700 Club.  They preferred to watch each other.  It’s an incestuous practice still in vogue in Washington.

Probably never before in American history had a political movement advanced so far in so short a period of time, and yet been so ignored by the establishment.  The interesting thing about direct mail is that when it’s professionally done, it has a devastating impact.  It’s like using a water moccasin for a watchdog – very quiet and very effective.

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”
  21. The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement
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