Conservative Icon Paul Weyrich Dies; Fueled Reagan Revolution

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By Bill Steigerwald
Friday, December 19, 2008

Paul Weyrich, on whose intellectual footer much of the foundation of the modern conservative movement was built and who coined the term "moral majority," died early Thursday at Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, Va. He was 66.

The cause of death was not immediately reported. Weyrich had been in declining health since both his legs were amputated at the knees in 2005. He had been using a wheelchair since suffering a spinal injury in a fall in 1996.

Weyrich, a former reporter, was a respected political strategist and prolific commentator. In 1973, he co-founded and was the first president of The Heritage Foundation, the model that think tanks follow.

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"More than anyone else, he studied the organizing mechanisms of the left and applied them to create an effective conservative activist movement," said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a statement. "Weyrich loved freedom and loved America."

The Wisconsin native went to Washington in 1967 as press secretary to Sen. Gordon Allot, R-Colo. Six years later, he co-founded The Heritage Foundation with seed money from beer magnate Joseph Coors and Tribune-Review owner Dick Scaife.

Heritage is widely credited with generating and popularizing the conservative public policy ideas that provided intellectual ammunition for the Reagan Revolution, serving as a counterbalance to the liberal Brookings Institution.

In 1978, Weyrich helped Jerry Falwell found The Moral Majority. A year later he founded The Free Congress Foundation, a leader in grassroots direct-mail fundraising in its early years.

"Paul Weyrich was a pioneer of the modern conservative movement and at times a very lonely one," said Scaife, who considered him "a total friend" for 35 years.

They shared enthusiasm for trolleys and trains, traveling to places such as Boston and Philadelphia for that purpose. Weyrich, a tireless advocate for mass transit, served on the board of directors of Amtrak from 1987 to 1993.

Weyrich spent his workdays doggedly lobbying Congress, writing newspaper commentaries, hosting a radio talk show and chairing Wednesday "coalition strategy lunches" at the offices of the Free Congress Foundation, the think tank he ran in the shadow of the Capitol.

Despite his physical challenges, Weyrich barely slowed his pace. He dropped his radio show but never stopped being an unapologetic warrior for limited government, lower taxes and individual responsibility within the Republican Party.

His final column, a Dickensian year-end assessment on the state of the world, appears on today’s Trib editorial page.

A week before his death, Weyrich’s longtime friend, historian Lee Edwards of The Heritage Foundation, was with Weyrich when he gave advice to about 20 new members of Congress. Most were Republicans, but there were some Democrats.

Edwards said that when Weyrich finished urging the rookie legislators to pick a specific subject they liked and become experts on it, he was surrounded by those wanting to shake the hand of an activist about whom they had heard so much.

"It was really fitting," Edwards said. "Congress was always his major constituency. And here he was a week before his death, briefing members of Congress."

Weyrich, who lived in northern Virginia, is survived by his wife, Joyce, five children and several grandchildren.

Bill Steigerwald is the Tribune-Review’s associate editor. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7983.