Howard Phillips, one of the founders of the New Right movement in the 1970s, died on April 20. The cause was dementia. He died in his home. He was 72.
In 1974, he founded the Conservative Caucus. This was a year after Ed Fuelner and Paul Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation. In 1974, Weyrich started the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, which later became the Free Congress Foundation. All three organizations were reactions to Richard Nixon’s increasingly mainstream Republican move to the left. A fourth organization, Gun Owners of America, began in 1975.
Nixon had hired Phillips in January 1973 to shut down the Office of Economic Opportunity. That led to a court case against Phillips: Williams v. Phillips in April 1973. Nixon then merged OEO into what is now called Heath and Human Services, but which was called HEW before 1979: Health, Education, and Welfare. Phillips resigned in protest. He spent the rest of his life promoting this slogan: “de-fund the left.” He wanted the federal government to shut down numerous services. His favorite target was the Legal Services Corporation.
Most of the leaders of what became known as the New Right had begin meeting with each other on and off in the late 1960s. The Philadelphia Society was a key link. It had been founded in 1964. It had little money, took no public positions, and was a kind of clearing house of ideas and connections.
Among all of the New Right spokesmen, I remember Phillips as the best in front of a TV camera. If asked a question on anything political, Phillips had an instantaneous answer, flawlessly delivered, right to the point, and perfect for a sound bite.
He had been a student leader at Harvard University in the early 1960s. He came to Harvard by way of the Boston Latin School. He was both widely read and intensely read.
If asked after 1979 who were the major intellectual influences were in his life, he said this: Leonard E. Read, who founded the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, and R. J. Rushdoony, who founded Chalcedon in 1965. He was a believer in the free market and in Christianity. Yet he had been raised a Jew.
In the late 1970s, Phillips met with Jerry Falwell. Out of that meeting came Falwell’s Moral Majority. That was the largest and best known of the New Christian Right organizations in the early 1980s.
Also important in this development was the Reagan campaign in the summer of 1980. In late summer, there was a large meeting held in Dallas at the Reunion Arena, the National Affairs Briefing Conference. All three Presidential candidates were invited to speak: Reagan, Carter, and third party candidate John Anderson. Only Reagan accepted. He was the final speaker in the three-day conference. About 13,000 people attended the final night. It was there that he delivered his galvanizing line: “I know you cannot endorse me, but I endorse you.”
Phillips was one of the organizers behind the scenes. The major leaders of the New Right spoke: Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Pat Robertson, and many others. The target audience was Protestant evangelicals, especially pastors. The main organizer was a little-known evangelical named Ed McAteer, who knew just about everyone in the movement, including Phillips. It was at that meeting that I first suspected that Phillips had converted to Christianity. Outside the arena, he said this to me: “The Holy Spirit has to be behind this. There is no way that Ed McAteer could have pulled off this alone.”
Phillips worked tirelessly to get out the anti-Communist message and the free market message. He opposed almost everything Washington did. He publicly criticized Reagan for Reagan’s elevation of Vice President George Bush’s associate James Baker III to Chief of Staff. He opposed the bailout of Mexico in 1985, which he called the Mexican Hay Ride. He opposed NAFTA and the World Trade Organization as unconstitutional because of the surrender of national sovereignty to these international bureaucracies.
He created a third political party, the U.S. Taxpayers Party, which later became the Constitution Party. He ran three times for President, but never gained more than one percent of the vote.
His Conservative Caucus never achieved the income or the Washington Beltway influence of the larger New Right organizations, but it was always hard core in its positions. It was not located inside the Beltway geographically. The other New Right leaders respected him, but he was usually too far to the “shut it down” mentality to be regarded as a loyal opposition member of the Republican Right. The Conservative Caucus was a one-man operation. Phillips was tireless in his efforts to shrink the federal government.
I do not recall Phillips ever using “um” or “uh.” He spoke flawless English. His words could have been transcribed verbatim from a recorder and published as a book, unedited except for breaking the transcription into paragraphs.
He never gave a hint of wanting to retire. He stayed in the trenches until the disease overcame him. So may we all.