A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I’m tempted to say they’re [the Bush Administration and Republican Congress are] spending money now like drunken sailors, but that’s not true, because drunken sailors spend their own money. These people are spending our children's and our grandchildren’s money. That’s immoral and wrong and corrupt. -- Richard Viguerie, Father of the Conservative Direct Mail Fund-raising Machine
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You might ask, "Why in the world is BuzzFlash inteviewing Richard Viguerie. Isn't that the guy who was the original Karl Rove and started the massive direct mail fundraising drive that got the whole GOP right-wing juggernaut going?" And the answer to that question is yes.
As to why we are interviewing him, the answer is two-fold.
First of all, he has a new book, which attacks Bush from the right, and cannot help the Republicans in 2006. In fact, Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause recently caused a stir when Viguerie was grouped with some right-wing spokespersons who thought it might be best for the GOP to lose Congress in 2006 in order to "cleanse" the Republican Party. But, remember, Viguerie is a dyed-in-the-wool Reagan worshipper, so it is not that he seeks a more moderate GOP.
Secondly, we heard him on a panel at a conference and we were surprised at how candid and knowledgeable he was about political marketing. In short, we learned a lot about how the Republican Party began to rebuild itself after the infamous Goldwater defeat in 1964 through targeted direct mailing. Viguerie was the pioneer in this area. The current RNC and Rove fund-raising, microtargeting and get-out-the-vote strategy were built upon the foundation that Viguerie created some 40 years ago.
Also key to Viguerie's political strategy, as he describes in another book -- America's Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power -- was the use of "alternative media" to reach potential "conservative" voters. At that time, this meant direct mail, radio, cable television, etc.
Now, for progressives, it is the Internet, something Viguerie acknowledges.
In short, we found Viguerie to be a guy -- although 180 degrees the political opposite of BuzzFlash -- with whom one could talk shop and learn a bit about the history of the fund-raising and media strategy behind the "conservative" rise to power.
And, of course, given his new book lacerating the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, we recalled the old saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Well, maybe not our friend (the bizarre "rapturist" Tim LaHaye wrote the introduction to "America's Right Turn"), but a gracious interview, in any case.
Anyway, he was willing to talk with BuzzFlash. So, hey, what the heck!
It's a damn revealing interview.
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BuzzFlash: We saw you participating on a panel at a recent journalism conference in Massachusetts, and it occurred to us that it would be a good idea to have a very progressive publication like ours interview you. You were quite candid and frank about your work and your political philosophy, so we wanted to talk with you about two of your books: America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power (2004), and the new book, Conservatives Betrayed; How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.
As you wrote in America’s Right Turn: “Put the four alternative media together -- direct mail, talk radio, cable news TV, and the Internet -- and you can appreciate why the liberals are on the run. They have seen the Four Horsemen at the conservative Apocalypse.” You certainly played a significant role in developing these alternative media for the conservative side of the political spectrum. Why do you think the progressive and liberal community aren’t making the same use of them?
Richard A. Viguerie: Good question. I started using direct mail back in the early sixties to advance the conservative cause. It wasn’t until the late seventies, when a couple of my executives left either to start their own advertising agency or to work for the Republican National Committees, that I began to have competition out there. Basically for fifteen-plus years, nobody in politics paid much attention to political, ideological direct mail. For the most part everybody had ignored it until, it seemed like the entire political community woke up and said: Aha, that’s what Viguerie has been up to. That was election night, November 1980, when Reagan was elected.
I caught a lot of grief, quite frankly, from the mainstream media back in the seventies. Political direct mail just wasn’t used. It was television and radio. But the liberals went out there and, within four or five years, caught up with the conservatives. But that’s not true of the Democratic Committees. The Democratic Committees, to this day, I think, are running behind the Republicans. They have made a lot of gains in the last few years, starting maybe under the leadership of Terry McAuliffe at the DNC, but throughout the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the Democratic National Committees just didn’t seem to put much emphasis on direct marketing.
There are a number of reasons for that. The liberals were financed heavily over the years by different large groups. They didn’t have to rely on small, individual contributors. That gave the Republicans a big advantage. The Republicans were building a donor base consisting of millions of small givers out there.
