Conservative Icon Paul Weyrich Dies

Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation, has died. He was 66. Weyrich was a beacon on the right in American politics for over four decades.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

One of the founders of modern conservatism has died. Paul Weyrich is credited with coining the term "moral majority," and he helped create the Heritage Foundation along with other conservative think tanks. NPR's Brian Naylor has our story.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Paul Weyrich began his career as a journalist in Milwaukee and came to Washington in the late '60s to work on Capitol Hill. He noticed that while the left was organized and had support groups, there were no such organizations to incubate conservative thought. So, activist Richard Viguerie says he created them.

Mr. RICHARD VIGUERIE (Conservative Activist): Paul was the one that taught us early on to reverse-engineer the left. He said the left had foundations. We need to have foundations for ourselves. In fact, he was the first president of the Heritage Foundation. They have single-issue groups. We need lots of single-issue groups. They have the local PACs. We need the local PACs, etcetera, etcetera.

NAYLOR: Paul Weyrich was not a household name like other conservative icons, but Viguerie says he belongs among the pantheon of conservative heroes, right alongside Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan. Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Eagle Forum, puts it this way.

Ms. PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY (President and Founder, Eagle Forum): He put together the modern conservative pro-family movement. I think it would be accurate to call him the godfather of the movement.

NAYLOR: Weyrich was among the first to meld the traditional free market, strong national defense conservatism with social causes. John Green is a professor of political science at the University of Akron. Green says Weyrich was a consistent conservative.

Dr. JOHN GREEN (Professor of Political Science, University of Akron): Paul Weyrich was one of the first people to consistently use the term "cultural conservatism" to describe the involvement of religious conservatives and others who cared about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

NAYLOR: Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973. It has become a center of political thought and activism in Washington. Weyrich also founded the Free Congress Foundation. And at a 1979 meeting of religious leaders, he spoke of a "moral majority" in the nation. The phrase eventually became the name of a conservative group led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Weyrich also had a key role in the derailing of the first President Bush's nomination of Senator John Tower as defense secretary. Testifying at Tower's confirmation hearing, Weyrich spoke disapprovingly of conduct he had witnessed by Tower.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. PAUL WEYRICH (Conservative Political Activist; Founder, Heritage Foundation): Over the course of many years, I have encountered the nominee in a condition, a lack of sobriety, as well as with women to whom he was not married.

NAYLOR: Weyrich had been in declining health for the past several years, losing both legs to diabetes. But he was active to the very end, sending out an email to his colleagues on the right that arrived just this morning. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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