WASHINGTON-Conservative giant Paul Weyrich, 66, died Thursday around 1 a.m. Weyrich had suffered poor health for a number of years following a spinal injury in 1996 and the amputation of his legs in 2005. A champion of the fundamentals of conservatism, he watched the conservative movement ebb and flow and ebb again over his more than 40-year career in Washington.
"Conservatives appear lost," Weyrich wrote in a column published on Monday.
Weyrich, a Greek Catholic, established The Heritage Foundation, the most prominent conservative think tank in Washington, and coined the term "Moral Majority," which came to describe the organization led by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. He also founded the Free Congress Foundation, another conservative think tank focused on cultural issues, which he headed until his death. In the announcement about his passing on The Heritage Foundation's website, he is described as "a man of unbending principle."
Lee Edwards, a chief historian of the conservative movement at The Heritage Foundation, first met Weyrich around the time the conservative leader arrived in Washington. He described his first impression of Weyrich to me in an interview.
"Here was a rock solid guy when it came to principle," Edwards said. "He had a very keen appreciation for the basics of politics. It was clear if he combined the two he would be a formidable player in Washington.
"It's hard to mention one of the early building blocks of the [conservative] movement without realizing that Paul played a special role."
Though confined to a wheelchair and suffering from chronic pain in the latter part of his life, Weyrich continued to write columns for prominent newspapers. On the day before his death, the Free Congress website published an article he penned on the Minnesota Senate race.
On Thursday, House Republican Leader John Boehner credited Weyrich with guiding the Reagan presidency.
"He will be missed," Boehner said in a statement.
"Like so many who admired him across this nation, I am certain that heaven is richer but my life is poorer because of the passing of Paul M. Weyrich," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said in a statement. Pence added that he counted Weyrich as a "friend and mentor."
Weyrich was known to incite controversy, which he said was partly his intention, with the primary goal of returning Americans to fundamental conservative values.
"He probably voted Republican most of his life," said Edwards, "but at the same time he didn't hesitate to criticize the party when it got off base."
Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said Thursday that Weyrich advanced the values of limited government, lower taxes, and individual responsibility.
The culture war, the idea that conservative and liberal values are in conflict in our society, became a banner for Weyrich, and he termed political correctness "cultural Marxism."
"The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer," he wrote in a 1999 "Letter to Conservatives."
"I believe that we probably have lost the culture war," the letter continued. "And while I'm not suggesting that we all become Amish or move to Idaho, I do think that we have to look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile culture. … We need some sort of quarantine."
Despite the election of the conservative George W. Bush in 2000, Weyrich wasn't optimistic about the state of conservatism. The longtime Washingtonian was a critic of the Bush administration's spending practices, encroachments on civil liberties, and decisions on the Iraq War. In 2005, he wrote a 12-part series for WORLD about the "next conservatism," outlining what conservatism would look like after President Bush leaves the White House.
Weyrich wrote earlier this year: "Conservatives gave up some of their principles in order to retain power."
Weyrich's career began as a reporter in Wisconsin, where he was born, and he came to Washington in 1967. His wife Joyce and five children survive him.