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By Melanie Asmar
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The information highway begins with a sharp right turn just outside Windsor. From the roof of the Windsor Center, a small office building on the edge of this farm town fifty miles north of Denver, your brain will board a parabolic dish paid for by beer prince Jeffrey Coors and travel 23,000 miles above the planet to an orbiting satellite. An instant later you will beam back down to Earth and the Washington, D.C., studios of National Empowerment Television, the newborn brainchild of former Denver newsman Paul M. Weyrich, who years ago coined the term "Moral Majority" for Jerry Falwell.
Much to the chagrin of liberals, the only political lanes currently in use on the highway are on the right.
Weyrich himself has been interactive his entire life. A tireless fundraiser and networker, he's one of the primary people responsible for the dramatic growth of conservative think tanks, academicians, political operatives and electoral clout over the past twenty years. Now he's president of America's first 24-hour ideological channel. NET offers a raft of conservative talk shows and such fare as Modern War, the only TV show devoted to military strategy (including a segment during which viewers can phone in their solutions to tactical problems). Unlikely to be picked up by TCI or most other cable systems until the day of 500 channels actually arrives, for now NET can be plucked out of the ether for free by owners of satellite dishes.
The network, Weyrich likes to say, is "C-SPAN with an attitude." But then, he always was a phrasemaker. And on certain Tuesday nights, the combative Weyrich really cops an attitude. That's when, under the banner C-NET, he sends special live "action segments" over a narrower beam to hundreds of selected citizen "coalition groups" throughout the country. On this closed-circuit broadcast, the veteran political organizer uses guests such as Pat Buchanan to exhort middle-class Americans to take action on specific bills or issues facing Congress. Through C-NET, Weyrich also radiates practical information on how to raise liberal amounts of funds and conservative consciousness. His aides caution letter-writing citizens to "avoid such buzzwords as `New World Order' and `liberals.'" Like communist cell meetings, these C-NET shows aren't meant to be seen by everyone. As Weyrich tells his viewers: "We don't want to reveal all of our strategy."
If Weyrich's shows push your buttons, you can push his. Back in Windsor, animal scientist Richard Hergert, organizer of one citizen group, decides to do just that.
Hergert is a farm boy, a former Windsor High School quarterback who spent the Sixties getting an education in animal nutrition at Colorado State University and the University of California-Davis. "I was a not a flower child," he notes dryly. A friendly fellow who gets intensely engulfed in political talk, Hergert became involved with C-NET about a year and a half ago, when Weyrich began his broadcasts.
Hergert and his partner, Jim Frazier, a video producer with offices in the Windsor Center, were connected to Weyrich through a friend of a friend; they decided to host the C-NET meetings as a public service, renting space from Hergert's cousin, owner of the Windsor Center. Frazier and Hergert were already active in conservative politics in sprawling Weld County, the fourth largest agricultural county in the United States. Frazier is involved with the Christian Coalition, televangelist Pat Robertson's political arm. And Hergert's wife, Mary, chairs the Weld County Republican Party, although he says she's not involved in the C-NET venture. The partners have also set up a company called American Lyceum to encourage public discussions of politics. Not surprisingly, they have had difficulty finding the time to promote their C-NET meetings. On one recent Tuesday, only a handful of folks show up for the evening's broadcast. They enter a little room in the Windsor Center, help themselves to fig bars and hot cider, and settle back to stare at a TV screen.
There are technical problems, however, not to mention a C-NET schedule change, and the impatient gathering thins from five to two by the time Empowerment Outreach Live begins. Weyrich's first guest is David L. Caprara, president of The Empowerment Network (not to be confused with the National Empowerment Television network). When George Bush was president, Caprara was Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp's "point man for empowerment." (Kemp now heads Empower America, not to be confused with either National Empowerment Television or The Empowerment Network.)
Hergert, feeling empowered for some reason, decides to call Weyrich's show. He walks over to a phone at the back of the room and places a call to C-NET. Moments later Hergert's voice is on the air. His left hand cradling the phone and his right hand touching the remote-control device that monitors the sound of Weyrich's broadcast, Hergert ventures out onto the info highway to pass on a highly personal complaint about his powerlessness in the face of the government's mishandling of a custody situation involving one of his children.
"We've heard from a number of parents like you," Caprara tells Hergert as Weyrich nods sympathetically.
Hergert's call is a bit beside the point, adding to the generally ragged air of C-NET. But raggedness and confusion are to be expected in the early days of a new technology. Although he started C-NET in late 1992, Weyrich didn't launch the full-scale NET until last December.
