The computer room, ninety feet long, is in an ordinary white brick office building in Falls Church, Virginia, a sprawling suburb of Washington, where the Richard A. Viguerie Co. rents three floors. It is guarded by two different security systems, and the programmer on duty opens the door to Richard Art Viguerie himself only when he produces proper identification. Inside are two giant IBM computers, two high-speed printers, and ten tape units. In an adjoining room, protected by even more elaborate security precautions, are stored 3000 rolls of magnetic tape. On the tapes are encoded the names of 15 million people and vital information about them. Richard Viguerie points to the round cans holding the tapes and grins. “If you’re a conservative, your name should be in there somewhere,” he says.
If you have been the recipient recently of unsolicited mail asking for money to help fight the Panama Canal treaty, abortion, gun control, school busing, labor law reform, or the Equal Rights Amendment, chances are your name is recorded in Viguerie’s computers. If you were asked to support Senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), or, a few years back, George Wallace for President, the letters came from Viguerie’s operation. Viguerie’s biggest clients today are a band of right-wing groups that includes the Conservative Caucus, the Gun Owners of America, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), and Americans Against Union Control of Government. They were virtually created by Viguerie and his genius for fund-raising. This year alone he will raise an estimated $15 million for his clients, money they will use to lobby against liberal legislation and to organize conservative voting groups. Perhaps most important, they will pour money and political soldiers into the campaigns of conservative candidates.
The reform of the federal campaign spending laws in 1974 meant that a Howard Hughes, a Clement Stone, or a Stewart Mott could no longer bankroll a candidate almost singlehandedly. The law now limits personal contributions to $1000 per candidate. For presidential candidates, federal subsidies help to fill the coffers, and spending limits keep costs under control, but members of Congress have been deprived of their fat cats and have received nothing in return.
As things have turned out, though, many congressional candidates didn’t really need to worry. Campaign treasuries for the 1978 elections have been rapidly replenished by the enormously effective use of an unobtrusive technique whose success could have profound implications for the political scene.
The fund-raising technique is direct mail, and the new contributors are the hundreds of thousands of Americans who send $10, $15, or $25 in response to mail solicitations—computerized letters with a simulated personal touch. The Republican party has caught on to direct mail much faster than the Democrats. In a reversal of past giving habits, more than one million small donors now support the party of big business, while the Democrats still depend on wealthy big contributors. But other important beneficiaries of the direct mail fund-raising boom are the militantly conservative political organizations, causes, and candidates loosely called, for want of a better term, “the New Right.”
The direct mail phenomenon has also spawned a new breed of fund-raiser. These political direct mail fundraisers are generally inconspicuous men in Washington: Roger Craver, who engineered Common Cause’s mail success, and has now been hired to help the Democratic party find the “little people”; Wyatt Stewart and Stephen Winchell, who pioneered in GOP mail fund-raising. But Richard Viguerie is both conspicuous and controversial. At forty-five, he has become a multimillionaire through computerized mailings. He is not just a fund-raiser but a powerful influence within the New Right.
“The conservative movement has always been good at producing writers and debaters,” says Viguerie, “but it never had anybody who knew how to market ideas to the masses. Well, that’s what I am doing.”
Viguerie’s dream—and the nightmare of his antagonists, who include liberals and mainstream Republican leaders—is that the New Right will fuse a conservative majority from the disparate grievances of angry citizens who are exercised over gun control, abortion, homosexuality, drugs, unions, disarmament, and taxes. He describes his job as “organizing discontent,” providing the postage stamps for those citizens who want to “send them a message.” Moderate Republicans who go against the conservative orthodoxy have received the message: this spring the New Right helped to defeat four-term Senator Clifford Case in the primaries in New Jersey, and challenged other Republican liberals and moderates in Illinois, California, Iowa, and Massachusetts.
Viguerie and the political action committees he has created wield a considerable amount of unchecked power. Acting in concerted fashion, they can pour significant amounts of money into launching a candidate. (Each committee can legally contribute $5000.) They can flood the country with mail on an issue, stirring up a mountain of protest letters to Congress or the White House. Viguerie’s power stems from his ownership and control of the largest and most effective mailing list of Americans who will actively support conservative causes.
Richard Viguerie on paper is a verbal incendiary; live, he is something of a surprise. He speaks in a soft, Texas voice; his manner is polite, professional, deferential, controlled, and consciously affable.
He looks a bit like the actor Richard Widmark, playing the role of a mild-mannered business executive who modestly reports that profits are up. He is slender, small-boned, wiry. He is conscious of keeping fit, but he doesn’t go to extremes. He walks down, not up, the five flights of stairs in his office building. He plays golf frequently and intensely, but races around the course in a golf cart. He has the look of an intelligent, temperate man: high forehead, sharply chiseled features, dark blond hair carefully combed over a balding dome. He favors light-colored, squarely cut, three-piece business suits that don’t stand out for style. He could pass for a small-town banker.
