Paul Weyrich, Empowering The Right Activist Paul Weyrich, who died Dec. 18, helped turn social conservatives into a powerful force in the Republican party.

Paul Weyrich, Empowering The Right

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Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and a man who helped to unite and strengthen the religious right, died yesterday. He was 66 years old. In the decade after Watergate, Weyrich was instrumental in empowering social conservatives and guiding the political platforms of the Republican Party. The phrase "moral majority" was coined by Weyrich, then adopted by Reverend Jerry Falwell and others as the name for a potent ideological movement. Weyrich also helped launch the movement known as the Christian Coalition. Terry Gross spoke to Paul Weyrich in 1995.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, May 5, 1995)

TERRY GROSS: What conservative values do you think the Republican Party should be emphasizing?

Mr. PAUL WEYRICH (Cofounder, The Heritage Foundation and National Empowerment Television; CEO, Free Congress Foundation): Well, I think that you need to start with the family. The fact of the matter is that all the evidence now shows that when you have a breakdown of the family it has enormous societal consequences, and that has to be the primary focus, that, in fact, government should be directed so that it supports the notion of the traditional family - and by traditional family, I'm not talking about, you know, the mother that bakes pies or something; I'm talking about a mother and a father and children - and that government policies ought to push in that direction as opposed to pushing in the other direction, which has been the case in the past number of years.

Beyond that, of course, there is the matter of life because, in my opinion, a government must first of all protect its people from foreign invasion, and a government ought to protect the weakest, those who can't protect themselves. And among those, of course, are the unborn, and in my opinion, if a party is not willing to stand for that value, then I'm not sure what value the rest of their pronouncements really is.

GROSS: What about homosexuality? Do you think the Republican Party should take a strong stand against homosexuality? I asked you this because I know you were - you helped on a 1982 book called "The Homosexual Agenda." I know that's been an issue for you.

Mr. WEYRICH: Actually, it was called "The Homosexual Network," not agenda.

GROSS: Oh, excuse me.

Mr. WEYRICH: The fact of the matter is that, again, that relates to the family. Now, I don't want to see a government that harasses individuals, but I don't also want to see a government which says, oh, by the way, it's perfectly OK if you are homosexual; it's a perfectly normal lifestyle; everything is going to be OK, and all of this. That's a lie. And so, in my opinion, what we had in this country for a long period of time was a tolerance of people who kept this to themselves, but you know, an official view that this is not a normal or appropriate lifestyle, and I think that is a supportable position.

GROSS: You've said that when you first got to Washington, you learned how the game was played by watching liberals. What do you think you learned from watching liberals that you've applied to conservative politics?

Mr. WEYRICH: Well, liberals learned how to organize. They learned how to frame issues. They learned how to seize the moral high ground. They learned how to integrate the work of think tanks and politics inside the United States Congress with political action on the outside and so on. And all of this they did very, very well, because there was a time when liberals were also on the outside. I mean, the establishment, if you will, in the country was very conservative. And so, these people had to apply unique techniques in, say, the 1950s to get where they eventually got by the 1960s.

And so I looked at all of that. I looked at the campaign schools that they had run. I looked at the think tanks that they had built. I looked at the various operations that they had and decided that conservatives weren't on the same playing field, that we were forfeiting every game because, you know, they were playing one type of ball and we were playing another. I have great admiration for a lot of the stuff that they've done; I don't agree with it, but in terms of the way in which they learned to operate, there was a lot of brilliance associated with it.

GROSS: You helped to create the Moral Majority. You were the founding president of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and the founder of the Free Congress Foundation. So, how do you think conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, are helpful in the conservative political arena? What do they provide?

Mr. WEYRICH: Well, if you're a legislator - and the reason, by the way, that I founded Heritage along with Ed Feulner is because the two of us, one working on the Senate side, the other working on the House side, had the experience of having members of Congress that wanted to involve themselves in certain issues, but had no backup. There was no one capable on the staffs. At that time, the minority representation in the Congress was very low. So, if you weren't in control of the Congress, you maybe had - like, my senator was on Appropriations; we had one staffer for virtually all of the senators that were on Appropriations, and the majority had a lot of staffers, but we didn't. And so, you didn't have the opportunity to investigate. You didn't have the opportunity to gather data and so on. And so, we founded that to really assist members of Congress who wanted to fight battles and who wanted the intellectual backup and the data to do so, because it simply wasn't available in-house, for the most part. And that was the whole purpose of founding Heritage. Of course, it has now taken on a much greater role and now has a sort of national reach. But at the time, that was our objective.

GROSS: I know that you've worked with Jerry Falwell, and you have worked closely with the Christian Coalition. I wonder what you think the difference is politically and strategically between the former Moral Majority and the current Christian Coalition. Mr. WEYRICH: Oh, there are enormous differences. First of all, the Christian Coalition folks are a lot more serious about long-term involvement in the political process. The problem with the original group - and it's not just Falwell; it was a whole number of people, most of whom have now passed from the scene as far as active involvement in the political process - they never understood that you have to be committed to the political process in the long term in order to accomplish something. So, they wanted to find a political savior. They wanted to have big rallies and try to elect that person president and then go home and forget about it. I told them at the time, this won't work; there are no saviors in politics. And I said, you of all people should know this, and that you have to be committed to join political parties; you have to be committed to elect local officials, people in state legislatures and so on, to have a serious impact in the political process.

They didn't believe it, and they didn't want to do it, and they didn't. The Christian Coalition people believe it, and the people that they have been recruiting are much more serious, and they're willing to run for school board, and they're willing to run for county commissioner and state legislature and so on and not insist that the only thing you need is the president of the United States. As I used to say that these people were sort of monarchists because they thought that, you know, if you just have the right king that everything else will be fine, and that isn't how our system functions, never has.

So, the Christian Coalition people are serious about training their folks. One of the great difficulties that you had with the previous group is that they sent people into battle, so to speak - I'm talking about politically - unarmed. They didn't train them. And of course, if you did that in a military sense, people would get killed. Well, of course, their people did get killed in the political sense, because they weren't trained. They didn't know what the whole game was about, and they just went into the foray, and you now have, on the part of Christian Coalition as well as other groups, a real desire to see to it that people are armed, that are equipped with an understanding of what the whole process is about, what the issues are about, that they are taught to debate responsibly and not to make statements that are unsupportable and, you know, all of this sort of thing.

BIANCULLI: Paul Weyrich, speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. He died yesterday at age 66. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "The Wrestler." This is Fresh Air.

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