This week we lost a great lady of the right. For seventy years Phyllis Schlafly was a warrior on the frontlines of the battles to defend the Republic against its enemies on the left both domestic and foreign. On Monday she passed at the age of 92, on the eve of the publication of her 27th book, The Conservative Case For Trump. For seventy years Phyllis fought in the culture wars that have been mostly lost by the right, in no small part because Phyllis was virtually unique both in the intelligence she brought to the battle and the energy and personal courage she carried into the fight.
Phyllis and I were from very different ends of the political spectrum, so that even when I became a conservative we didn’t see eye to eye on some of the issues that were at the center of her concerns. But despite this it was she who reached out to me, rather than I to her. I took this as a testament to the fact that she understood the big issue - the nature of the war that the political left had declared on our country, and that made us allies. The other issues were details that could be argued over once the war was won.
The first time she invited me to speak at one of her events I launched into a criticism of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom Phyllis admired. McCarthy was of course right that there was a sinister Communist conspiracy to undermine America and help our Soviet enemy to win the Cold War. My quarrel with the Senator was that his recklessness and overreach damaged the anti-Communist cause. When I was done Phyllis came over to scowl and wag her finger at me and let me know she disapproved of these remarks. But she did it very briefly – almost as just those gestures – and with the kind of warmth one would use with a wayward son. I knew then and there that we were still friends and were going to be in the same foxhole, in the same army for years to come. I knew that she understood the nature of the big war, and in that war she and I were destined to be on the same side and have each other’s back.
That was 25 years ago. I spoke at other events for her, and she for me, and in 2009 the Horowitz Freedom Center gave Phyllis its Annie Taylor Award, named after the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. We had created this as the perfect award for conservatives who unlike the left are the generally outnumbered actors speaking truth to power – vicious and unscrupulous and overwhelming power – and who often must do so without the support of other conservatives who know better but are too busy worrying over their shoulders at what the New York Times and the Washington Post and the network media think to have the courage of their own convictions.
Courage was something that Phyllis had in abundance. I remember as a newly minted conservative watching a video of her appearance before a university audience and being utterly appalled at the vulgarity of the attacks they mounted against her. The left hated her because she had led the successful fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, a change to the Constitution presented as progressive, which would have deprived women of the protections that which years of experience had inspired, and democratic legislatures had put in place. While I understood the left’s motivations I was still shocked by the savagery with which they taunted her in attacks that were very personal and very ugly. They were especially unnerving because they were directed against an accomplished woman, in her sixties or so at the time, who presented herself very traditionally. It was that image, which they saw through their ideological lenses as weakness, that they were maliciously seeking to exploit. But instead of fleeing from the stage as they fully expected she would, she faced them down with all the intellectual and moral confidence familiar to those who know and love her.
In her own way Phyllis is an emblem of the fractures on the political right that have surfaced in this election season. There has been a lot of talk about “Constitutional Conservatives,” as though these were an endangered species. In fact, judging from the lip service given to foundational principles by conservatives and Republicans alike, far from being a threatened breed, “Constitutional Conservatives” are more like a ubiquitous one. What elected Republican official doesn’t campaign on core principles like limited government, religious freedom, individual rights, and separation of powers? It’s not constitutionalists who are rare in the legions of the right. It’s activists and leaders like Phyllis who are willing to fight – and to fight against great odds and at great personal cost - for what they believe. That’s the rarity. That is the example Phyllis set for the rest of us. And it cost her dearly right to the end.
Phyllis threw her weight behind the Republican nominee in this year’s critical presidential election because she felt Trump got the big issues – the big war – right. Her very last article compared Trump to Reagan because, “Trump is the first candidate since Reagan who is comfortable using Reagan’s vocabulary of winning. Trump has pledged to make America ‘win’ again, instead of being cheated and outmaneuvered by our adversaries and even our so-called allies.” For this endorsement Phyllis became the target of an effort by anti-Trump board members of her Eagle Forum Foundation to remove her from an organization she had created nearly fifty years before and is her legacy. This attack – now in the courts - from people she had trusted as her friends and supporters came in her 91st year, when she was struggling with illness and mortality, something that would have broken a lesser person. But Phyllis was born to fight, and fight she did in a battle that her true supporters will have to carry on posthumously.
Not long ago Phyllis invited me to come to St. Louis to speak at her annual Eagle Forum event scheduled to take place a week from now. I was very much looking forward to seeing her, and joining her in the trenches as always. I will miss her terribly. We all will.
David’s new book The Left In Power: Clinton To Obama will be published next month.