Neil McCabe

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.”


Neil McCabe

Neil W. McCabe is a journalist working in Washington. He was a senior reporter for the Human Events newspaper and for many years a reporter for The Pilot, Boston's Catholic paper. In 2009, he deployed to Iraq with the Army as a combat historian for 15 months.