Also, when you add the Internet to the direct mail -- these mediums rely heavily on hot-button issues that are pre-sold, that people understand very quickly. Back in the nineties, and in 2000, 2001, 2002, the conservatives were more successful on the Internet than were the liberals. That’s changing now. But most hot-button issues are conservative issues -- not entirely, but I’d say 70%. I’ve never seen any liberal direct mail piece or Internet piece talking about send us money so we can raise taxes.
I know I’m presenting it from a conservative perspective, but you get the point. Most of these domestic political issues that people understand in a gut instinct way, such as amnesty, are conservative issues. Alhough I’m sure liberals can make a very strong, intellectually honest argument that you need more government involvement in health care or taxes, it’s hard to explain that in twelve seconds, which is the amount of time you have in direct marketing.
BuzzFlash: When you were speaking on the panel, you brought up the intriguing concept of the pre-sold idea. You said if a person who is looking at a direct mail piece isn't seduced into the piece in the first twelve seconds, then they throw it away. It’s of no value, because you don’t get return on the letter. But as you mentioned on the panel, if someone in the first twelve seconds sees some of those pre-sold ideas or concepts that conservatives have, they will say: Oh, yeah, I’m going to continue with this letter, and then they are likely to give a donation.
Richard A. Viguerie: The "pre-sold" concept means it has to be something that people are already aware of. You cannot do two things in a direct mail piece, on the Internet, or in most means of communication. You can’t do two things. You cannot educate people about something, one, and, two, also raise money. You have to decide what you’re going to do.
You can't go out there and say, in a voter meeting, I want to introduce you to candidate Joe Smith, here, and tell you why he’s a good person. You’ve never heard of him, et cetera, et cetera ... and by the way, send $25, $50, $100. You can do one or the other, but you can’t do both. You can’t educate and raise money at the same time.
When Dean and Kerry were raising money on the Internet and through direct mail in 2004, people knew who they were. They were predisposed. All they needed was a short message saying we need money to do X or Y, and here’s where you send it. But you couldn’t have gone out there for Kerry if he were an unknown figure and educate people and then raise money, too. Of course, if an issue is all over the Internet, in Time magazine, et cetera, people will more likely respond than if they’ve never heard about it.
You cannot go out there and raise money for a disease that some scientists have just discovered is a serious disease, but it’s a mystery disease. Nobody’s heard anything about it, but send me money and I’ll help solve this problem. You can raise money for cancer, diabetes, AIDS, because they’re pre-sold. People know about them. In terms of politics, people know about amnesty. People know about the environment. People know about abortion issues. Those issues are pre-sold. But you can’t go out there and be successful in direct mail or the Internet for issues that people are unfamiliar with.
BuzzFlash: You were one of the pioneers, not only in direct mail, but in targeted direct mail, which has now become known as micro-targeting. Just as an example, before we move on to your newest book, if you wanted to target people who are anti-abortion, you would begin with the pre-sell. The first sentence would be: This may be the last chance to overturn Roe v. Wade. Is that an example of a pre-sold first sentence?
Richard A. Viguerie: Well, certainly, but that’s not the type of sentence that I would use. I have a different approach. There are a lot of things that I like about direct marketing, but one of the things I definitely like about it is you know your audience. When you produce an ad for Ford Motor Company and it runs on NBC and CBS, you’ll be talking to fourteen-year-olds, and to people who are in assisted living homes, to people who are the president of their local bank, to somebody on welfare, and to people who just bought a car last week and are not going to be in the market for a car for some years. It covers the whole gamut. But in direct marketing, direct mail, we know pretty much exactly who we’re talking to, and we can tailor the message to our audience.
BuzzFlash: There is a book just out called One Party Country [available from BuzzFlash], by two Los Angeles Times reporters, Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten.
Richard A. Viguerie: Right. I’ve read part of it.
BuzzFlash: They have a chapter about the Republican National Committee's very sophisticated micro-targeting, which you pioneered, in a way, in the direct mail area.
Richard A. Viguerie: Right. Let me ask you at this point, do you know who Karl Rove was fifteen years ago, twenty years ago?
BuzzFlash: After working for George Herbert Walker Bush at the RNC, he became a direct mail expert.
Richard A. Viguerie: That’s right. I’d say 98% of the people who are asked that question -- sophisticated audiences, journalists, political people -- don’t know the answer. I’ve got to believe that has given the Republicans a big, big advantage in the last six years -- that the person in charge of marketing their candidates starting in 2000 is a world-class marketer himself. He did it for seventeen or eighteen years, and he’s continued to know it.
