Robespierre Of The Right

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POLITICS OCTOBER 27, 1997

Robespierre Of The Right

On August 10, 1996, just one day before the Republican National Convention, several hundred of the country's most conservative activists and donors met secretly at a resort on Southern California's Coronado Island. It was the same spot where, nearly four decades earlier, Marilyn Monroe had filmed Some Like It Hot--a coincidence probably lost on this crowd, members of the Council for National Policy who were fleeing temptation. Only the purest of the movement had gathered at Coronado: men like Oliver North, Pat Robertson, and Larry Pratt (whom the press had recently drummed into exile for his alleged ties to white supremacists). In the past, the group's clandestine revival meetings had spawned liberal warnings of a right-wing conspiracy.

But this morning, the council would plot against its own internal enemies: GOP apostates. And the chief conspirator was Paul Weyrich, the man who founded the Heritage Foundation, orchestrated the party's alliance with evangelical Christians, and, more than any other figure, organized the right inside the Beltway. "I will tell you that this is a bitter turn for me," Weyrich confessed. "I have spent thirty years of my life working in Washington, working on the premise that if we simply got our people into leadership that it would make a difference.... And yet we are getting the same policies from them that we got from their [Rockefeller] Republican predecessors." It was time, Weyrich concluded, to contemplate the once unconscionable: another revolution, this time against "our people."

Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post covered or even noticed the meeting. But within weeks, the internal purges had begun; even Newt Gingrich, the man who had brought Republicans to power, was no longer safe from attacks on his right. The fight resembled that of the old left, with Leninists killing Stalinists killing Maoists; or, in this case, Friedmanites killing Buckleyites killing Burkeans.

What Weyrich was proposing was something new in American politics: a Republican politburo. He used his tottering conservative TV network, National Empowerment Television--which he dubbed "the means of communications"--to "denounce" party members who compromised on even the most obscure GOP commandments. He accused Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch, a man he had once touted for president, of having "psychological problems." After Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott supported the chemical weapons treaty, Weyrich released an open letter to the public, declaring: "I can't have friends who sell out their country."

If Weyrich were the only conservative purging Republicans, he would be no more than an interesting character--a minor, albeit compelling, player in the history of the conservative movement. Yet he has become, in many respects, a case study of the conservative mind--a metaphor for the right's deep-seated inability to accept the compromising nature of power. Since January, conservatives have orchestrated a coup against Gingrich, sabotaged William Weld's nomination as ambassador to Mexico, and watched as some of its most faithful, including Ronald Reagan's son, defected from the party. The conservative Weekly Standard, which proclaimed a "Permanent Offense" in its September 1995 debut, now frets "Is There a Worldwide Conservative Crack-up?" What had taken the left nearly a century, the right has managed in less than three years: self-immolation.

To most of the outside world, of course, this is the moment of conservative conquest. In the last three years, Republicans have reformed welfare, cut taxes, balanced the budget, passed a line-item veto, and banned gay marriage--all despite a razor-thin majority in Congress and a Democrat in the White House. These are not piecemeal compromises: they are major legislative triumphs all but unthinkable just four years ago. The trouble is that after thirty years of attacking government from the outside, the right cannot seem to maintain its stability on the inside. The habits of suspicion, pessimism, and antagonism run too deep. And nowhere do they run deeper than in Paul Weyrich--a man trying his hardest to destroy the very Republican establishment he spent his life building.

When Weyrich arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1967, with his bright pink sport coat and Barry Goldwater glasses, there were only a handful of conservative institutions. The politics of the radical right was still, as Daniel Bell had noted a decade earlier, the politics of frustration--"the sour impotence of those who find themselves unable to understand, let alone command, the complex mass society that is the polity today." Inside the Capitol, where the 24-year-old Weyrich worked as press secretary to Colorado Senator Gordon Allott, he was a minority within a minority, a right-winger among Rockefeller Republicans; outside the Capitol, he was heckled by anti-Vietnam demonstrators as he entered the building. "How can you judge me?" he once screamed back. "You don't even know me!" But the taunts continued. For conservatives, recalls William F. Buckley, founder of National Review, "Washington was an utterly inhospitable place."

Yet even then, the city tempted Weyrich. "All of a sudden lobbyists were telling me how smart and wonderful I was," he told me during one of several interviews over the last three months. "No one had ever been very nice to me before. Back home [in Wisconsin] they'd cross the street before they'd talk to me."

To see how his hero had resisted similar seductions. Weyrich reread Whittaker Chambers's Witness and prayed for strength. Then, one day in 1969, after sneaking into a liberal coalition meeting, he had an epiphany. Before him were a dozen congressional aides, a think-tank policy wonk, and a cadre of Democratic interest groups, all coordinating sympathetic op-eds, studies, and demonstrations in an effort to push through a housing bill. Suddenly Weyrich understood not only his enemy but his life calling: to replace the liberal establishment with a conservative one that would guide the movement, at last, out of the wilderness.

With the help of a Burkean nerd named George F. Will and a former University of Mississippi cheerleader named Trent Lott, Weyrich soon founded his first cloister of true believers: the Conservative Lunch Club of Capitol Hill. While his colleagues "sold out" over price and wage controls, in 1973 Weyrich and his growing band unleashed the House Republican Study Committee and its Senate counterpart, the Steering Committee. With his hair greased back a la Joe McCarthy, he warned his enemies: "We are different from previous generations of conservatives. We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of the country."

If anything embodied that power structure, it was the Brookings Institution, a liberal think-tank that for decades had stoked the New Deal with ideas. In 1970, Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan sent a memo to the president, pleading for "a conservative counterpart to Brookings." Three years later, Weyrich answered his plea: with a $250,000 gift from Joseph Coors of the brewing empire, Weyrich and his friend Ed Feulner founded the Heritage Foundation. In his short stint as president, Weyrich was given to storming around the office, his normally pale skin blood-red, his pants pulled high above his belly, lecturing those around him on how to be a good conservative.

As the fledgling think-tank became more influential, inevitably blurring with the establishment, Weyrich grew increasingly uncomfortable with his creation. Less than a year after what many consider his greatest accomplishment, he resigned to establish the Free Congress Foundation and its PAC, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. Together, they served as a twenty-four-hour, right-wing fueling station: funding candidates, churning out newsletters, and holding conferences. "It may not be with bullets," he told Richard Viguerie, the right's kingpin of direct mail, "but it is a war nevertheless. It is a war of ideology, it's a war of ideas, it's a war about our way of life."

Soon there were more enemies: hippies, aristocrats, communists, Washington doyennes, Ralph Nader, Vatican II, the IRS, the Warren Court, the women's movement, Ted Kennedy, Harvard University, and The New York Times. And there were traitors, too: Nixon and Kissinger and Rockefeller. Even Buckley was suspect. A college dropout whose father tended a boiler at night, Weyrich sneered at the effete, erudite godfather of conservatism.

By 1978, Weyrich's PAC helped sweep into Congress a new, radical breed of populist conservatives. The most notable, it turned out, was a brash, young man from Georgia named Newt Gingrich whom Weyrich had trained years earlier at a campaign seminar in Milwaukee.

Finally, on the verge of realizing his right-wing utopia, Weyrich harvested what his friend Morton Blackwell termed "the greatest track of virgin timber on the political landscape": evangelicals. "Out there is what one might call a moral majority," he told Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Pennsylvania, in 1979. "That's it," Falwell exclaimed. "That's the name of the organization." Weyrich, who had converted from Roman Catholicism to the Eastern Orthodox church after Vatican II, did more than coin the name; with a handful of activists, he engineered the alliance between the Republican Party and the growing number of evangelicals angry over abortion rights and federal intrusion in parochial schools. Less than a year later, Ronald Reagan walked into the White House.

By 1981, while his friends were still basking in their newfound power, Weyrich began to experience sudden bouts of pessimism and paranoia--early symptoms of the nervous breakdown that afflicts conservatives today. One hour Weyrich would enter the Republican White House to strategize, the next he would flee outside to condemn its policies. All around him, he complained to the editors of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review, his friends had gotten "high-paying jobs and expensive mortgages, and [begun] to be part of the problem."

Hoping desperately to stay on the outskirts, Weyrich started weekly conservative luncheons to keep pressure on the administration. Yet already there were signs of compromise. Even Reagan seemed seduced, flirting with Mikhail Gorbachev and inflating the deficit. In 1984, a despondent Weyrich met with Viguerie to consider creating a third party. "We're sick of electing candidates for the GOP and then being left out in the cold, used, abused, and lied to," Viguerie told the press.

By the 1988 presidential campaign, Weyrich was even more disillusioned. When the Bush camp refused to meet with a group of Afghani resistance fighters, Weyrich conspired to hide them in an adjoining room when Dan Quayle turned up for a luncheon hosted by the Free Congress Foundation; the plan was to spring them on the unsuspecting Quayle. But at the last minute, Bill Pascoe, Bush's liaison to the Beltway conservatives, leaked the plot, and Weyrich snapped. "Suddenly there was a volcano of screaming," recalls one lobbyist in the room. "Weyrich was calling Bill a traitor. He was spitting and frothing at the mouth. We were ready to get him a room right next to Hinckley." When the yelling stopped, Weyrich dispatched a letter to Pascoe's fiancee, questioning Pascoe's loyalty and implying that he was unfit for marriage.

