Wes Vernon
Paul Weyrich: A fighter to the end
By Wes Vernon
December 22, 2008

The problem with writing a tribute to the late Paul Weyrich is two-fold: (1) Where to begin, and (2) Can anything be said that begins to do justice to what this God-fearing Christian gentleman did in service to the country he loved, his fellow Americans, and his fellow human beings.

The day began

On December 18, Paul's regular column landed in e-mail boxes as usual. Dated that same day, Paul — also as usual — took the long view.

"It was the best of times. It was the worst of times," he wrote. "It is the worst of times because millions of Americans are unemployed this Christmas. It is the worst of years because we have mortgaged the future of our children and grandchildren for decades to come. "It is the worst of years because many good friends have left us. [This comment apparently was written without Paul's knowing he was about to join them.] It is the best of times because we still live in the greatest nation on earth. It is the best of years because we have the freedom to speak our minds."

As the day continued

Then a few minutes later came an announcement on the internet that Paul Michael Weyrich had died that morning. The man who played such a prominent role (along with Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and a few others) in leading the splintered and scattered conservative movement — had passed away at 1 a.m. that morning.

Paul Weyrich, fighting for the American cause to the very end, metaphorically died with his boots on. His legs had been amputated a few years ago, but in terms that really mattered, he died with his boots on. Being wheelchair-bound while fighting diabetes and a serious staph infection did not get in his way until that morning. His energy and effectiveness were boundless.

Paul was disappointed that Republicans in Congress and at the White House had abandoned or ignored some of the conservative principles that had led to their electoral success. But he had met with disappointment before, and so he did what he had done before — get up off the matt and refuse to take his eye off the ball.

In his last column, he wrote "It is the best of times because the Free Congress Foundation [which he had founded] has a serious agenda called the Next Conservatism which should ignite a meaningful debate about the future." Paul had told friends his book about that Next Conservatism — based on a long series of columns he had written over a period of months — would be out sometime in 2009. Paul Weyrich was the ultimate thinker and doer.

To add more to the events of December 18

Then in the mailbox later that day, a Christmas card (which had been mailed the day before) arrived from Paul and Joyce — his devoted wife of 45 years — which contained pictures of five grandsons receiving their First Holy Communion. In 1990, Weyrich was ordained a deacon in the Melkite Greek Eparchy, a conservative Catholic Church.

Farewell to a good friend

Paul Weyrich and this writer had some things in common: We both started in broadcasting when we were in our teens; we pursued journalism careers; we were both frustrated by the marginalization of conservatism in mid-20th century America — even though conservative values (in their various strains) reflected the way tens of millions of Americans view the world.

A native Wisconsinite and son of a German immigrant janitor, Weyrich e-mailed encouragement last year as this column was doing a ten-part series on Senator Joe McCarthy — another Wisconsinite with a blue-collar background.

And we both had a love of trains — not so much in the recreational "choo-choo-train" sense. Rather, we shared a full appreciation for the big picture as to how rail transport — long neglected by a post World War II generation — actually fulfilled the outlook of such free enterprise icons as Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton. It was they who said that — along with defense of this country — backing a nation's infrastructure was one of the few responsibilities of government.

Another last quote

In fact, in that final column — written figuratively if not literally on his deathbed — Weyrich wrote, "It is the best of times because the 22nd city opens a light rail system this December after light-rail nearly died out a few years ago. It is the worst of times because the Bush Administration has turned down 70 some cities which want light rail or streetcars. It is the best of times because Amtrak has set records in number of passengers carried."

One of the last of many reports of Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation — which he co-authored with his FCF associate William S. Lind — was titled Good Urban Transit: A Conservative Model. In it, they outlined the conservative traits of rail transit: (1) No radical reliance on untested technologies that cost "tens of billions of dollars." (2) Rail is an old and effective mode that can "build on what already exists." (3) Learning from the past (a thoughtful conservative approach), whereby just as previous generations could travel — inter-city and commuter — "speedily and comfortably without using automobiles," so too can today's generation of rail infrastructure serve the same purpose. (4) Finally, the old conservative emphasis on sheer "prudence." For national security and economic reasons, less reliance on the automobile makes sense. Rail transport means less consumption of oil imported from parts of the world that hate us.

The gap is huge

Paul Weyrich's departure is a loss not just for his wife, their five children, and their fifteen grandchildren, though for them it would have to be tremendous, and we offer our deep condolences.

We are also talking about the loss of a man who was absolutely key to forming a coalition of economic, national security, and social values conservatives. Beyond that, he led the successful merging of the interests of the Republican Party with those of the conservative movement. Without Paul Weyrich, there might not have been a President Reagan, for example.

I once asked him why he didn't hire a bodyguard, given that he had received so many death threats over the years. He replied, "When my time is up, that's it."

Counting the votes

When coalitions of Democrats and Republicans fought side-by-side to pass rail-oriented legislation, Paul was instrumental in working the Republican side of the aisle. In the battle over the unprecedented passenger rail bill a few weeks ago, for example, this column e-mailed Paul telling him that Senate leaders were saying they did not believe they had a veto-proof majority. He e-mailed back with an assurance that not only were the votes there, but he gave me an exact head count of how he was certain the vote would turn out — 74-24 — and that was in fact the final tally. He had a better inside track than Capitol Hill's own leaders. We know of no other conservative leader who can fill the void on that particular issue. There are able conservative leaders out there, just precious few with a background and expertise in that field.

Weyrich had also served on the Amtrak Board of Directors. (It was he who convinced a reluctant President Nixon to sign the bill creating the national rail passenger service.) Later he was on the Amtrak Reform Council, and then on a commission where he formed a majority that outvoted its highway-oriented chairman (DOT Secretary Mary Peters) and produced a final report that recommended strengthening America's railroad network — freight and passenger.

Disappointments and setbacks

Of course, Paul had his wins and losses just as everyone else does. One of his biggest disappointments was a concern about what he saw as the coarsening of American culture. It deeply worried him that some conservatives who shared his love of free market economics would fall off the sled when it came to his views on such social issues as abortion. His entreaty to them was that if we win the political battle but lose the cultural fight, we will eventually fail in the political arena as well. Sadly, the 2008 election may have proven him all too prescient. He believed truly free markets and a moral nation naturally complimented each other. They are both rooted in the worth of the individual.

Thus, in reference to the serial Clinton scandals of the nineties, Weyrich wrote:

"Let me be perfectly frank about it. If there really were a moral majority out there, Bill Clinton would have been run out of office months ago. It is not only a lack of political will on the part of Republicans, although that is part of the problem. More powerful is the fact that what Americans have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates. Americans have adopted, in large measure, the MTV culture that we so valiantly opposed just a few years ago. It has permeated the thinking of all but those who have separated themselves from the contemporary culture."

In the 2000 book The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, Roger Kimball writes that while Weyrich "may have overstated his case,....by and large, it must be admitted that his unhappy diagnosis is right."

The last Christmas card

In this year's Christmas card, the Weyrichs quoted from St. Isaac of Syria, which read in part as follows:

This night bestowed peace on the whole world, so let no one threaten; this is the night of the Most Gentle One...let no one be cruel; this is the night of the most Humble One...let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy...let us not revenge. Now is the day of good will — let us not be mean.

In this day of peace, let us not be conquered by anger.

In a world threatened by — not just another war, but conflagration or "the big one," a collapse of the financial house of cards, and impoverishment — those words, cited by Paul Weyrich and his family in his waning days, should give us pause, whatever our individual faith.

In Paul's passing, many in the conservative movement have lost a dear friend, ally, and icon. America has lost a man whose leadership made a difference for the better. RIP.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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