I remember talking to Terry McAuliffe at the Republican Convention in 2004 in New York City. I wanted to make sure I had been quoting him correctly, as having said that in the first four months of 2004, the DNC mailed more direct mail letters than they had in the entire decade of the nineties. He said, “Yes, that’s correct.” Then he went on to make excuses very nicely for his predecessors, and I said, “Terry, in my opinion, the main reason why it’s being done now, and it wasn’t being done in the seventies or eighties and nineties, is generational. You’re young, as national chairmen go. You’re prepared to try new ideas in the 21st century and to look at new ways of marketing and communicating. Most of the earlier chairmen had learned their politics decades earlier. Direct mail was a country cousin back in those days. People just didn’t do direct mail, and you’re very open to these new things.”
Then he called me after the election and told me how much they had done. He was very pleased with their results. Finally they had figured out how to use direct marketing. The Republicans had figured it out twenty-five years earlier.
Then he went to Orlando, Florida, to a meeting of the DNC in December of 2004 and said that a major reason why they lost the election was that the Republicans were doing "directional drilling," and the Democrats were doing broad marketing -- broadcast marketing. In other words, they were just reaching out to the whole country.
The name of my company is American Target Advertising. That’s what we do, very targeted advertising. And Karl Rove was doing targeted marketing. He would go into a union neighborhood and drill right down in their backyards, and find the people who were concerned about same-sex marriage, or who were concerned about a particular issue or two, and peel off their votes one at a time. He had taken marketing to the next level. Broad marketing, like the Democrats were doing in 2004, had been done twenty, twenty-five years earlier by the Republicans.
The Democrats figured out what the Republicans were doing in 2004, so they’ll go out and try to replicate that in 2006 and 2008. But Rove, of course, being the world-class marketer that he is, is going to take it to the next level. The standard criticism of some generals is they’re always fighting the last war. The same aplies to politicians. I’m sure the Republicans are going to continue to have an advantage over the Democrats in marketing because they have marketing professionals leading the party.
BuzzFlash: Your most recent book is Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause. You were among the conservatives cited in a Washington Monthly article that basically said it would be best if the Republicans lost at least one house of Congress in 2006. Now, to a progressive like me, this is kind of startling. How could you summon the indignation that you obviously must feel to become so public about it?
Richard A. Viguerie: I think the article probably presented me as a little more negative towards the Republicans in 2006 than I am in fact. I don’t fear Republican losses in ’06 or ’08. I don’t advocate it. I don’t want it. I plan on voting pretty much a straight Republican ticket this fall. But I no longer fear losses. I do feel that conservatives are not going to get to the political promised land. Just as the Jews in the Old Testament had to wander through the desert for forty years until that generation of immoral, corrupt leaders had passed away, I think Republicans are going to have to wait for this generation of leaders -- and many of them are, in my opinion, corrupt and immoral -- to pass from the scene before we can get to the political promised land. So I no longer fear defeats. Conservative victories, such as Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, would not have happened, in my opinion, if Gerald Ford had been elected President in 1976. And there would not have been a Republican Congress in 1994 if George H.W. Bush had been reelected in 1992. So in order to have victory, sometimes you have to suffer defeats first.
And it’s important that we get rid of a lot of this corrupt leadership. In my opinion, they’re engaged in corrupt, immoral activities -- with a one-word strategy for governing. When the Republicans got everything in 2001, and they came to town in January, they, in essence, said, okay, we’re going to adopt a one-word strategy -- in my words, of course -- a one-word strategy, and that’s bribery. You’ve got votes. We’ve got money. Let’s talk. So they’ve set out there to bribe the voters.
The biggest example, of course, is the prescription drug benefit plan passed in 2003, passing on, in the next fifty years, $8 trillion of debt to our children eventually. Bankrupting our country, for all intents and purposes, and passing on this massive debt for the sole, immoral purpose of holding on to power, is corrupt. We need new leaders who will not engage in that type of activity.
People who have broken the law, engaged in criminal activities, such as Duke Cunningham and others, have been caught and they’ll be punished. But that ’s not going to seriously affect my children and grandchildren’s lives.
BuzzFlash: One of the things that you object to is that George W. Bush campaigned against nation-building -- and we still recall the debates with Al Gore where that came out. But he’s made nation building a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq. How do you feel about that specific issue?
