During the 1970s and 1980s, Howard Phillips was one of a small group of conservative leaders who set out to change the Republican Party. They did, and in the process helped change America and much of the world.
Howard was present at the beginning of the modern conservative movement, including the founding of Young Americans for Freedom at Bill Buckley’s family estate in Sharon, Connecticut in September 1960, and helped lead YAF in its early years.
Howie, as his friends called him, began his life-long love affair with all things conservative in a most unlikely place, Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1962 where he was twice elected as President of the Student Council.
He was a leader in Massachusetts Republican politics, including serving as chairman of the Boston GOP. In 1968, Howard was campaign manager for Richard Schweiker (Reagan’s future choice to be his V.P. in 1976) in his successful race for the U.S. Senate against two-term Democratic Senator Joe Clark from Pennsylvania.
President Nixon appointed Howie to be the director of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) with the goal of shutting down much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. But by mid-1973, Nixon was under siege because of Watergate and decided to switch positions and fund LBJ’s Great Society programs in an attempt to buy peace with the Democrats. Howie promptly resigned.
Shortly thereafter, he approached me with the idea to start a national grassroots conservative public policy organization to be called The Conservative Caucus. The Viguerie Company quickly launched a national direct-marketing campaign seeking members and financial support. It wasn’t long before the Caucus, with Howie as Chairman and over 300,000 supporters, was the largest and most effective grassroots conservative organization of the time.
In his tireless work to build the conservative movement, Howie visited almost all 435 congressional districts seeking candidates and activists.
In a trip to New Hampshire in 1978, only five people showed up for a meeting, but one of the five was a co-pilot for Allegany Air Lines (before it became US Air) who, at Howie’s urging, volunteered to run against three-term incumbent Thomas McIntrye. And later that year, Gordon Humphrey won that Senate seat.
For about nine years in the mid 1970’s, a small group (8-10) of national conservative leaders who became known as the “New Right” began meeting for breakfast at my home near Washington to plan and implement conservative strategy. And, for a period of time, we would reconvene at my home for dinner with the same breakfast group, but now with some New Right young congressmen.
If there ever was something resembling Hillary Clinton’s vast right wing conspiracy, this was it.
Besides Howie and me, the group included Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, Morton Blackwell, Terry Dolan, Ron Godwin, Congressmen Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber, Bob Walker, Hal Daub, Bill Dannemeyer, and others.
At those Wednesday meetings, and many hundreds of other meetings, Howard and the other New Right leaders began to develop and implement the strategies to put conservatives on a path of aggressive opposition to big-government politicians that is today best embodied by Tea Party constitutional conservatives.
In 1979, Howie was one of four conservatives who met with Reverend Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia, in a meeting that led directly to the formation of the Moral Majority organization, which in turn launched the religious right movement.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Howard Phillips was one of the most articulate, important, effective, and high-profile conservatives opposing both big-government Republicans and Democratic policies and programs to expand government and reduce liberty.
However, Howard’s disappointment and disillusionment with the Republican Party eventually caused him to leave the GOP and run for president three times on the Constitution Party ticket.
At the 1984 GOP National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Dan Rather of CBS interviewed Howie and me. In the course of the interview, we expressed skepticism of Vice President George H. W. Bush’s conservative credentials. The next night, Rather interviewed Bush and said, “Mr. Vice President, Howard Phillips and Richard Viguerie say you’re not a conservative. Are you a conservative?” Bush replied, “Yes, Dan. I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.”
Well, Howard Phillips was certainly a “nut about the cause of liberty,” and a tireless and effective leader for all who believe in liberty and limited government, as set forth in our country’s founding documents, especially the Constitution.
During all the battles, including wins and losses, Howie’s number one cheerleader and friend was his wife of 49 years, Margaret (Peggy). They were blessed with six children and eighteen grandchildren.
Howie, you made a huge difference, and all who love freedom under God’s laws are deeply in your debt. Rest in Peace, my friend.