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Published by: George Kosch 06-Jun-13
'I had rather be right than president.' The life and times of Howard Jay Phillips, the man who changed America but wouldn't change himself. Dead at 72, April 20, 2013.
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.

Author's program note. On February 7, 1839 one of the greatest of senators, Henry Clay of Kentucky, gave one of his most important of speeches... and in the process he handed his numerous detractors just what they needed to ridicule him for the rest of his life. (1777-1852)

His remarks that notable day were about slavery and how this key issue should be handled with minimum damage to the Great Republic. He had a mission that day. He wanted to be seen not as a politician but as a statesman who could rise above, take the long view, tell the unpalatable truths and so lead the increasingly factious and dangerously divided nation to the Promised Land.

This man who so desperately craved the presidency, and was doing everything he could to get it in 1840, told the biggest lie of his life when he said the words which became notorious the minute he uttered them... because every political being in the land... and that included every single citizen of the young nation... knew these lofty, sententious words of bloated pomposity were the whopper of whoppers. "I had rather be right than be president," he intoned... and in just 8 words of self laudatory moralizing ensured he never would be. Thus the man of the people disconnected from the citizenry who knew him so well and who he must have to win.

"Why ol' Henry would kill his own mama if it would get him elected," and whether you were a Whig like Clay or partisan of some other party, you knew that was true... for Clay was a political animal to his finger tips and knew how to play the great game not with pontification and condescension but with hands on dexterity, flexibility, good humor, focusing on the specific and practical... for such are the realities of what it takes to rule real people and their imperfect natures.

Had he said instead that he stood up to save the Union, the greatest experiment on Earth, and that he would use every expedient in his power to achieve the objective, why then the nation already renowned for doing whatever was necessary to move mountains and perfect the federal principle would have revered him the more; why then he would have burnished his already great reputation... and even snagged the presidency his breathtaking mendacity ensured he would never achieve.

"I stand before you a citizen of the Great Republic ready to do a citizen's labor on behalf of our Great Idea, the greatest ever forged."

This is what Henry Clay at his best would have said... for that man knew how to achieve great results and knew that without such results the nation would stultify. Standing on a soap box prattling on with windy rhetoric was pointless. Doing what was necessary to win was everything... for the Great Republic was all about winning.

And this was something Howard Jay Phillips never seemed to grasp. He was a grandstander, a man who made gestures, not policy. A man of hot words who thought such words sufficed... but they never did nor can. There must be victories, sweet victories. To get them there must be compromise, there must be deals, and Howard Phillips would not stoop to make the deals victorious parties and their leaders required.

That is why he never became president and why the men he tilted with a la Don Quixote did. For the first principle of success in the Great Republic is: victory for without this there can be nothing, a point with which Phillips could not have disagreed more .

Thus he became that most uncomfortable of beings: the gadfly, often right in the particulars, but clueless on the big picture which he disdained to the point of being consistently impossible to work with, disagreeable, and entirely insufferable. In short order, he got the reputation of being "difficult" and so his fate was sealed.

Some background.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University and Veritas is widely regarded as the capital of liberal ideas and progressive, ground-breaking notions, leaving the development of conservative antidotes to the lesser folk at Yale, or worse, Dartmouth of the secret societies and an anti-social kookery born of copious liquors and dark forests.

But such deduction would be wrong, for Fair Harvard and its neighborhood, with its unending supply of the very bright and terminally ambitious has always proven fertile ground for their insistent, often unsettling, even revolutionary (albeit right wing) point of view. So it was for Phillips, born in Cambridge, Harvard Class of '62, the white lightning of his class, college, and community. He was smart, good looking, indefatigable and persistent. Such traits got him elected president of Harvard's student council and then re-elected for a second term.

Thus his electability was tested and confirmed... and that made him a potential player in Massachusetts politics, but not as you might suppose as a Democrat in this, JFK's native state. Oh, no, Phillips was a Republican. And as chairman of the Boston Republican Committee he looked likely for better things. President Nixon gave him a big boost by appointing him director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

But he didn't last in this stepping stone to greater things. Instead he burned a bridge by taking Nixon to task for failing to live up to his promise to dismantle social programs created by President Johnson's War on Poverty. Thus did Phillips indicate that he was not going to be moving up as expected; presidents rightly expect loyalty, and Phillips, for whatever reason, was unable to give it. It was an unmistakable portent of things to come... Phillips had to have his way... or he quit.

This wasn't politics... it was petulance, and it was certain to offend the maximum number of people. Phillips didn't care... he was on the right side, doing God's business God's way (for of course God was on his side). His vehicle was the Conservative Caucus he founded in 1974 and would lead until 2011.

It caught fire with conservative leaders like Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and others who met weekly at Viguerie's home in McLean, Virginia to rally what became known as the New Right. They were ideologues, adamant, determined to regain an America they thought gone seriously awry. They wanted change! They wanted it now! And bit by bit they became power players not least because they developed and controlled the all important mailing lists of sympathetic conservatives... Howard Phillips was their recognized leader every step of the way.

In the process they changed the debate from what the Old Right advocated, with insufficient vigor, namely economic conservatism, free market economics, and a vigorous national defense to a red-hot social agenda that ignited people... and divided the Great Republic from stem to stern, anti abortion, no gun control, the need for prayer in schools but no forced busing, the defense of marriage... each one calculated to energize the faithful, get them to work and, always, maximize their financial support.

Compromise was banned... it was war a la outrance... the only kind of action they knew, and it lead them not merely to attack Democrafts and other noxious advocates of One World and other pernicious isms... but the real enemy, those who were insufficiently conservative... like Sandra Day O'Connor whose historic nomination to the Supreme Court they vigorously opposed... and even the most important conservative voice of the 20th century, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

It was all such fun, convulsing America, masters of the well timed stink bomb, but in truth they were pining for the presidency, no more so than Howard Phillips and so he did that which showed how little he understood the Great Republic and how he lost his bearings. He set up a rinky-dink third party, the Constitution Party, and became the Harold Stassen of the right, running in 1992, 1996 and 2000. "If God wants us to win, we'll win," he told an interviewer in 1996. God didn't. Phillips for all his many gifts had become an embarrassing irrelevance, a player no longer.

No doubt somewhere along in this abashing declension Phillips remembered Henry Clay's 8 highfalutin words, "I had rather be right than president." No doubt he took what comfort he could from them. Perhaps he didn't know what some smart aleck at the time had said in response: "rather be right that president? In fact Senator Clay was neither", and neither was Howard Phillips. Moreover, he couldn't claim the consolation prize of having introduced the Mint Julep to Washington, D.C. That high honor unquestionably belongs to Henry Clay, three times a candidate for president, three times a loser..


For the music to accompany this article, I have selected "In the Sweet By-and- By", published in 1868, music by Joseph P. Webster; lyrics by S. Fillmore Bennett. It reminds that there is a place for all of us, that "beautiful shore" beyond partisanship, beyond rancor, beyond scheming and the thrill of outsmarting and crushing the competition. It is the "sweet by and by". If so, I hope Howard Phillips has found it and doesn't irritate the proprietor, least he get kicked out. Go to any search engine and play it now. You'll feel better when you do. "And our spirits shall sorrow no more/ Not a sigh for the blessing of rest."

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is a 15 time published author as well as 3 e-books and over one thousand articles on a variety of current events. http://www.GeorgeKosch.com/?rd=ln47xnnj Republished with author's permission by George Kosch http://GeorgeKosch.com


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