Richard A. Viguerie: It's outrageous. As you state, he campaigned against nation building, and he’s probably engaged in more nation building than any president in American history. That’s just not the way a principled conservative would conduct foreign policy. We all remember Ronald Reagan. He is, in my opinion, correctly credited with defeating the Soviet Union. And he did that without tanks rolling, armies marching, planes flying, shots being fired. He developed a strategy to win the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union. This president is going to lose the war in the Middle East by bankrupting America. It’s not a conservative principle. It has nothing to do with conservatism. It’s a big-government approach to foreign policy, and it has nothing to do with conservative principles and beliefs.
BuzzFlash: You brought up the national debt. It’s unclear how much our national debt really is, because there’s some argument about whether the figures we’re being given by the Bush administration are laid down in a cash or an accrual basis -- and that could make a difference in hundreds of billions of dollars. In any case, there’s no question we are at the largest point of debt in our nation’s history. Traditionally, conservatives have called for fiscal restraint in the government. How important is the fact that our national debt has skyrocketed?
Richard A. Viguerie: It’s very, very important. An article of faith among conservatives is, "That government is best which governs least." The more money government spends, the less power and control individuals have over their own lives.
I was active in politics going back to the 1950s, as chairman of Harris County, Houston Young Republicans. The conservatives -- Republicans in those days -- talked about balanced budgets and smaller government and fiscal responsibility. I heard that same song in the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. Then in January of 2001, when the Republicans had everything, the basic attitude was: Oh, just kidding. We really didn’t mean any of it. We just didn’t want the Democrats to spend the money. Now that we have everything and can spend it our way, that’s what we want to do.
I’m tempted to say they’re spending money now like drunken sailors, but that’s not true, because drunken sailors spend their own money. These people are spending our children's and our grandchildren’s money. That’s immoral and wrong and corrupt. These days, there are few things more important to conservatives than the size of government, the role of government in our life. But the crew that’s here now is about the business of massive expansion of government, and passing on debt to generations unborn. I don’t understand it. It’s wrong, and that’s why we need to get rid of this leadership that we have, and bring back good, principled conservative leadership along the lines of Ronald Reagan.
BuzzFlash: You speak as a seasoned conservative spokesperson and strategist. But the mainstream media constantly analyze what the White House does, like opposing stem cell research, in terms of their effort to appeal to the conservative base. You’re not buying that. What about the individuals who receive your direct mail pieces? Are they upset with Bush?
Richard A. Viguerie: Absolutely. Most conservative organizations, quite frankly, are having a difficult time financially because the base is very disillusioned. There was just a big conference of religious conservatives -- a "value voters" conference covered by most all the national media. Across the board, people at this conference were disillusioned and very upset with the Republican leaders in the White House and the Congress.
I don’t understand how some of the national media can get so outraged whenever Bush does some small thing that pleases the religious right voters -- after all, the base of the Republican Party is the conservatives, the religious right values voters. And America is a very religious country, perhaps the most religious large country in the world today. If a Republican does something that pleases these people, that’s part of the political process.
The problem is, for the most part, the religious voters have gotten mostly lip service. The vast, vast majority of what this administration has done is accommodate the big business and corporate Wall Street wing of the party. The conservative religious values voters have mostly gotten lip service, and have received the minimum of what they have to give them. I challenge anybody to identify who among the people helping to run this White House have come from the religious right community. In George Bush’s first term, there was John Ashcroft, and a few others.
But now you can look long and hard, and not come up with any names of people from the religious right movement. And very, very few conservatives. I can think of only two conservatives that have been appointed since 2004 -- John Bolton at the United Nations, and Jim Nicholson over at Veterans Affairs. But we are a Republican conservative party. The Republican Party’s base is the conservative movement. It’s not a wing of the party. It’s not an arm of the party. The conservatives are the base of the party.
It’s conservative money, conservative issues, conservative activists, conservative organizations that elect Republican candidates, from the White House down to local offices. For them to be ignored so blatantly as this Administration has -- no wonder they’re hurting for this election here. The President has his low popularity because he’s not governing as a conservative. If he were governing as a conservative, he would be well up in the fifties or the sixties in terms of popularity.
BuzzFlash: Richard Viguerie, thank you so much for your candor.
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Biography (Source: PBS/Now)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW