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When Paul Weyrich Speaks, Conservatives Listen Up : Politics: The New Right brawler has survived 15 years of movement squabbling to emerge as its single most powerful force. Bush, beware.

May 19, 1991|Alan Pell Crawford | Alan Pell Crawford is the author of "Thunder on the Right: The New Right and the Politics of Resentment" (Pantheon).

WASHINGTON — The ugly fight over the enforcement of "politically correct" attitudes on college campuses will get uglier. Paul Weyrich is climbing into the ring, and this is just the sort of dust-up the New Right brawler dearly loves.

Having little or nothing to do with such matters of governance as economics or foreign policy, this dispute goes right for the gut. Here, the most divisive issues--from racial quotas to gay rights--get dragged out and snarled over, mostly by those without the slightest interest in what is best for higher education.

A self-described "political mechanic," Weyrich is pushing a bill to deny federal funds to any institution of higher learning with a policy of punishing students for what is otherwise constitutionally protected speech. It is precisely the kind of legislative action that the founder and president of the Free Congress Foundation likes to put forth--deliberately provocative, extremely unlikely to become law and almost wholly symbolic.

The bill has no sponsors, but it will find them soon enough. When Weyrich speaks, too many Republicans on Capitol Hill jerk to attention. Surviving the movement's seemingly endless internal skirmishes, he has emerged over the last 15 years as the single most powerful force in New Right circles, all the while upholding a standard of ideological purity that only he himself claims to meet.

Weyrich isn't listened to just on Capitol Hill. When conservatives gathered last month to roast the New Right straw boss, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, former drug-enforcement chieftain William J. Bennett and Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, were among the guests. Each of them, at one time or another, has had to keep the New Right mollified, and keeping the New Right mollified increasingly means mollifying Weyrich.

There weren't many laughs during the roast. Weyrich is definitely not a hail-fellow-well-met who engenders in others the back-slapping bonhomie that makes for uproarious toasts at dinners of this sort. About the funniest thing said was that Weyrich is "so tough he gets hate mail from Mother Theresa."

What Weyrich may lack in congeniality, however, he more than makes up for in talent for political intrigue. As press secretary for then-Colorado Sen. Gordon Allott, Weyrich came to prominence in the mid-'70s as Colorado brewer Joseph Coors' unofficial agent in Washington. He persuaded the beer mogul to bankroll the Heritage Foundation and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress.

Once these organizations were in place, Weyrich, with direct-mail fund-raiser Richard Viguerie and campaign tactician Terry Dolan, targeted incumbent liberal Sens. Frank Church, George S. McGovern, Birch Bayh, Gaylord Nelson and John Culver. All five went down to defeat in 1980.

Much has changed since then. Dolan died of AIDS and his National Conservative Political Action Committee has all but ceased to function. The Moral Majority, which benefited from Weyrich's contacts, has closed its doors. Viguerie, hit with millions of dollars in lawsuits from other conservative groups, is a political nonentity.

The survivor is Weyrich, who has not only managed to consolidate his power, but build on it. Back when he, Dolan and Viguerie ran things, conservatives plotted strategy, at Weyrich's behest, at weekly Kingston Group meetings, named for the Washington hotel banquet room in which they were held. Today, as chairman of Coalitions for America, Weyrich runs eight such weekly caucuses, all more or less under his command, each devoted to a policy area, and all with considerable influence. Even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has been known to attend the Stanton Group caucus, where military and foreign-policy issues are discussed.

He is probably wise to do so. Cheney owes his job, at least in part, to Weyrich. Cheney is the man who got the post for which President George Bush first nominated John Tower. Weyrich testified against the former Texas senator because Tower supposedly frolicked with women "to whom he is not married."

As the glory of Persian Gulf War victory fades and voters become increasingly disenchanted with an Administration that refuses to come to grips with domestic problems, Weyrich's already considerable influence will only increase. Remarkably enough, fund-raising is up for conservative groups these days. What this means is that thousands of disgruntled Americans are now willing to send their dollars to New Right groups, despite the recession.

Or perhaps because of it. After all, as Weyrich once proclaimed, the New Right that he represents is not composed of conservatives who seek amelioration of social ills but "radicals working to overturn the present power structures in this country." And, as Weyrich's understandably riled-up constituents in Middle America are well aware, we have those "present power structures" exemplified by President Bush and his buttoned-down middle-of-the-roaders to thank for this recession.

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