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A Last Conversation With The First Lady of Conservatism: Phyllis Schlafly

A Last Conversation With The First Lady of Conservatism: Phyllis Schlafly

 Phyliss Schlafly in 2007 (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Monday, 05 September 2016 10:19 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When I heard Monday evening that Phyllis Schlafly was dead at age 92, my thoughts dashed back to April 12 of this year and what would be my final conversation with the Missouri woman Pat Buchanan dubbed "the First Lady of American conservatism."

"Hel-ll-loo, John!" she said upon answering the phone at her St. Louis, Mo.  home, her Midwestern twang as unmistakably sharp as always.

Despite months of fighting cancer, the head of the Eagle Forum who waged battles from the successful fight to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the fight against a new constitutional convention did not sound like she was slowing down.

Eschewing small talk and personal inquiries (as she always did with me), Schlafly got right down to why she had delivered a hard-hitting endorsement of Donald Trump for President.

"He doesn’t owe anybody anything and ‘the Establishment’ hates him," she declared, "Aren’t those reasons enough to support him?"

Coming from Phyllis Schlafly, those were indeed reasons to support an outspoken insurgent against the GOP’s moderate and liberal "secret kingmakers" whose power she had long decried. In 1962, she burst on the national political scene with her self-published book "A Choice Not An Echo," which spelled out how conservatives were always being thwarted at GOP conventions by Wall Street-funded moderates from Wendell Willkie in 1940 to Richard Nixon in 1960.

Schlafly herself was part of the spontaneous movement at the ’60 convention in Chicago to convince Arizona Sen. and upcoming conservative hero Barry Goldwater to challenge Nixon for the presidential nomination. But Goldwater declined to run and in a convention speech, he admonished supporters: "Let’s grow up, conservatives. We want to take this party back, and I think some day we can. Let’s go to work!"

They did. Four years later, Goldwater did run and his supporters bought "A Choice Not an Echo" by the millions and distributed it throughout their nomination battle with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

"And you must read my latest book—an updated Choice," she insisted, underscoring her point that aside from the nominations of her friends Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party remained in the hold of a moneyed "Establishment" that thwarted the conservative agenda.

Trump, she felt, would be unbought and unbossed by those she had fought for so long.

A month before we spoke, Schlafly’s endorsement undoubtedly helped Trump overcome Sen. Ted Cruz in the Missouri primary by a wafer-thin margin of 40.9 to 40.7 percent of the vote (or by less than 2,000 votes out of 800,000 cast). It also caused some dissension within the Schlafly family: one of Phyllis’s six children, Anne Schlafly Cori, was an active member of the Cruz team in the Show Me State.

As much as I had reported on Schlafly’s leadership in the Eagle Forum and the conservative movement, I delighted — as an old political reporter would — in her reminiscences as a candidate for office herself. Never elected herself, Schlafly made news with her two bids for Congress.

In 1952, as a 27-year-old housewife and mother in an era when there were few Republican women in office, Schlafly carried the GOP banner against Democratic Rep. Mel Price in Illinois’s heavily Democratic 27th District. She attracted attention and support from some national conservative sources (including Texas oilman H.L. Hunt, notorious for not giving big money to causes he supported), she relied on volunteers and earned media to get her message out.

Schlafly lost and Price would go on to serve in Congress until he died in 1988. His son physician William Price (who ran as a Republican for the seat) told me that "Dad had trouble remembering who some of his recent opponents were, but he never forgot that woman!"

In 1970, with strong local and national financial support, Schlafly challenged Democratic Rep. George Shipley of Illinois. Again, she lost. Her press secretary in that race was James Brady, who would go on to be White House press secretary to Ronald Reagan until his tragic wounding in the attempt on the President’s life in 1981. (At a 2006 event in the White House attended by Brady, I told colleague Helen Thomas how the nation’s best-known gun control advocate had worked for Schlafly in her 1970 race. A stunned Thomas exclaimed "I don’t believe you"—whereupon I walked to over to tell Brady. He looked at Thomas and shouted: "Helen, it’s true! It’s true!")

Whether it was advancing the conservative agenda or attending Washington University in Missouri and Harvard while employed in a munitions plant in the second World War or getting a law degree at age 54 after raising six children, Phyllis Schlafly was an American trailblazer — and one who won’t be forgotten.


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When I heard Monday evening that Phyllis Schlafly was dead at age 92, my thoughts dashed back to April 12 of this year and what would be my final conversation with the Missouri woman Pat Buchanan dubbed the First Lady of American conservatism. Hel-ll-loo, John! she said...
john gizzi, phyllis schlafly, conservative, first lady
Monday, 05 September 2016 10:19 PM
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