By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country.
As a Washington reporter, the angriest phone call I ever fielded was from Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist who died yesterday at age 66.
It was winter 2004. Weyrich had told me, off the record, of a U.S. senator who had recently attended a meeting of the Arlington Group, a powerful new coalition of Christian right activists whose ranks included Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Southern Baptist Convention public policy chief Richard Land. The Arlington Group's members had taken vows of secrecy that barred them talking from to the press about their meetings.
Still, Weyrich had told me—off the record—that a certain U.S. senator had appeared before the group. Now a fuming Weyrich was on the phone, having just gotten word that I'd told a fellow Arlington Group member that I knew that that senator had appeared at one of the coalition's recent get-togethers. I told Weyrich the truth: Another source had given me the name of the senator—on the record—so I hadn't betrayed my word to him. He hung up in a huff anyway.
A few days later, I FedExed Weyrich a copy of my story about the Arlington Group. Before I knew it, we were talking again.
Weyrich even let me attend the legendary Wednesday afternoon meetings he hosted in the basement of the Free Congress Foundation—a Washington-based advocacy group he helped found, in addition to the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority—in which dozens of culture warriors gathered weekly to plot strategy around issues like abortion and immigration. Those meetings were also officially off the record and closed to the press.
Why did Weyrich feed me confidential information and grant me behind-the-scenes access? Maybe in hopes that I would get the word out that this behind-the-scenes strategist was a key architect of the conservative movement. But I think Weyrich's impulse was less cynical and more generous, born of a democratic instinct toward transparency that's lacking in many quarters of the Christian right.
Weyrich was a small-d democrat. He believed in granting little guys access to the most powerful players in Washington. His Wednesday meetings attracted emissaries from the White House, senators, and congressmen, presidential candidates, and top officials from the Republican National Committee. But the powwows also drew lesser lights, like Republican Party county chairman from nearby states and the heads of tiny conservative organizations that existed mostly in the form of letterheads.
Every Wednesday Congress was in session, over a catered lunch of insipid chicken or beef and steamed-till-they're-limp vegetables, Weyrich would open the floor to these smalltime conservative activists, who'd prod, query, and excoriate the GOP bigwigs—usually for being insufficiently conservative. This wasn't some small portion of the hour-long Wednesday powwows. It was how every meeting operated, from beginning to end. This was democracy in action.
I like to think that that's why Weyrich was such a good source for me. As a small-d Democrat, he believed in access and transparency, including letting the news media know how the conservative movement worked, even if he was talking off the record.
Few other Christian right activists are so forthcoming. Many prefer secrecy over transparency; some of the most influential don't return reporters' phone calls.
Such opacity might serve the short-term strategic goals of the movement. But it starves an open society of an essential ingredient: information. As Christian right figures pay tribute Weyrich in the days ahead, I hope they'll consider following his example of dealing generously with the press.