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What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement

This is excerpt No. 25 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

Roger Craver is not the only man who built the liberal “cause” movement, of course, but he’s probably the most Roger Craverimportant one. 

Consider the liberal groups he created or built through direct mail:  Common Cause, the National Organization for Women (NOW), Greenpeace, Public Citizen, Handgun Control (now the Brady Campaign), the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, NARAL Pro-Choice America, World Wildlife Fund, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, the Wilderness Society, and many others.  In short, a Who’s Who of the Left in America during the 1970s through the 1990s.  The list of liberal “cause” groups has changed and expanded since then, but the foundation for liberal advocacy was built by Roger Craver.

Conservatives should always be willing to learn, not only from our own experiences but also from the experiences on the Left.  We interviewed Roger Craver and found lessons that can benefit today’s conservatives.

Roger Craver jump-starts liberal activists

In 1970, the Sierra Club – which had been around for 70 years or so – had 14,000 members.  To join, you had to get an existing member to vouch for you and sign your membership application.  Then, if you passed muster, they’d let you in.  Planned Parenthood had 8,000 donors.  The League of Women Voters, another venerable old organization, had 20,000 members.  And the American Civil Liberties Union had 10,000 on its rolls.

Then Roger Craver got ahold of them, turning them into the awesome giants they are today.  And he did it all with direct mail.

Craver caught their attention when he took charge of fundraising for a newly created organization, Common Cause.  “In five short months,” he tells us, “it went from zero to 250,000 members and $5 million, which in those days was an enormous amount of members and a fairly enormous amount of money.”  Suddenly everyone on the Left wanted to be the next Common Cause.

The impetus to start Common Cause came from John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under LBJ, then chairman of the National Urban Coalition, which had been formed in response to the burning of cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Gardner explained to Craver that the coalition was funded by unions, some Fortune 500 companies, and big churches.  “Consequently, every time John Gardner wanted to make a change,” Craver explained to us, “he had to deal with Walter Reuther, R. J. Reynolds, or what have you.  And the reason he called me was that he wanted to figure out, ‘How do I get the money I need for social change by getting people – a lot of people – to give a little bit of money, so I’m not dependent on any of them?’”

Gardner’s fundraisers at the National Urban Coalition were big-gift oriented and thought that supporting Common Cause through small donations was a crazy idea.  And they had families to feed, kids in college, so they weren’t looking for a challenge they thought likely to fail.  Someone recommended Gardner talk to this young, single guy who was director of development at George Washington University. That was Roger Craver.

“Well, in fact,” Craver tells us, “when Gardner put the idea in front of me, ‘Could you raise lots of money from lots of people in small amounts?’ I was frankly too dumb to say ‘No.’  I said, ‘Sure, why not?’  And so, that was the way we started on the Left.”

Craver sees direct mail as a way “to make an end run around the centralized sources of money and power, the big institutions.  The important thing for both the Right and the Left and the middle is that this technology of direct mail, which today looks so simple and so fundamental, was really the first personal form of mass communications.  It was a way of identifying people, holding a conversation with them, and watching them respond.  It created millions of involved citizens.”

Craver continues:  “Ben Wattenberg, the political analyst and commentator, once said the two greatest American contributions to political democracy were the primary election and direct mail.  The primary election because the people had a choice in choosing who the candidates would be, and direct mail because this was where a $15 involvement made a difference.”

Ideology aside, Craver sees functional similarities between what The Viguerie Company does on the Right and what his firm, Craver, Mathews, Smith and Company, does on the Left: 

What’s been happening in the democratic sense is that you’ve been servicing people who had enormous frustrations and gave them an outlet.  And I was doing the same thing.  It became possible for the passionate on both sides of the political spectrum to organize and mobilize, and it knocked out the institutional “middle” that always tried to move everything to the center, squashing both the Right and the Left.  So the ability to get more spectrum, more ideas into the democratic process, is what direct mail has made possible.  And the rest is history.