There are many explanations for what Weyrich did next. Some say it was to exact revenge against the Bush administration for snubbing him; others say it was retribution against a pro-choice Republican legislator. But on January 31, 1989, Weyrich simply did what any authoritarian must: he held his first show trial. Surrounded by hordes of media, the still little-known political mechanic strolled into the Senate Armed Services Committee room and denounced his one-time ally, John Tower, as morally unfit for the post of secretary of defense. "Over the course of many years," Weyrich said, as the cameras clicked, "I have encountered the nominee in a condition--a lack of sobriety--as well as with women to whom he was not married...." Tower later tried to defend himself, but it was too late. The Bush administration, Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama told The Washington Post, "poured gasoline all over him [and] sent him up to the Senate. Paul Weyrich struck a match and he continued to burn."

Today Weyrich isn't the only Republican striking a match. Now that outsiderism is no longer synonymous with Republicanism, conservatives react to any hint of bipartisanship, or even productive leadership, as an act of heresy. "It's like the Inquisition up here," said one Senate leadership aide, days after the Weld nomination was squelched. "No one feels safe." In his 1962 essay "Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited--A Postscript," Richard Hofstadter observed that the radical right was "uncomfortable with the thought of any leadership that falls short of perfect." At the time, the essay offended many conservatives. Yet by the 1980s, several were parroting it themselves. "The problem with conservatives is that you can get 99 percent right with them," Bush's campaign manager Lee Atwater reportedly griped, "but if you're 1 percent wrong, they want to eat their own."

Since taking power in 1994, conservatives have gorged even by their standards. They have savaged Dole, ravaged Gingrich, plumped up and then devoured Lott. They have shut down the government they spent decades trying to fill. They have, in short, acted as nutty as Weyrich. "A bunch of our people are kind of crazy," David K. Rehr, a longtime conservative activist and lobbyist told National Journal. Even Gingrich, who knows something about mania, has begun to distinguish between his conservative critics and "normal people."

The irony, of course, is that conservatives' obsession with perfection and purity has transformed them into a species they always derided on the left: utopians. There is everything or there is nothing, and thus there is often nothing. Dissension is not the problem; dissenters can often rejuvenate a moribund movement--cajoling and carping and nudging the party to stay faithful to its principles. What a movement cannot sustain is Weyrichism--the kind of rhetoric that brands one's own people apostates when they make some of the compromises that power inevitably demands. "Always being disgusted with the people you agree with" can be self-destructive, says David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, "but most of all it's bad for your own soul."

Twenty-four hours after the Republicans and Clinton hammered out the balanced budget deal, seventy right-wing activists--everyone from the Cato Institute to the Family Research Council--packed into one of Weyrich's luncheons. Weyrich sat at the head table, sipping his Pellegrino and wielding his gavel. How many people in the room support the budget deal? he asked. None raised their hands. How many support the tax deal? Only a few hands went up. Then, from the back of the room, one lobbyist began to shout at Idaho Senator Larry Craig, a hard-line Republican who had always been considered an unwavering ally. "This was your chance to go out and fight," the lobbyist yelled, "and you caved."

Startled at first, Craig stammered: "If you believe that all things can happen at one time, then you should leave town right now."

The room filled with angry groans. "You didn't fight for this!"

"I wasn't the one in the negotiating room--"

"You got zero!"

And so it goes these days in the capital. The triumph of Weyrichism has become the triumph of nothingism. "Weyrich's a naysayer, a complainer, and a grumbler," says Congressman Ray LaHood, a Republican from Illinois. "If he tried to govern, nothing would happen."

At the first ever International Conservative Conference last month, Republicans wallowed in what conservative columnist and former psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer called "postpartum depression." The sessions included: "Why Conservatism Is Failing," "Need Conservatism Crack Up?" and "Diagnosis of Defeat." Equally despairing, Christian right activist Martin Mawyer recently called for the formation of a third party, and Michael Reagan, a popular conservative talk show host, announced he was defecting from the GOP fold to become an independent. "The Republican revolution my father began," he declared, "is, by all appearances, dead."