The Colorado coordinator for C-NET, Cindy Gustafson, says Weyrich's network offers a chance for conservatives from "a little group over here and a little group over there" to get together. She takes advantage of the C-NET meetings to do some networking for her own little project: the Christian Coalition's "leadership schools."
"Little" is certainly the operative word for the size of C-NET's audiences, despite the fact that Crested Butte magnate Howard "Bo" Callaway is NET's board chairman. Until recently, when a Colorado Springs group began watching the broadcast, Windsor and Denver were the only towns to host these meetings. And conservatives haven't exactly flocked to Denver's C-NET conclaves, either. At one showing of Family Forum Live last fall, scheduled for the same evening as the premiere of ABC's controversial series NYPD Blue, only about twenty people gathered in the basement of an office building at I-25 and Colorado Boulevard to watch Weyrich talk to Pat Buchanan about assaults on family values by "cultural radicals."
The scene had a conspiratorial feel: Buchanan had just come from a taping of Crossfire, on CNN, and the jovial but acerbic Weyrich greeted him by wisecracking, "Here nobody's going to give an opposing point of view." During the action segments Weyrich and his minions tried to stir the masses into flooding Congress, newspapers and radio talk shows with letters and phone calls. As these televised men in suits plotted a conservative revolution, one woman in the Denver audience--like Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities--quietly tended to her knitting.
An overthrow hardly seems imminent, however. Last month's Family Forum Live in Denver drew only six people. But even that is a larger audience than liberals draw. The left doesn't yet have an ideological channel, and that drives Congresswoman Pat Schroeder nuts.
"It makes me crazy," says the Denver Democrat. "The mainstream universities and churches go on retreats, issue papers and conduct seminars. I tell them it's really irrelevant. I think there's an elitist attitude about TV.
"The right is proselytizing. And I think it's more effective than we realize."
Over the past two decades Weyrich has been one of the right's most active proselytizers. He has helped change the face of Washington by bringing together religious and secular conservatives, linking Catholics with evangelical Protestants and flooding the city with eager young ideologues. During the same period Schroeder has been one of the right's favorite whipping girls. Typically, she whips back. When asked whether she thinks Weyrich is effective, the congresswoman replies: "He's effective in raising a lot of money for Paul Weyrich. They accuse politicians of raising money. What about these guys? Brother!"
Zipping around D.C. with cellular phone in hand after doing his daily NET show Direct Line, Paul Weyrich gives a pungent review of President Bill Clinton's performance: "It's good for us and bad for the country. I'm confident we couldn't have put NET together if Bush had been president."
Although no engineer, Weyrich has always had a thing for technology, old or new. An old Weyrich friend, Ed Reutz, head of community affairs for the Denver Water Department, remembers when Paul was a Boy Scout from a working-class family back in Racine, Wisconsin, and sought his help in obtaining a merit badge in railroading. Only a few years later, in the late Fifties, Weyrich joined with the slightly older Reutz and a few others in an attempt to save the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee electric railway from extinction. Calling themselves the "trolley jollies," they badgered mayors and newspapers in every town along the rail line.
"I was all of fourteen or fifteen years old," Weyrich recalls, "and we were all sitting around the kitchen table in my parents' house. We cooked up a ten-point plan to save the North Shore railroad. And we made the front pages of every paper from Chicago to Milwaukee. I thought, `This is crazy.' But it really taught me how civic groups and interest groups can affect public policy."
Reutz, who has remained a friend over the years, remembers Weyrich as a serious, extremely bright kid with a "sophisticated sense of humor. He took a depth of interest in things. At age twelve he was deep into the mechanics of electric railway cars." In high school Weyrich won a national radio broadcasting award; he later worked for a station in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After stints as a reporter at the Milwaukee Sentinel and with CBS in Milwaukee, Weyrich moved to Denver in 1966, where he became news director at radio station KQXI. Weyrich's "day-in-the-life" campaign pieces brought a call right after the '66 election from one of his profile subjects, the late U.S. Senator Gordon Allott.
"I went to the federal building, expecting to be chewed out," recalls Weyrich. "And instead he hired me as his press secretary." Weyrich, who had no college degree, impressed the Colorado Republican with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate and its members, Reutz recalls.
