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Paul Weyrich; created intellectual framework for conservatives

Paul Weyrich founded the conservative Heritage Foundation and played a pivotal role in intertwining religious, cultural, and political themes. Paul Weyrich founded the conservative Heritage Foundation and played a pivotal role in intertwining religious, cultural, and political themes. (new york times/file 1999)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post / December 19, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Paul Weyrich, 66, the conservative thinker who coined the phrase "moral majority," founded the Heritage Foundation, and became an intellectual leader of the US religious right, died yesterday in a Northern Virginia hospital.

The cause of death was not immediately known. Mr. Weyrich has been in declining health since he injured his spine in a fall in 1996, and he also suffered from diabetes. Both of his legs were amputated at the knee in 2005.

"Paul was one of the giants of the conservative movement, a man committed to family, faith, and preserving and expanding freedom both here in America and around the world," House minority leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, said in a statement.

More than any person - excluding President Ronald Reagan, whom he attacked as insufficiently conservative - Mr. Weyrich stitched social-issue conservatives into the fabric of the Republican Party. He brokered the marriage of religious and secular conservatives, and he founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973 as a counterbalance to the liberal Brookings Institution.

His work launched the influential network of conservative think tanks and talk radio shows that contributed to the culture wars of the past three decades in US politics. His Free Congress Foundation helped develop the use of grass-roots direct-mail fund-raising campaigns for conservative politicians and social causes.

At a 1979 gathering of religious leaders, Mr. Weyrich talked about a "moral majority" in the United States. The name was adopted by a conservative group led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who energized an alliance of religious and economic conservatives that eventually helped to elect three Republican presidents.

A blunt speaker who created enemies even among those who agreed with him, Mr. Weyrich was called "the Robespierre of the New Right" and the "pillar of the modern conservative movement," but in 1997 he was dropped by NET, the television network he founded three years earlier, after he repeatedly attacked Republican Party leaders.

"We are radicals," he famously said, "working to overturn the present power structures in this country."

He undermined the 1989 nomination of Senator John Tower, Republican of Texas, for defense secretary by publicly demonizing him as a womanizer and drunkard. He threatened former Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell in 1996 with a withering examination if he dared run for president. He unsuccessfully sued the New Republic for libel and invasion of privacy after a cover story said that he experienced "bouts of pessimism and paranoia" during the Reagan administration and detailed several of his outbursts and his alienation from Republican leaders.

During the final days of Bill Clinton's presidency, Mr. Weyrich began to doubt that a majority of Americans shared his reverence for traditional morality, after Clinton was acquitted by the Senate of alleged crimes stemming from his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He advocated that conservatives erect their own schools, neighborhoods, and institutions to fight back against what he considered depraved American culture.

"Look at the National Endowment for the Arts as a prototype," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a piddling little organization - about $100 million budget, out of a $2 trillion budget - and rather inconsequential in national significance. Republicans surely could have been able to shut that down, given the fact that it had offended many, many people with the kind of art it had subsidized. . . . But the culture overwhelmed the political process. Why? Because upper-crust, suburban Republican women in the districts of Republican congressmen defended the filth. . . . It's a perfect example of the culture overwhelming the political process."

A resident of Northern Virginia, Mr. Weyrich got his start as a reporter in Milwaukee and came to Washington in 1967 as press secretary to Senator Gordon Allott, Republican of Colorado.

Even through his declining health, Mr. Weyrich continued to write articles and organize support for conservative causes. His latest commentary, posted on the website of the Free Congress Foundation with today's date, was titled: "The next Conservatism, a Serious Agenda for the Future."

In it, he wrote: "It is the worst of times because conservatives appear lost and without a serious agenda or a means of explaining such an agenda to the public." But also "it is the best of times," because conservative thinkers are generating ideas and proposals for a 'Next Conservatism,' which will lead to substantive debate about the nation's core principles and its future direction."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

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