With the news that Howard Phillips died on April 20 at age 72, political allies and enemies alike paid tribute to one of the best-known "New Right" leaders of the 1970s.
As founder and head of the Conservative Caucus, big, burly and tireless "Howie" Phillips was one of the four pivotal figures in the "New Right" movement that mobilized social conservatives into political activism a generation ago, and practiced an anti-establishment brand of politics.
The others were Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (both of whom are dead), and direct-mail czar Richard Viguerie, who delivered the eulogy for Phillips before an overflow crowd of mourners at the McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., earlier this month.
Much as Phillips' six children and Viguerie did in their eulogies, The Washington Post and The New York Times recalled the conservative firebrand for his fierce commitment to ideology.
Phillips resigned as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity in protest over the Nixon administration's refusal to support his effort to dismantle the social welfare-dispensing OEO. Disgusted with the Republican Party, Phillips went "rogue" and launched his own Taxpayers Party — later the Constitution Party — and was its presidential nominee three times.
There was another side of Howard Phillips that was not dealt with in most of the post-mortems after his death: How, as a young Harvard graduate, Phillips was someone who knew how to motivate people and win elections. What is more impressive to note from today's point of view is that Phillips did this as a true volunteer in an era before high-salaried consultants took over the business of electioneering.
"I majored in extracurricular at Harvard," is how Phillips liked to explain his passion for political activity and campaigns. While an undergraduate, he served as a Republican precinct captain and election warden in the Republican no man's land of Boston.
His first job after graduation in 1962 was as political eyes and ears for Rep. Laurence Curtis, the conservative insurgent who challenged the Republican establishment for the Senate nomination against Ted Kennedy. As Phillips recalled, "I ran three counties for Larry: Essex, Bristol, and Suffolk — we won two of them — and I was his driver. I visited all of the 356 cities and towns in Massachusetts at his side."
In 1963, the death of a Democratic state representative resulted in a special election for a seat in the historically Democratic Alston part of Boston. Working at the time as an insurance agent, Phillips also assisted the seemingly hopeless campaign of Republican Charles Long, a second-year student at Harvard Law School. Long won the race.
"Normally, candidates credit their win to their own attractive personalities," recalled Long, now practicing law in Boston. "That helped, but I could never have won without Howie. It was hard to reach voters because so many lived in apartments. But Howie had contacts, knew people everywhere in the district, and got them to volunteer for the campaign."
And long before Republicans talked about "outreach" and "being inclusive," Phillips tried to reach out to minorities. In his words, "I was heavy into minority recruitment. I went to black churches every Sunday. … Even though I was always very conservative and even though there were disagreements, I had some very close friendships in the black community in Boston."
Phillips was named outstanding city chairman in the country by then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ray Bliss and was offered the campaign manager's job by John Lindsay when he ran for mayor of New York in 1965, and by Missouri's John Danforth when he ran for the Senate in 1970. Phillips ran for Congress himself from a hopeless district in Massachusetts in 1970, and then went into the Nixon administration.
During his later years as a national conservative, many of Howard Phillips' friends argued that his political savvy had gone awry, that his commitment to a third party was not going to sell in a country long used to a two-party system.
There is a lot of truth to that philosophy. But there is also a lot of truth in pointing out that, with few resources and in areas unfriendly to his brand of politics, he knew how to run campaigns, get people motivated, and sometimes win against the odds.
At time when grass-roots politics seem to be passe and campaigns are increasingly driven by high-paid consultants, that part of Howard Phillips' impressive life is worth remembering.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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