Although Allott lost his Senate seat in 1972 to liberal Democrat Floyd Haskell, Weyrich was rolling. He darted around Capitol Hill like a hummingbird, working out of the office of conservative Nebraska senator Carl Curtis, even commandeering then-vice president Spiro Agnew's digs for late-night political organizing and campaign fundraising. Weyrich persuaded Joe Coors to start spending money in D.C. After a couple of abortive attempts, they established a think tank called the Heritage Foundation, along with what later was known as the Free Congress Foundation. In a 1975 Washington Post series on Joe Coors's growing political clout in Washington, Weyrich strongly denied that Coors ran the Heritage Foundation, but he did admit that when the organization first got started, its internal correspondence was bundled up at the end of each day and sent to Coors in Golden. (Joe's son Jeff serves on the board of the Free Congress Foundation. Another son, Grover, is on the Heritage board, but Weyrich is no longer officially connected with that foundation.)
Together Coors and Weyrich also set up Television News Inc. to counter what they saw as the national networks' liberal bias. But TVN, the CNN of its day, was too far ahead of its time. Facing the difficulties and expense of transmission before the days of satellites, the network lasted only a few years and never went national. When TVN officials tried to convince Joe Coors to hang on because advanced technology was right around the corner, the brewer thought it sounded too much like "Buck Rogers," Weyrich recalls.
But if TVN was a failure, there were many successes. Other conservative millionaires, such as Gulf Oil heir Richard Mellon Scaife, had begun supporting Weyrich's projects. Fellow conservative Richard Viguerie brought his direct-mail genius to bear on Washington, resulting in a plethora of organizations and sophisticated mailing lists of contributors. Weyrich set up regular study groups for conservative members of the House and Senate, stoking young firebrands like Representative Bill Armstrong (later a Colorado senator and progenitor of Amendment 2, and currently a Free Congress boardmember). In March 1975, Armstrong and others received special permission to use an hour on the House floor to discuss an alternative federal budget proposed by Heritage staffers. Liberals had spent decades building up their own network of foundations, think tanks and academicians. Weyrich simply borrowed these techniques.
"I always look at what the enemy is doing and, if they're winning, copy it," he said at the time. "You know, conservatives are notoriously difficult to organize." So he backed up his words with action, helping to set up such groups as the Council for National Policy, Coalitions for America, the International Policy Forum, the National Council for Democracy and the American Legislative Exchange Council, each of which issued reports, held conferences and attracted young zealots from college campuses to the Capitol.
They weren't like the student leftists. They were young men in suits who hung out on the Hill. "We are different from previous generations of conservatives," Weyrich declared. "We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country."
Observers labeled them the "New Right."
That was fine with Weyrich. The "old right" believed in the idea of "live and let live," he wrote, but that idea "is not reflective of Christian social teachings. A common assumption of New Right activists is that government should support certain moral truths...It is basic to my philosophy that God's truth ought to be manifest politically." Weyrich's Christian soldiers were on the march by the late Seventies. While evangelicals stewed over Brother Jimmy Carter's liberal heresies, Weyrich, Viguerie and their allies mounted a campaign to get conservative preachers such as Jerry Falwell into national politics.
One day in 1979 Falwell sent his plane to fetch Weyrich and other conservative activists for a meeting. As they waited for one more expected guest, Weyrich recalls, he laid out his pitch to Falwell: "I said, `Well, there's a majority that believes in traditional values, what you might call a moral majority.' And I went on and Falwell says, `Stop, stop, go back. What was it you said?' I said, `Moral majority.' He turned to his assistant and said, `That's it. That's what we'll call it.'"
The Moral Majority exploded on the scene. During the Reagan years, the Heritage Foundation and all the other conservative organizations Weyrich had helped to create gained access to power. Young, Weyrich-trained congressmen climbed into prominence--Dan Quayle among them. By the late Eighties the Heritage Foundation was a respected institution, albeit one with a distinct rightward tilt. Newly elected conservatives in Congress attended Weyrich's training sessions on how D.C. works. (They still do.) After Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the Soviet Union's reins, Weyrich conducted seminars in Eastern Europe for budding Soviet democrats--that's with a small "d". Weyrich's own beliefs became even more conservative. In 1990 he was ordained a deacon in the Melkite version of Catholicism, which follows Eastern Orthodox rites but still recognizes the Pope as its leader. Some evangelical Protestants--especially those who think the New World Order is a papal plot--are wary of Weyrich and other Catholic conservatives, including Pat Buchanan and William Bennett. But Weyrich himself takes a broader view of the political coalition between conservatives of all faiths.
"People are being forced to work together because of the very strong attack on the family," he says. "It's not that conservative Catholics want to be working with evangelicals. But in a battle, that's what you do."
Weyrich didn't just jump on the family values bandwagon. More than a decade ago he predicted that "as pro-family groups become better educated in the political process, a lot of Congressmen who today thumb their noses at the whole notion of a pro-family coalition are going to be humbled."