There is only one problem with all this gloom: it is, as the Gipper might say, morning in America. The economy is roaring, the communist threat has safely receded, and evidence of the conservative revolution is so ubiquitous it is commonplace: a GOP Congress, an antebellum Supreme Court, and a Democratic president who declares, thirty years after the Great Society, the end of big government.

Weyrich need never be lonely again. There is not just the CNP and its secret gatherers. There is The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times. There is George Will and Robert Novak. There is the permanent Buchanan presidential campaign and his peasants with pitchforks. There is Empower America and the Heritage Foundation. And there is, of course, Weyrich's own potpourri of anti-establishment establishments, from the Free Congress Foundation to the Coalitions for America. "The fact is conservatives have seized the majority, shifted the direction of the country and redefined the agenda," says Dan Meyer, Gingrich's former chief of staff and now a GOP lobbyist. "We are winning. Unfortunately, too many of my friends are determined to claim defeat out of the jaws of victory."

Perhaps there is no better testimony to Weyrich's success than the failure of his latest counterestablishment, National Empowerment Television. Launched in 1993 with a budget of roughly $10 million, it was supposed to be Weyrich's masterwork: the first ideologically driven public affairs network in America, a kind of third-wave Pravda. For Weyrich, it was an attempt to dominate the movement again, and cast out those who betrayed him. His strategy was to retaliate against Beltway Republicans by reaching out to Republicans in the hinterlands. "My view is Maoist," he says. "I believe you have to control the countryside and then the capital will eventually fall."

But from the outset, it was a network on the verge of collapse. Its twenty-four-hour-a-day programming was, if anything, less scintillating than c-span's. One program, "Next Revolution," explored "America's abandonment of its traditional Judeo-Christian culture for the cultural Marxism of `Political Correctness.'" Another, "America on Track," demonstrated "the onboard experience of train travel." The result was broadcasting with about as much sizzle as, say, official television in the Serb republic. So few cable systems carried National Empowerment Televisions that it reached barely 10 percent of all households. It probably empowered even fewer.

In a 1993 op-ed in The Washington Times, Weyrich, still hopeful, warned: "Politicians who fail to recognize the significance of NET ... will certainly do so at their own peril." But inside the Beltway, only a few ever saw it, and even less feared it. "I don't even know what the hell NET is," says longtime legislative aide Tod Preston.

NET's General Manager Brian Jones and Chief Operating Officer Burton Pines struggled to diversify programming with shows like "Youngbloods," a Gen-X version of the McLaughlin Group. But Weyrich enforced his own suffocating form of political correctness. One reporter says he was nearly fired for getting a response from the Clinton administration about a scandal; he recalls how, when a guest blurted out on air that he was gay, Weyrich became apoplectic. "Why should I be ashamed?" Weyrich says. "I want people on a mission."

Yet Weyrich even imposed ideological litmus tests on stagehands and secretaries. The result, staffers say, was sound technicians who could spout the pro-life line but not plug in the microphone. "I had a different view of the importance of the battle of ideas," says Pines, who had previously worked at the Heritage Foundation. "I have so much confidence in the power of Reaganite ideas that I've never been afraid to have anyone challenge them.... Inside that building were scared pessimists."

Where Weyrich had once pursued heretics inside the movement, he now hunted them down inside the building. In 1995, Pines, who had helped launch the network and had known Weyrich for nearly two decades, was abruptly fired. A few months later, Jones resigned. In the subsequent months, the network would become increasingly Weyrich-centric; his cherubic visage was nearly unavoidable. In addition to his nightly chat show "Direct Line," he hosted "Independent Voice," "Ways and Means," and "American Investigator." Often he filled in for other anchors. His brow showing beads of sweat, he sometimes asked viewers to pray for him; other times he allowed callers to praise him lavishly and at length. "It was like a cult of personality," recalls one former employee.

Night after night, he railed against Republicans, from Colin Powell to Newt Gingrich to Bob Dole's pro-choice chief of staff. In defense of his own invective, Weyrich resorted, characteristically, to religious parable. "I am struck by the fact that we have lots of people who want to be nicer than God," he says. "If you read the scripture, Jesus was not some sort of Milquetoast person with supreme charity. He cut people in two."

As they had back home in Wisconsin, people in Washington soon crossed to the other side of the street when they saw Weyrich coming. Gingrich, who had anchored two shows, declined to sign another contract. Lott revoked the special Senate parking privileges Weyrich had gotten after a car accident. GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona refused even to talk to him. "We know," says Senator Orrin Hatch, "who has the psychological problems."

