A courageous, principled, far-sighted conservative who made a profound impact in many different worlds — in business, in national politics, in mass communications, in public policy — is gone. Joseph Coors, without whom there would be no Heritage Foundation, is dead at the age of 85. And I know we shall not see his like again.
If Joe Coors had only been the president and chief operating officer of the Coors Brewing Company — today the third largest brewer in America — he would be an American success story. It was his commitment to the family tradition of old-world craft and new-world enterprise that helped make Coors a national byword for excellence. Even actor Paul Newman called it “the best American beer, bar none.”
It was Joe Coors’s belief in conservative principles such as limited government and economic freedom that led him, starting in the 1960s, to support a citizen politician from California named Ronald Reagan. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan often visited Joe’s home, usually winding up in the Coors kitchen. When Reagan was elected our 40th president, Joe became a member of his Kitchen Cabinet, offering staffing and policy suggestions, especially on national defense.
His most important contribution was in the area of strategic missile defense. Like Reagan, Joe Coors had long known nuclear physicist Edward Teller, who stressed the vulnerability of the United States to nuclear attack. Coors agreed strongly that America had to have a defense against Soviet missiles. When Reagan entered the White House, Joe gladly joined a small group assembled by Teller that called itself High Frontier. I am proud to say that Heritage underwrote High Frontier’s first study calling for the development of a multi-satellite global ballistic missile-defense system.
There were several meetings between High Frontier and the White House over the next year, but Joe Coors always remembered one in particular with President Reagan. Scheduled for only 15 minutes, the briefing went on for more than an hour, at the end of which, Joe told me, “It was clear from his [President Reagan’s] demeanor that he was convinced it could be done.” Soon thereafter, Reagan announced on national television that development and deployment of a comprehensive antiballistic-missile system — the Strategic Defense Initiative — would be his top defense priority. We later learned from top Soviet officials that Reagan’s unflinching commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not win the arms race and led to ending the Cold War.
Here is another example of Joe Coors’ far-sightedness and generosity. When conservatives in the early 1970s wanted to have an alternative television news service, they called on Joe, who provided the initial funding (and much more) for Television News, Inc., headquartered in New York City. In the days before cable TV or satellites, a 24-hour-news service was a very ambitious project, in fact, too ambitious and expensive, even for Joe Coors. Even hiring a brilliant young conservative publicist named Roger Ailes as news director didn’t turn things around. TVN went out of business in October 1975, five years before Ted Turner started CNN and 25 years before Roger Ailes transformed Fox News into the most watched cable-news network in America.
And certainly there wouldn’t be a Heritage Foundation without Joe Coors. It was Joe who immediately understood the importance of getting quick, reliable information to members of Congress while a key issue is being debated, which was and remains the primary objective of Heritage. Joe invested the first $250,000 in this idea of two young congressional staff aides — Paul Weyrich and myself. Joe’s lawyer drafted the founding corporate papers, and Joe wrote that first check for the Heritage Foundation in late 1972. Other conservative businessmen and activists agreed the idea had promise, but only Joe Coors put up the money that enabled us to realize that promise.
I learned through the years to listen carefully to Joe, who gave Heritage wise counsel as a trustee from our early days through 1991, and then as an honorary trustee. He emphasized the importance of establishing an operating reserve fund and putting something aside for the lean times. He was there at important turning points in our history — when we published the 1,000-page Mandate for Leadership that helped President Reagan get off to a strong start in his first 100 days, when we funded High Frontier, when we bought our first headquarters building.
At our 25th anniversary celebration, we awarded Joseph Coors the highest honor bestowed by Heritage — the Clare Boothe Luce Award. Other honorees include Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Rose and Milton Friedman, and William F. Buckley, Jr. We selected Joe for his commitment to building institutions, his love of our country, and his championing of conservative ideas and ideals.
I will never forget what Joe Coors said to me at the awards dinner that featured remarks by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Vice President Dick Cheney just three months ago. Knowing perhaps that he did not have a long time left, Joe looked at the distinguished crowd still aglow with the inspiring words of the speakers, and he said simply, “Heritage is my legacy.”
I will never forget Joe’s indispensable contributions to Heritage. I was proud to be his protégé and to have called him my friend and mentor. And all of us at Heritage will always strive to be worthy of the priceless legacy Joe Coors has left us.
— Edwin J. Feulner is the president of the Heritage Foundation.