In part three of this four-part interview, Howard Phillips talks about his influences, pulling Fidel Castro’s beard, winning the presidency of the student council at Harvard, his classmate Barney Frank, and his post-Nixon epiphany.
FLYNN: What explains the loyalty of conservatives for leaders like Bush and Nixon, who don’t or didn’t have much loyalty to the conservative cause? Is it that the Left attacks them so viciously that conservatives come to their defense reflexively? It almost seems as if Bush has as much loyalty from conservatives (or maybe even more than) as Reagan did.
PHILLIPS: I think that’s true. I think a good part of it is that conservatives are not well grounded in principles or in policies. They’re more involved in the game than in the substance. The reason I left the Republican Party in 1974 and became an independent was that I concluded that through much of my life I had made the mistake of giving my loyalty to personality and party. I had been the biggest Republican loyalist in America. I was assistant to the chairman of the Republican National Committee. I was chairman of the Republican Party in Boston. I was state chairman of Young Republicans. I was briefly national chairman of the College Republicans and national vice chairman of the YRNF. I managed innumerable campaigns of Republican candidates for office from United States Senate down to the state legislature. I supported liberal Republican nominees, saying: “Any Republican is better than any Democrat.” And I believed it. But my experience in the Nixon administration, overseeing the $3 billion Great Society budget which I tried to eliminate, persuaded me that it was a mistake. And I was the Number One Nixon loyalist. At some point, the Watergate tapes will have Nixon saying that I was the best appointment that he ever made. I was the only one who did what he said that he was going to do. My deep loyalty to President Nixon—and it was comprehensive, I was very loyal to him—led to or preceded my decision that I had been mistaken, and that I had to examine policy outcomes and the principles under them. Frankly, my whole perspective on the world changed as a result of my five years in the federal government. I had always been viscerally conservative, but I had assumed that the way to advance that which I believed was through partisan loyalty. My experience in government persuaded me that I had been dead wrong. That’s why I started The Conservative Caucus in 1974. And that is why I’m willing to forgo big contributions, and appointments, and invitations to dinners at the White House, because I think in the long run we’re not going to put this country back on the right track unless we pursue that which is on the letterhead on The Conservative Caucus as our mission statement. Namely, “To restore the American republic by limiting the Federal government to its delegated, enumerated Constitutional functions and returning American jurisprudence to its Biblical common law foundations.” To that goal, I have dedicated myself, whether it’s through The Conservative Caucus or the Constitution Party, or whatever else I happen to be involved in at any given time. That’s what we have to do. I’ve always tried to show respect for my conservative brethren, leaders of the Christian Right—which I helped organize back in 1977—while at the same time respectfully disagreeing with them and urging them to recognize that the president and members of Congress are not their superiors. They’re supposed to be our subordinates. They’re supposed to be our employees. We have a responsibility to hold them accountable to a right standard, which I believe to be the Constitution and Biblical jurisprudence.
FLYNN: You mentioned your change of heart under Richard Nixon in 1974. Do you think that there’s going to be similar epiphanies among conservatives after the experience of George W. Bush?
PHILLIPS: I think we’re going to have to grow a new bunch of conservatives. I don’t think these old leopards are going to change their spots. But I’m greatly encouraged by the home-school movement, and the hundreds of thousands of young men and women of high character, who understand history, understand principles, and are willing to stand for what they know to be right even at the cost of career and finances.
FLYNN: You mentioned being a visceral conservative and being active as a conservative all the way back to your youth. What were some of the books and some of the leaders who influenced you and brought you to where you are philosophically?
PHILLIPS: Frankly, I did most of my in-depth reading after I left OEO. Probably the greatest influence in my life, when I met him in my thirties, was R.J. Rushdoony, who wrote Institutes of Biblical Law, and became a very close personal friend. My relationship with him and what I learned from him led to my becoming a Christian. As a young man, I read a number of books that had an influence—by Raymond Moley, David Lawrence (of US News and World Report), Sam Lubell, I had some favorite authors who wrote fiction, such as John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, and Hermen Melville, in whom I had a great interest. I devoured newspapers from the time I was eleven years old. I was heavily involved in foreign affairs activities. One of my mentors was Dr. John Gibson, who was the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts and head of the World Affairs Council in Boston. He took me under his wing. When I was fourteen years old I was on television every week, and I ran something called the “Great Decisions Program.”
FLYNN: I read somewhere that you were involved in a “Model UN” program as a teenager. Do your supporters know of this?
PHILLIPS: Oh, sure. People were very suspicious of me because of it. I was named the outstanding delegate at the Model United Nations at Harvard when I was a senior at Boston Latin School. I was president of the International Relations Club at Harvard. I was president of the student council there. But my conservative views were very clear. The dean of the college, John Munro, threatened to sever my connection with Harvard if he ever again saw my name in print on the same page with the words “Harvard College” or “Harvard University.”
FLYNN: You ran for president of the United States three times, and you didn’t win. But you ran for president of the student council at Harvard, and you won twice. Can you tell me about that?
PHILLIPS: Well, it was very ironic. (By the way, from the first day I was at Harvard I resolved that I was going to be the president of the student council—just as John Glover Roberts has resolved that he’s going to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). I set on a path to become president of the student council, and one of the things that I did was run the Harvard Combined Charities drive. As head of the Harvard Combined Charities drive, and I had a codirector named Dick Crystal—no relation to Bill Kristol —we had a representative not just in every one of the Harvard houses and the freshmen dorms but in every entry. So I had an organization of a couple hundred people around Harvard who were working to raise money for Harvard Combined Charities. I recruited Al Capp, the creator of L’il Abner to do our campaign theme, with Daisy Mae, saying, “Once, and For All”—because if you gave to one charity several would benefit. We raised a record amount of money. It was a four-day fundraising campaign for which we prepared for at least weeks in advance. It was an incredible success. So that greatly boosted my standing and it gave me a political organization all over the campus.
FLYNN: So you won twice. Were your conservative views not that pronounced?
PHILLIPS: They were very obvious. I led rallies against Adlai Stevenson. I led the rally against Fidel Castro when he came to Harvard. I pulled his beard when he was walking into the Harvard Faculty Club. True story. No, my views were very well known. People had no doubt that I was as conservative and right wing as anyone. I was head of Youth for Nixon of New England. I was on the founding board of Young Americans for Freedom. My conservative views were very well known.
FLYNN: Barney Frank was a classmate of yours?
PHILLIPS: He was supposed to have graduated a year ahead of me. But in those days, they regarded homosexuality as an illness. So, he was taken out of school for six months or so to try to rehabilitate him. As a result, he graduated a year later. The irony was, he was on the student council and he supported me for president because he disliked my principal opponent more than he disliked me. FLYNN: Was he as good a debater back then as he is now?
PHILLIPS: He was always quick on his feet. Another one of my supporters was Jim Lorenz, who was the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance, and Eric Severeid’s son, Peter Severeid, and many, many, many others.
Check back tomorrow four the final part of this four-part interview. In part four, Howard Phillips details what went wrong in Massachusetts, his education at two of America’s most posh schools, failed efforts to coax Pat Buchanan to run third-party in 1996, and the past and future of the Constitution Party. .