Back to the initial success of Common Cause, Craver reflects:

Suddenly, here was Common Cause with 250,000 members, and John Gardner and I were assaulted by groups that were just beginning to get an idea that they should get into this medium of direct mail.  I was starting to take off so much time helping Nader and NOW and all these other groups.  Finally Gardner said to me, “Why don’t you go off and do this commercially, and I will make sure you have enough resources to survive so you can build this business.”  So that’s how I got into the direct mail agency business.

Common Cause was the original client of his new firm, of course.  Next was the National Organization for Women (NOW), “which,” Craver says, “did not have an office, and had only 3,000 members when we became associated with it.  They held their meetings in taxicabs as they drove around Washington because they were worried about security and privacy.”  In very quick succession, Craver’s firm helped found or build a number of other organizations – Greenpeace, Public Citizen, Handgun Control, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International.  In short, a Who’s Who of the Left in America.


If you will recall our Chapter 7, recounting the birth of The Viguerie Company, a major problem on the Right was finding and accessing lists to mail to.  We asked Craver: How about on the Left?

“There weren’t any lists on the liberal side,” Craver responded.  “So I went to the Library of Congress and looked at magazines, at newsletters.  I’d ask myself, ‘What type of person would buy this?’  And then I’d check to see whether any of the appropriate subscriber lists were available.”

Very few were available.  “In those days,” Craver recalls, “people didn’t exchange.  They didn’t swap their subscriber lists; they didn’t lend them.  I mean, they just used them themselves.”

To break the impasse, Craver decided to use some professional negotiators:

At Common Cause John Gardner had access to a lot of Foreign Service people who admired him, and they were retired.  Through Gardner I organized a corps of them, and my first volunteer was the retired U.S. ambassador to Jerusalem – we still had an embassy in Jerusalem in those days.  His name was Evan Wilson, and I remember the day he showed up.  I looked at this guy in a pinstriped suit and he said, “I’m reporting for duty.  What do you want me to do?”  And I said, “I want you to get your guys to go around to this list of organizations and magazines and see if they have a list we can use.”  And that’s how I put those diplomats to work negotiating the use of mailing lists.

“And I remember the two best lists we used,” Craver continues.  “The first was the customer list of something called ‘Kozak Auto-Dry Carwash’ – they ran an ad in Parade every Sunday.  It was a cloth that you wiped your car down with, and for whatever reason that list worked better than anything in those early days of Common Cause.”

The second list also was car related: “We had a meeting with early members of Common Cause, and I walked outside to talk to one of them.  When we got to the end of the parking lot I noticed that it was filled with an extraordinary number of Volvos.  So I rented a Volvo list, and that worked.  So it was a very deductive trial-and-error process.”

We pushed back further in time and asked him: Who taught you direct mail?  How did you learn?  Roger Craver’s answer was as intriguing as Morris Dees’ story of the ’Bama Birthday Cake Service.

“I learned direct mail when I was 13,” Craver responded.

My father was a florist in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where we had a national cemetery.  During the Korean War they brought back a lot of the boys who died there and buried them in Gettysburg.  My father did most of those funerals.  My mother had a business sense, which most florists don’t – they like beautiful things, but they don’t particularly know how to make money.  She got the names and addresses of the parents of the vets who were buried there, and my job was to write them on the anniversary of their son’s death or burial, and again on the anniversary of his birthday.  We built quite a business of putting flowers on graves, using my direct mail letters.

That’s an even better story than Morris Dees’ birthday cakes, we said.  Craver snapped back:

Same experience!  Same experience!  I mean, he dealt in sugar, I dealt with death, but I guess it just shows that parents love you.  I’ll never forget that experience – not the technical experience of writing the letters and seeing the results, but the experience of having these families come back to Gettysburg and stop by the flower shop to talk to us and say “thank you.”  They’d tell us about their son and bring pictures of him when he was a little boy.  It taught me to appreciate the power of a letter that connects directly with someone’s feelings.  It taught me what passion is all about.

Finally, we asked: Just how important is direct mail to liberals today?

His pithy reply: “They love to piss on it, but when you look at liberal causes, it still represents between 70 percent and 95 percent of the funding of all the mainstream causes.”

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
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  22. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  23. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  24. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
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