Howard Phillips; ideologue transformed conservatism

Mr. Phillips rose to prominence when he was named acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity by Nixon.
Associated Press/File 1973
Mr. Phillips rose to prominence when he was named acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity by Nixon.

WASHINGTON — Howard Phillips, a paladin of conservatism who helped lead the New Right movement in the 1970s and later ran three times as a third-party presidential candidate to defend the bedrock values he believed many Republicans had abandoned, died last Saturday at his home in Vienna, Va. A native of Cambridge, Mass., he was 72.

Involved in Republican campaigns and causes since he was president of the Harvard Student Council in 1960, Mr. Phillips rose to prominence in Washington when President Nixon named him acting director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Mr. Phillips’s chief task, widely understood at the time, was to dismantle the social programs created through Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

A federal judge ultimately ruled such action to be illegal, and, to Mr. Phillips’s profound disillusionment, Nixon complied. Mr. Phillips resigned. He had been in office for only months but long enough to conclude that the conservative movement desperately needed a new burst of energy.


‘‘I was confronted with evil, pure and simple,’’ he told National Review, referring to what he and conservative colleagues regarded as the agency’s record of funding liberal groups. ‘‘I was not there very long when I discovered that OEO was the war room for those that were trying to overturn what had once been America.’’

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In 1974, he founded the Conservative Caucus, a grass-roots organizing machine that he would lead as chairman until 2011. His group quickly gained momentum, and Mr. Phillips joined Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and other conservative leaders who met weekly at Viguerie’s home in McLean to rally what became known as the New Right.

‘‘If there ever was something resembling Hillary Clinton’s vast right wing conspiracy,’’ Viguerie joked in an online tribute to Mr. Phillips, ‘‘this was it.’’

While the Old Right focused on economic conservatism, free market economics, and a vigorous national defense, the New Right stressed conservative positions on abortion, gun control, school busing, prayer in schools, and other social issues that would transform US politics over the following decades.

Mr. Phillips ‘‘was our true north,’’ Viguerie said in an interview Wednesday. ‘‘If he thought we were not being exactly consistent with our principles . . . he was very quick to remind us that we had wandered off the reservation.’’


Describing organizations behind the New Right movement, the Washington Post once called the Conservative Caucus ‘‘the most militant group of them all.’’ Mr. Phillips said his group was ‘‘engaged in guerrilla warfare on 435 different fronts,’’ referring to the 435 congressional districts.

‘‘Conservatives used to believe their job was to lose as slowly as possible,’’ Mr. Phillips once told The New York Times. ‘‘I don’t just want to slow the train down; I want to put it on another track.’’

In 1975, he, Viguerie, and others leaders met with former governor Ronald Reagan of California in Washington and tried to persuade him to run for president the next year as an independent — an opportunity, in their view, to further invigorate the conservative movement.

Reagan declined, the Post reported, on the grounds that he was a Republican first and conservative second.

Reagan failed to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 but had landslide election victories in 1980 and 1984. For Mr. Phillips, Reagan’s conservative bona fides were lacking. After the president’s dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Phillips called him a ‘‘useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.’’


Along with other New Right leaders, Mr. Phillips clashed with Reagan over the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. They ­regarded her as insufficiently opposed to abortion rights.

‘‘All they've done,’’ Mr. Phillips said of the Reagan administration, ‘‘is throw us a few bones to keep the dogs from biting their heels.’’

President George H.W. Bush, too, proved insufficiently conservative. In 1992, disaffected with Republicans, Mr. Phillips founded the US Taxpayers Party, later renamed the Constitution Party.

The group opposed abortion and advocated for the elimination of the federal income tax, US disengagement from international organizations such as the United Nations, and the restriction of government to functions such as the national defense and mail service.

He ran for president in 1992, 1996, and 2000. ‘‘If God wants us to win, we'll win,’’ he told an interviewer in 1996.

That year, his best performance, Mr. Phillips received 0.20 percent of the vote.

‘‘Every vote I get is a victory,’’ he said.

Howard Jay Phillips was born in Cambridge and grew up in Brighton, Mass. His father was an insurance broker, his mother a homemaker. Mr. Phillips was raised Jewish. He later converted to Christianity.

While studying at Harvard University, he participated in the founding of the Young Americans for Freedom at the home of conservative author and intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn., in 1960. Two years later, Mr. Phillips graduated from college.

Mr. Phillips was unyielding in his views and said victory was not always easily measured. ‘‘In the long run,’’ he once said, ‘‘we lose only if we fail to fight.’’

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.