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Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution (16 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 16 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

NOTE: Richard Viguerie, coauthor of this book, first comprehended the true political potential of direct mail and used it to create the conservative mass movement.  This excerpt is presented in the first person, allowing Richard to tell his story directly.

When I first went to work for the new conservative movement, it didn’t take me long to discover that I really Ronald Reagandidn’t like calling on people and asking them face to face for money.  Asking over the telephone wasn’t much better.  I found that I had a knack for writing letters, though, so that’s what I began to concentrate on.

I learned on the job what worked and what didn’t work.  I learned the importance of “branding,” and I also learned the ins and outs of getting celebrity signers for your letters.  The strangest and funniest turn of events came in 1962 when I asked this movie actor named Ronald Reagan to sign a letter for Young Americans for Freedom.  I tell that story in the excerpt below. 


Conservatives use their secret weapon to create a revolution

In 1960 I was a young clerk with an oil company in Houston, Texas, fresh out of college and in the Army Reserve.  I spent many of my after-work hours in Republican politics.  There weren’t many Republicans in Texas at that time, and promotions could come fast if you were willing to work hard at thankless tasks.  I became chairman of the Harris County (Houston) Young Republicans, then Harris County campaign chairman for John Tower in his quixotic campaign for the Senate against Lyndon B. Johnson, who owned Texas politically at that time.  LBJ was running for two offices at the same time – for reelection to the Senate and for vice president with John F. Kennedy.  As part of my campaign work, I wrote a fundraising letter for Tower – a one-pager that did well.  Little did I know that this would become my life’s work!

I was hooked on politics, and wanted eventually to make a bigger mark somewhere, probably in Washington, D.C.  My opportunity came in the summer of 1961, but in the street canyons of New York City – a far cry from the Texas prairies to which I was accustomed.

National Review, located in New York City, carried a classified ad searching for four field men for an unnamed national conservative organization.  I had become friends with a fellow Houstonian, my present coauthor David Franke, who was then on the editorial staff of National Review.  He was also National Review’s unofficial emissary to the conservative youth movement, just as the magazine’s publisher, Bill Rusher, was its emissary to the adult conservative movement.  I flew to New York for an interview with Rusher.  With Rusher’s and Franke’s recommendations, I was offered the job.

As it turned out, there was really only one position – account manager for Marvin Liebman, the young movement’s public relations and fundraising specialist.  Marvin had been instrumental in creating and funding organizations such as the Committee of One Million, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and the World Youth Crusade for Freedom.  I hit it off with Marvin, and became his account executive for the YAF account.

Not direct mail, but it worked

I was surprised to learn after arriving on the job that YAF, not one year old, was $20,000 in debt with only a couple of weeks’ operating money on hand.  Having just received my big break in life, I wasn’t about to have it disappear on me.  I was determined that YAF would succeed.

Marvin used several methods of raising money for his clients.  One was to call wealthy conservatives such as Charles Edison, youngest son of the inventor and former governor of New Jersey, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker of World War II fame, and industrialist J. Howard Pew.  Another way was to throw dinners with distinguished speakers, charging a fee substantial enough to bring a profit.  A third method was print ads in the New York Times and other New York publications.  These ads solicited support for his client’s cause, and contained a coupon.  Readers who supported the cause would clip out the coupon and mail it in with their checks.  This approach wasn’t as efficient as direct mail later would be, but in the hands of a creative promoter like Marvin Liebman it worked.

I remember my first meeting with Marvin, following my interview with Bill Rusher.  We talked for an hour or so in his office, where he showed me a stack of files measuring something like three feet by three feet.  These small file cabinets were filled with three-by-five index cards, each providing the name and address of a donor to one or more of his causes.  The donors may have given $50, $100, $500, or $1,000 – once or several times.  All you had to do was ask, and these people would give money!  I was like the young duckling that had never seen water, but knew what to do with it once he saw it.

At that time, neither Marvin nor anyone else in the conservative movement did what we now call acquisition mailings – using the mail to acquire new donors.  The opportunity was there, because postage at that time was so incredibly cheap, but political people just didn’t know how to do it.  It wasn’t on their radar screens.  Marvin dealt with relatively upscale donors, and his system worked, so he didn’t feel the need to explore other avenues.  Also, to tell the truth, most of us never believed we could be a truly mass movement, with the need for mass support; we were comfortable in our ideological niche.  As is so often the case, our biggest constraint was in our own heads.

Well, it didn’t take me long to discover that I really didn’t like calling on people and asking them face to face for money.  Asking over the telephone wasn’t much better.  I found that I had a knack for writing letters, though, so that’s what I began to concentrate on, learning as I went and refining my letters as I learned what worked and what didn’t work.  Soon direct mail was almost my whole focus – for fundraising, subscriptions to YAF’s magazine, The New Guard, YAF membership, everything.

At some point I left Marvin’s employment to become executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom and run the organization directly.  Then YAF moved to Washington, D.C., and I moved my new and growing family to the nation’s capital.  Later I asked YAF to hire someone else as executive secretary and allow me to concentrate on what I enjoyed doing, and did best – raising money. 

