I am distressed to see the news of the death of former longtime U.S. congressman Phil Crane, a great and too-little-appreciated national leader of the conservative movement. The obit linked above does a pretty good job outlining the highlights of his career: Already nationally recognized by the movement for his writings in the 1960s, he replaced Don Rumsfeld in Congress in 1969 and served for 35 years. He was chairman of the American Conservative Union, founded the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House, and gave crucial support for the founding of the Heritage Foundation.
Crane also was notably generous with his time for conservative groups nationwide. He spoke for College Republican clubs; he spoke to women’s groups; he was both leader and “good soldier” for the movement for many years. My former boss, U.S. congressman Bob Livingston, said Crane was the very first sitting congressman to campaign with Bob in Louisiana when Bob was running what was thought to be a longshot campaign. Crane did that sort of thing again and again.
Forgive the personal references, but just by way of illustration: In 1983 (I think it was then; it might have been 1982), New Orleans hosted the Young Republican National Convention. Crane was there, of course, carrying the message of free markets, limited government, economic growth, and traditional values. I remember a reception on a riverboat, during which Crane, beer in hand, was kind enough to indulge me, then 19 years old, in a 15-minute, one-on-one conversation. I don’t even remember the topic or topics; I just remember how casually and with what level of friendliness Crane engaged me, as if nothing were more important to him, or more interesting, than the thoughts of a random college student.
In 2010, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Young Americans for Freedom, I was serving as one of the speakers (largely because my father had been there at the Buckley’s Great Elm estate in Sharon, Conn., for the founding), and I noticed Crane, aged 80, sitting quietly in the front row. I don’t think he was even on the speakers list for the event, even though he should have been front and center. So I recognized him from the dais — and I was delighted to see the rest of the audience give him a warm, rousing ovation. He certainly deserved it.
I’ve always thought that Crane played a little-understood role in helping Ronald Reagan get the Republican nomination in 1980 (although the Reagan insiders seemed, from afar, to resent Crane’s presence in the race and thought he was pulling votes from Reagan). Here’s how: Aside from Crane, every other contender in the race was clearly to Reagan’s left. The knock against Reagan was that he was too “right wing” to get elected. But with Crane participating in the early televised debates, sounding intelligent and firm and reasonable while pushing solidly conservative ideas, Reagan did not seem like an outlier, and Reagan’s conservative ideas no longer sounded extreme. But Reagan was sunnier (he was, of course, sunnier than Apollo himself), so Crane (unintentionally, to be sure) provided a perfect tonic to put Reagan well within the reasonable spectrum of Republican thought, rather than outside of it. I don’t want to overplay this point: Reagan did perfectly fine at sounding reasonable without Crane’s help; but Crane certainly did play at least some role in moving the realm of “acceptable” governmental philosophy a bit further to the right in that campaign.
Anyway, Crane made his biggest mark not by boosting Reagan, but by boosting the movement as a whole, both by his tireless advocacy outside of Congress and his legislative steadfastness on Capitol Hill. May Phil Crane rest in God’s good peace and joy, and may he know of our gratitude.