More and more isolated, Weyrich now surrounds himself with a coterie of sycophants who, aides say, have little understanding of television and who patrol the corridors maintaining ideological discipline. His inner circle consists mainly of family members who receive handsome salaries for their services: one son is in charge of coalition luncheons; another produces "Morning View" on NET; his daughter is vice president for development.

Weyrich also relies increasingly on Bill Lind, a kind of minister of culture who hosts "Next Revolution" each week, always wearing what appears to be the same black turtleneck. Lind's own Manichaean ideology has only encouraged Weyrich. In a futuristic fantasy that echoes The Turner Diaries and that was reprinted in The Washington Post, Lind depicts a religious war against Washington's elites, where women who pursue a career are "given a bright red embroidered `C' to wear over their left breast," and where the unfaithful are gleefully burned at the stake. "I well remember the crowd that gathered for the execution," he writes, "solemn but not sad, relieved that at last, after so many years of humiliation, the majority had taken back the culture."

By late 1996, NET's string of neat Victorian brownstones concealed what most people in Washington already suspected: a network on the brink of financial ruin. Weyrich confesses he had to "rape" funds from the Free Congress Foundation to stay afloat; according to tax documents, he transferred over $2 million worth of assets in 1995 alone. Despite an unprecedented $20 million in conservative investments, and the network's transformation from a nonprofit to a private company this March, NET is still losing money.

Weyrich, it seems, has subverted himself. With the profusion of so many conservative voices, there is little demand for NET, even beyond the Beltway. If people want to hear conservatives, they can turn on ABC, or even that old liberal scourge, PBS. "I just don't know if there is a need anymore for National Empowerment Television," says Brit Hume, a former columnist for National Review who is now chief Washington correspondent for the newly created Fox News Channel. "Is anybody listening?"

And so Weyrich must now shout louder just to be heard. On one recent evening, when Republican Congressman Joe Barton left an NET broadcast early in order to cast a vote, Weyrich lost it. He blastfaxed his remarks to the media under the headline: "congressman walks out on net live interview." "You wonder why they break their word on these big things," he fumed. "They can't even keep their word on little things."

The last time I sit down to interview Weyrich it is at the Monocle, where lobbyists and legislators congregate for lunch. It seems odd to see Weyrich, the spiritual outsider, nibbling on salmon at the same place where JFK sent a limo from the White House to pick up his favorite sandwich. "The problem with Gingrich," he says, "is that he does not have any immutable principles that he would die for." (He doesn't seem to notice scrawled on the ceiling above him Sam Rayburn's famous saying: "I live by my principles, and one of my principles is flexibility.") "Lott," he continues, "is the greatest disappointment of my life. I really thought at heart that he was a patriot.... I was wrong."

As he denounces his former friends, he tucks his napkin into his collar, so that it fans over his belly like a veil. He seems conscious of being mistaken for the people around him. He sits with his arms folded, and crosses himself before breaking his bread. When I ask him what to order, he says he doesn't eat here enough to know. Yet, judging by the staff's reaction to him, he seems to be a regular--a fact the manager later confirms.

We chat pleasantly enough, and I wait to ask the last question I have scribbled in my notebook. Finally, as the waiter brings our check, I ask Weyrich if he has not become a kind of K Street Robespierre--a man who once devoted his life to building a movement and who now profits by destroying it. He stares at me unblinkingly, and, for the first time, I glimpse his famous temper.

"I defy anybody to tell me any privilege that I have as a result of what I'm doing," Weyrich says, turning red. "I just think that is a bogus charge." Though he makes at least $280,000 a year for all his operations, and was driven to the restaurant in a chauffeured sedan, I don't say anything. "If the good Lord wants me to do something else then I'll be gone tomorrow," he continues, his voice rising. "Every year I have been in this city I find it more sinful. And I have prayed many times for the opportunity to do something else. And so far the answer keeps coming back: 'Keep doing what you're doing.'"

This article appeared in the October 27, 1997 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: politics, washington, d.c., national empowerment television, national review, neither the new york times, the new york times, the new york times, the washington post, weekly standard, whittaker, mexico, vietnam, barry goldwater, daniel bell, george f. will, george f. will, gordon allott, joe mccarthy, joseph coors, larry pratt, marilyn monroe, newt gingrich, nixon, oliver north, orrin hatch, pat robertson, patrick buchanan, paul weyrich, ralph nader, richard viguerie, ronald reagan, ted kennedy, trent lott, william f. buckley, william weld, colorado, mississippi, southern california, washington, wisconsin, communists, congress, harvard university, internal revenue service, republican party, republican party, senate, senate, university of mississippi, white house, the heritage

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