Thursday morning, the conservative movement lost one of its great institution builders: Paul Michael Weyrich is dead at the age of 66.
He was born in Racine, Wis., and began his career in the local media, but the failed presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater soon motivated him to turn his attention to national politics. He became the press secretary to Gordon Allott, a Republican senator from Colorado, and devoted the rest of his life to developing the infrastructure of the conservative movement in Washington.
In 1973 alone, Weyrich was present at the creation of three important and enduring organizations. He was the first president of the Heritage Foundation, which has gone on to become what is arguably conservatism’s premier think tank. He was also a founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which organizes right-of-center state legislators, and the Republican Study Committee, which remains a redoubt of conservative policymaking on Capitol Hill.
Although it takes a faith in the future to start projects such as these, Weyrich’s idealism often was driven by sense of despair. He resigned as president of the Heritage Foundation in order to work on the congressional elections of 1974 — a very bad year for the GOP, in the wake of Watergate. At a time of high anxiety for conservatives, he started yet another group, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. Four years later, it became the Free Congress Foundation.
From this perch, Weyrich promoted social conservatism and judicial restraint. The term “Moral Majority” is irretrievably linked to Jerry Falwell, but it was originally suggested to Falwell by Weyrich. Indeed, Weyrich had a kind of genius for marketing. His attempt in the 1990s to give birth to a conservative news network called National Empowerment Television flopped, but it certainly wasn’t a failure of vision. It was a promise of success that Fox News eventually would realize.
Weyrich always believed in the promise of conservatism, even when he worried about its prospects. In 1999, he declared the culture war lost, though he urged social conservatives to keep on fighting anyway. Earlier this year, he issued another troubling diagnosis: “Many conservatives appear to be tired, their ideas exhausted.”
This observation is widely shared, especially in the aftermath of last month’s elections. Rather than letting Weyrich’s grim words depress them further, however, conservatives should allow his shining example of principle and perseverance to serve as an inspiration — and an invitation to build anew.