In January 1965, during the darkest hour for the conservative movement, while I had two small children at home, I left YAF’s employ entirely to found my own company, with YAF as my sole client.  Then I lost my YAF account in the incessant internecine squabbling that always plagues youth politics, and had to scramble for new clients.  Throughout it all, I never looked back, and I never lost faith in what I saw as the future of politics.  I was confident that direct mail could and would become the Big Bertha of political fundraising.

I learn about branding, and my letter to Ronald Reagan ends up in Ronnie Jr.’s toy box

As I’ve said, my interest in direct mail began when I was working for Marvin Liebman, partly because of my shyness in asking people face to face or phone to phone for money and partly it was because I saw the potential for direct mail and knew that’s what I did best. 

Plenty of young conservatives were boning up on conservative philosophy, and many others were studying the techniques of political organization.  Nobody, as far as I could tell, was studying how to sell conservatism to the American people.  I knew I was never going to be a conservative intellectual, so for a period of a few years I didn’t read the growing number of conservative books that were being published, and I barely looked at National Review or Human Events.  Time was too precious.  I decided to spend every spare moment intensively studying commercial direct mail, so I could apply those techniques to political nonprofit groups.  I would focus on becoming the best marketer I could be.  I read marketing books (and not only on direct mail), psychology books, and studies of what causes a person to buy or not buy something.  I’d pore over every page of The Reporter of Direct Mail.

I didn’t have to play Lewis and Clark.  Commercial direct mail had plenty of giants – people like Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Dick Barton.  In particular, I considered Ed Mayer and Dick Benson to be my mentors.  You need to study the giants because we’re not talking about normal, natural skills.  You have to learn those skills.  It’s not normal to think that an eight-page letter is going to pull significantly better than a one-page letter.  You have to learn what causes a person, who’s moving rapidly in one direction, to stop, sit down, read your copy, take out a checkbook, write a $25 check, put it in the mail, and then keep on going.  That takes skills that don’t come naturally to you. 

And I learned on the job what worked and what didn’t work.  One of the first things I learned with Young Americans for Freedom, for example, was:  stick to your brand (to use commercial terminology).  I tested two letters against each other, to see which type pulled better.  One letter talked about the work that YAF was doing on college campuses; the other (we were getting close to 1964) talked about how YAF was going to help nominate and elect Goldwater, “if only you send us a check.”  (There were no rules or regulations at that time prohibiting nonprofit organizations from direct campaign work.)

I was able to figure that one out real quick-like.  The help-us-elect-Goldwater letters did very poorly.  We were a bunch of teenagers and twenty-something-year-old kids, after all, and the older conservatives with money couldn’t be convinced that we had the electoral expertise to make a difference.  Besides, there were plenty of other groups that were working the Goldwater pitch, and could do so more convincingly.

On the other hand, we were able to convince older conservatives to help our work on the campuses.  We were fighting the radical SDS, the liberals, and the communists on college campuses, and that was something older conservatives perceived we could do better than anyone else.  The Republican campaign groups weren’t going to do that.  That was our brand.  That was our market.

I had not understood branding, and the importance of the image your potential customers or donors have of you.  But I never again made that mistake.  I also learned through this experience that people with disposable money are older – usually 50 years of age or older – and they will go to great lengths to help young people.  As long as you stay in your area of expertise, they will support you and respond.

I also learned the ins and outs of getting celebrity signers for your letters.  People like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Edison would sign our letters, as they had before for Marvin Liebman’s other clients.  But I also got Barry Goldwater to sign appeals for us, which was great the closer we came to 1964.

The strangest and funniest turn of events came in 1962 when I asked this movie actor named Ronald Reagan to sign a letter for YAF.  He was making speeches for General Electric and hosting “Death Valley Days” on TV back then, and this was long before his famous speech during the Goldwater campaign and before anybody thought of him as governor material, much less presidential material.

Anyway, I wrote Reagan a short letter, and attached a sample of the fundraising letter that I hoped he would sign.  A week went by, and no response.  Two weeks, then a month.  I was very disappointed, because with his acting career Reagan was one of the highest profile conservatives I could get to sign a letter. 

Eventually, I pretty much forgot about it.  Then months later I was reading our “comment mail” – people’s responses to you, whether of the “great work!” or “go jump in the lake!” variety.  Some people would mark up your letter and say “this is a bunch of junk,” and you’d throw it in the wastebasket.  One letter seemed to be of that variety, marked up with crayon scribbling.  I threw it away, but something made me take a second look.  Something was different about this letter.

Then I realized this was the letter I had sent to Reagan.  I looked at the bottom of the letter, beyond the crayon marks, and there was a handwritten note from our future president: “Dear Mr. Viguerie, I just found this letter in Ronnie Jr.’s toy box.  I apologize!  Of course you may use my name if you think that would be of any help.”

Reagan’s name pulled well, to no surprise, and we used his name for some years.  But that relationship almost didn’t get off the ground because of an attempted hijacking by three- or four-year-old Ronnie Jr., who liked my letter so much he used it for art practice and stored it in his toy box!


America’s Right Turn serialization:

To order American's Right Turn from Amazon please click this link.

  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
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