When I was a very small boy growing up in Washington DC, there were four heroes who shaped my life and how I saw the world. At that time the Soviet Union was a very real and present danger to the United States, and the four public figures most actively engaged in fighting the USSR were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, and Howard Phillips.
My father would describe their actions and policies to me, and for three of them, he would do so with caveats. “The President issued a great statement to Gorbachev today,” he would explain, “but remember that the Republican Party is wrong about these four points.” Or, “Mrs. Thatcher is fighting for what is right, but her strategies should be modified this way.” And he communicated how deeply he appreciated the Pope’s fearless stance on Communism before clarifying why our family was not Roman Catholic.
My father has always been very quick to point out the best qualities of imperfect men, but is careful not to condone their flaws. The only one of my four heroes whose praise he didn’t have to qualify was Howard Phillips – the moral backbone of America’s conservative movement. While he never achieved the fame of a President, Prime Minister, or Pope, he cast a large shadow in the world, and leaves us a legacy that will last for generations.
Dad first met Howard Phillips in 1981, the year I was born, and he became one of the few people to see and experience both sides of this great statesman’s life. Most of Howard’s colleagues in Washington saw him as a powerful political player; the confidant of presidents, the founder of many conservative organizations (and the driving force behind dozens more), the ultimate policy analyst, the second-best public speaker in DC (after Reagan), the leader’s leader, and always the dominant mind wherever he went.
But what most politicians missed out on was Howard’s personal walk with the Lord, and his life at home as a father. After all, every politician claims Christ and family values, but a very few make total obedience to God’s Word their ultimate goal in life. A personal friend and student of R.J. Rushdoony, Howard Phillips was a man with a powerful, child-like faith, and was a loving and nurturing father. At his funeral on Monday, his friends and family gave testimony more to his love, compassion, and faith than his vast record of political achievements.
Various obituaries have marveled at his ability, or even his attempt, to master these two separate spheres; internal faith and external work, the emotional and intellectual, or family and career. Howard would just laugh at the foolish idea that these spheres should or could be separate. It was his faith and love that drove his political pursuits, and his hard political experiences that added to his faith and drove him back to scripture.
It was his family that motivated his defense of freedom, and his participation in brutal ideological battles that motivated the education he gave his children. His youngest son Sam, educated at home, had an excellent explanation of what made his father such an exceptional man. “Dad’s commitment to principle was always inspiring to me growing up,” wrote Sam. “I appreciated that Dad always took his beliefs seriously, but never himself.”
I believe that this is what enabled him to be supremely confident and supremely humble at the same time. This enabled him to be ferociously adamant about right and wrong even when he was the only one doing so. It enabled him to shrug off the vilest personal attacks even when they were printed in the most widely-read newspapers. More impressively, it enabled him to resist the temptation to compromise, even when conceding ground would have bought him power and fame at the highest levels of government.
During his vast career, Howard Phillips made many powerful enemies, each of whom demonstrated that Howard couldn’t be intimidated or conquered, even in defeat. His amazing intellectual abilities and personal discipline brought him many opportunities that demonstrated that he couldn’t be bought or corrupted, even in success. And despite experiencing a number of amazing and often unparalleled successes in many areas of life, he never acted out of pride or ego.
Even when lauded for his principles and sincerity of belief, Howard would sidestep the compliment and point to the source of those beliefs, and to the responsibility of all men to live in obedience to God’s Word. In all my personal conversations with this exceptional man, he described himself as simply a normal and unexceptional person who owed everything to the blessings of God.
Most of the obituaries written over the last week highlight his truly remarkable career, and the incredible influence he has had in the conservative movement. Even many of his opponents have honored his personal consistency, his unswerving commitment to principle, and the honorable way he opposed them. Many of his allies have lamented the future of conservatism, now that Howard Phillips is no longer around to be their “true north,” and the example of political faithfulness.
What people should realize, however, is that Howard’s greatest legacy, and greatest example, was as a father and a Christian who applied God’s Word to his life. That is a legacy that will last even longer than the fortifications and craters he left on our political landscape. My father taught me many lessons about those battles in Washington, but how he taught me was shaped partly by Howard’s example of fatherhood.
This legacy is another aspect of the exceptionalism of Howard Phillips. Unlike most political players, he has left behind several loving children and grandchildren, and, even more rarely seen, thousands of grateful spiritual children and grandchildren. It must seem strange to the world that one of the most embattled, most slandered, most betrayed and most hated men in recent American history would also be the most admired, most appreciated, most emulated, and most loved… but this is not surprising to anyone who knew him.