He has always seen life as a battle between good and evil. "Paul has a very, very strong sense of morality," says longtime friend Reutz. And the weapons of war could be just about anything. "It may not be with bullets and it may not be with rockets and missiles, but it is a war nevertheless," Weyrich wrote over a decade ago. "It is a war of ideology, it's a war of ideas, it's a war about our way of life. And it has to be fought with the same intensity, I think, and dedication as you would fight a shooting war."
Perhaps it's that intensity that explains why Weyrich rubs a lot of people--including some of his fellow conservatives--raw. Maybe, though, it's just raw power.
"He's worn that ring of power," says a GOP insider who's very familiar with Weyrich's activities and for that reason requests anonymity. "And he is very powerful, because he's great press copy, and that is more fearsome than an army of hundreds of thousands. And he's mean, so people fear him. He's like a cornered rat, a scrapper, a street fighter."
Sometimes, the insider notes, Weyrich has turned on his fellow conservatives. When George Bush--the kind of patrician Republican with whom Weyrich, with his blue-collar origins, always has had problems--tried to name Texas senator John Tower as Secretary of Defense in 1989, Weyrich took the congressional witness stand to denounce Tower as a womanizer and drunkard. The widely publicized testimony helped sabotage the nomination.
"And this was after Weyrich had more access to Bush than to Reagan," says the GOP insider. "The Tower thing is the best public example of how he operates. At a lunch a year later, Weyrich and one of his sons were talking about it, and the son says, `You really did it, Pop.' And Weyrich was beaming. It was just a tremendous notch in his gun."
But Weyrich's vituperative attacks can't help but make some people respond in kind. "Physically," says the insider, "Weyrich still looks like the kid with the briefcase, the third-grader trying to get to school ten minutes early."
Weyrich, now 51 and sans the thick eyeglasses that once made him look like the class nerd, suggests that some people criticize him because they're jealous of his success. But he also acknowledges that his personality can get in his way. "If people say I'm abrasive, they're right," he says. "It's something I've had to work on my whole life. I don't suffer fools."
He finds it amusing that people fear him. "I've never bitten anybody's finger off," he says. "I don't have any guns. Why would you want to be afraid of me? I don't have any weapon but the truth. Often the image I have with people is so different from reality. Now, with the daily TV show, which can be seen across the country, I think that's going to change."
And in the process, NET could change the country. "If it was anybody doing a network other than Weyrich," the insider says, "it would be all show."
Years ago, however, Weyrich recognized the political potential of technology. "The New Right," he wrote, "recognizes that technology, like the media, is morally neutral and exists to be taken advantage of by anybody."
Even Weyrich, however, has his troubles mastering the new technology. Judging from the rocky start of C-NET, now down to a once-a-month "action" show, and the numbing spectacle of Weyrich's own patter (Rush Limbaugh he ain't), it could be tough to keep an audience--any audience.
Last Tuesday in Windsor, a snowy, cold night held the crowd down to zero. Jim Frazier mans the fort; his partner is in California on business. It's a lonely job: Not a single person other than a reporter and photographer shows up to see the last episode of Empowerment Outreach Live. No one--in Windsor, at least--chuckles when Weyrich jokes about second banana Grover Norquist's legendary cheapness. No one nods affirmatively when Representative John Kasich of Ohio blasts Clinton's budget. No one gasps when a prank caller tries to sneak an obscenity past a good-natured Weyrich.
Frazier, who is as calm as his friend Hergert is intense, is philosophical about the no-shows. While expressing admiration for the ideas he hears on NET and C-NET, he says the new technology demands new ways of communicating. "These shows are too slow and too boring," Frazier says, while Weyrich drones on in the background. "It's guys in suits talking." It may be different once the information superhighway really is in place, linking millions of people via computers, fiber-optic phone lines and interactive video. But in the meantime, Frazier has his own ideas about how to step up the action.
"I hope the future of this is that every person becomes a reporter," he says. He envisions camera crews of "common people asserting their rights" by invading government agencies, showing the masses exactly how their tax dollars are being spent. He also sees televised "high-speed deliberations," in which groups of people tackle an issue and are required to come to a conclusion within an extremely brief period--sort of a third legislative body.
Not everything Frazier dreams about would be as intrusive as a Mike Wallace interview. Video crews could seek out interesting government science projects, he says, and show their fellow citizens why they should be proud of what their government is doing.
"Cameras will be everywhere, and people will be asking questions," he says. "There will be feedback to and from the common people. Right now we are experiencing media neurosis. We haven't yet conquered television and made it give freedom to the common people."
Frazier gestures toward Paul Weyrich's image on the screen and adds, "This is the first step.