After being at the side of the legendary conservative leader Howard J. Phillips from more than three decades, a Washington-native talked about his boss and friend who died April 20 after a long illness.
“In the 1970s, I went to meetings and so forth with the Conservative Caucus—there was even a 10th Congressional District Conservative Caucus, run by Helen Blackwell—I knew the people there, and one day I casually mentioned: ‘Hey, if you’re ever looking for anybody, let me know,’” said Arthur L. “Art” Harman, who was an aide to Phillips and produced his weekly television show “Conservative Crossroads.”
Harman, who is now a Capitol Hill aide to Rep. Stephen E. Stockman (R.-Texas), said he got a call the next morning and began a very nice 30-year career at the cutting edge of conservative politics.
The Conservative Caucus was founded by Phillips in 1974, in the aftermath of his resignation as the acting administrator of the Office Economic Opportunity for President Richard M. Nixon. Phillips took the job running OEO for the purposes of dismantling the agency, which had been in-charge of the “War on Poverty.”
Nixon promised Phillips that as the OEO administrator, he would have White House. When Nixon wavered, Philips quit.
Harman said, The Conservative Caucus continues to operate under the leadership of Phillips’ boyhood friend Peter J. Thomas, based in Warrenton, Va. “Howard used to joke that he and Peter ‘grew up in the same slums together.’”
The conservative stalwart was born in Boston Feb. 3, 1941, and although the political tides picked him up and took him away to Washington, but he never stopped loving his hometown or living the lessons he learned on its streets.
His first street fight was the fight over ratification of President James E. Carter’s treaty with Panama’s President Gen. Omar Torrijos, which transferred the canal and the American territory along the canal to the Panamanians.
Harman said ratification battle was the defining moment for the Conservative Caucus, then in its fourth year.
To rally opposition against the treaty, Phillips and Harman traveled across the country bringing the case directly to the American people, he said.
“The canal battle was probably one of the most publically, bitterly fought issues in public policy that I can remember,” he said. “There were so many stories of how votes were bought or arms were twisted,” he said.
Because the transfer of federal property could be construed as an expenditure, there was a movement to try to block the treaty in the House, which otherwise has no role in treaties, but that was thwarted, too, he said. “Members of the House were convinced and pushed not to say that this was giving away US property.”
The Senate ratified the treaty, 68 to 32, but by losing on principle, the conservatives built the foundation for the election of President Ronald W. Reagan in 1980.
Although he was a close friend and early supporter of President Ronald W. Reagan, Harman said Phillips was frustrated by his White House staffers, cabinet officers and unofficial advisors, such as Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, Secretary of the Treasury James K. Baker and others. “We took out full-page ads exposing the connections of some of his top staff.”
Phillips focused on the people around the president and he was trying to break through to Reagan to let him know they his own people were sabotaging his agenda, he said. “The Deavers, the Bakers and others had known backgrounds of being non-conservatives, anti-conservatives and internationalists, and so forth.”
In 1983, Phillips complained that the Reagan administration was pursuing a non-confrontational political strategy to mollify the Washington establishment and ignored the people who sustained Reagan, when he roamed the political wilderness.
In 1987, The Boston-bred conservative held a press conference to make was many saw as his final break with Reagan when he portrayed the president at the victim of a strong wife and a strong staff. “Howard truly had great respect for Reagan,” Harman said.
Reagan cut taxes, won the Cold War, he said.
“For all the things we wish President Reagan shouldn’t have done, for all the times his aides sold him out, for all the number of times the State Department crossed out the words: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ his legacy was truly superior.”
“Howard Phillips was always principled; he was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” he said. “There were so many times when others would succumb to the pressure to not talk about something,” he said.
During administrations of President George H. W. Bush and his son President George W. Bush, conservatives refused to criticize the compromises and outright liberal policy agendas of the Republican presidents. “Many conservatives tended to mute their criticism.”
Harman said his old boss, who retired from the Conservative Caucus in 2011 as his health weakened, was never concerned about polls or popularity.
“The difference between Howard and some politicians with a capital “P,” is that Howard had a very clear philosophy,” he said.
“There’s many who don’t have a strong philosophy or they are conservative because it is popular and when faced with lobbyists—I work for Congress now and every day I see them come in—and their cause is, in their mind’s eye, the greatest, and so forth, and it’s easy to succumb,” he said. “Too many do because they don’t have principles.”
It makes a difference with the country’s interests are on the line, he said.
“When the White House is on the phone and their saying: ‘We need you,’ or when the speaker’s office is calling, or when your chairmanship is threatened, if they don’t have that principle, and they are unwilling to defend that to the very end as Howard would, that’s where they are going to fall down,” he said.
There were many people, who we thought were conservative until the Panama Canal fight,” he said.
“Today, whether its amnesty or background checks or the Second Amendment, if you don’t have that really sound philosophy worked out in your mind, you’re prone to being picked off and failing, when the times get really, really tough,” he said.
Harman said he remembers other conservatives and conservative groups going silent, or finding ways to excuse why they were not on the conservative side, he said.
“I could always go to work proudly, knowing that I don’t have to compromise and my organization is not going to compromise,” he said.
It was great to have a boss who could not be bought, he said.
“He was willing to sacrifice members, and if needed, get on the front pages of all the newspapers, standing up for conservative principles,” he said. “He did that unfailingly.”
A native of Boston, Phillips never gave up his boyhood love for the Boston Braves, then the Milwaukee Braves and finally the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals.
“He was a baseball fan,” Harman said. “He knew all the players, he knew all the teams.” On his blog, Phillips would often post stories about baseball and his love of the game. “He had all sorts of baseball stories.”
It was also growing up in Boston that taught him about politics, he said. Phillips was the twice elected president of the Harvard University Student Council and was later the chairman of the Boston Republican City Committee. “He knew the inside-outside and dark side of Boston politics.”
Once while campaigning in a Boston neighborhood, Phillips knocked on a door and the housewife, who answered the door, invited him inside to meet her husband, he said. “He was ushered into the bedroom to meet the mister, and the mister was stone cold dead. Howard was, of course, very gracious and he thanked the lady for allowing him to meet her husband.”
Seeking the votes of Boston’s departed was actually very critical in a close election, he said.
“One time, as the Boston Republican chairman, he sat down with the Boston Democratic chairman because the city did not purge the voting records and there were a lot of dead people, who voted with more regularity that you or I,” he said. “Howard wanted the voting records purged.”
The Democrat would not budge, he said. “Finally, they worked out a compromise. The way Howard put it: ‘Two years after death we’ll purge them, because within those two years at least people would have a good sense of how the dearly departed would have voted.’”
At the end, Harman said he wanted to keep his last conversations with Phillips private, but the two kept in touch after his retirement and last met a few weeks before the great man passed.
“It was very nice being able to visit with him,” he said.
“We had a good chat about all sorts of things,” he said.
“We reminisced about old times.”