A nonsmoker, he has a penchant for health foods: jars of wheat germ, nuts, and dried fruit are stashed in his office pantry, and he drinks V-8 juice while a guest is served coffee. But he likes Mexican and Italian food as well, and lunches with a reporter at a northern Italian restaurant, where he orders a gourmet combination of mussels and pasta and a glass of white wine.
He is pleasant, though guarded, and chooses his words carefully to suggest that he is, above all, a man of reason. There is, in fact, an intentional dichotomy here between the hot rhetoric of Viguerie’s fund-raising letters and his own well-modulated personality. He regards the letters as a marketing tool. His letters work best when fanning his readers’ deepest political passions. Yet his own emotions are carefully controlled. Viguerie’s major objective is to convey a sense of himself and the New Right movement as being eminently rational and responsible. In the past, he believes, conservatives painted themselves into a corner where they were perceived as doctrinaire, paranoid, and impractical zealots, totally outside the mainstream of American politics. Viguerie and some of the more successful new conservative politicians today are seeking—and earning—reputations as more pragmatic and attractive than older, grouchier right-wingers, such as retiring Nebraska Senator Carl Curtis. Although Viguerie preaches that direct mail is a special weapon by which the conservative movement can bypass an essentially unfriendly press, he also says that the political Right must learn to use the press, just as the liberals have. Therefore he seeks out reporters and considers a meeting a success when a national political columnist tells him, “You are much more reasonable than people give you credit for.”
His own business success story is phenomenal. From a $300 investment in 1965 and a oneroom office on Capitol Hill, Viguerie has built half a dozen direct mail and publishing companies which employ 300 people, mail 100 million letters a year, and gross over $15 million a year. His computers, leased for $27,000 a month, are kept humming twentyfour hours a day. His competitors estimate that Viguerie personally may net $2 million per year before taxes from his direct mail companies alone.
Born in Golden Acres, Texas, a small town outside Houston, Viguerie (the family name is Louisiana French) is the son of a middle-level oil company executive and a practical nurse. As a painfully shy teenager who was small for his age, Viguerie worshipped the “two Macs”—General Douglas MacArthur and Senator Joseph McCarthy—and adopted their conservatism and fervent anticommunism. In college, at Texas A&I at Kingsville, he was initiated into Republican politics, but his first real involvement came when he ran Senator John Tower’s Houston campaign office in 1960, at the age of twenty-seven. The next year he became the first executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), where he discovered the virtues of direct mail fund-raising. After a few awkward, hat-in-hand visits to wealthy people, Viguerie decided he would rather ask people for money in writing. From the beginning, his letters worked.
Until four years ago, Viguerie was a publicity-shy businessman who dealt with the press and politicians only through his aides. He stepped into his new public role, he recalls, the day in 1974 that Gerald Ford named Nelson Rockefeller his Vice President. When none of the conservative Republican politicians would publicly attack Ford’s choice, Viguerie determined that he would become a leader for the conservative cause.
Some former associates have a different version, however. While not doubting Viguerie’s conservative idealism, they attribute his seeking the public spotlight to a sense of frustration at not being properly rewarded for his contributions to the conservative Republican cause. Viguerie was miffed when Richard Nixon didn’t choose him to do the direct mail fund-raising in 1972, and when Ronald Reagan didn’t pick him to help run his last presidential challenge. Viguerie had taken George Wallace as a client in 1973 and rather stridently began forecasting the imminent and just demise of the Republican party. After Wallace dropped out in 1976, Viguerie tried to start a third-party movement, and even briefly offered himself as a vice-presidential candidate. Two years later he has put third-party notions aside as impractical, at least for the time being, and is working for a conservative takeover of the GOP. In 1980, he will help Representative Philip Crane (R-Ill.) seek the Republican presidential nomination.
Viguerie’s political gyrations seem a bit erratic to some, but he is a highly efficient and competitive businessman whose management techniques are as up-todate as his computer equipment. He is now trying to bring his sense of business professionalism to the conservative movement, he explains, and looks to the day when he might work in the White House for a conservative President. As a demanding but generous employer, Viguerie pays his people well and, with a steady stream of company parties and athletic outings, he encourages a sense of loyal camaraderie. Every employee, political ally, or friend has a story to tell of his personal acts of generosity and kindness.
It’s too bad, friends say, that Viguerie seems too much a workaholic truly to enjoy his money. He owns a 200-acre farm in the Virginia countryside, but admits that his most idyllic time there is spent sitting alone on the porch with a cup of coffee and yellow legal pad, dreaming up copy for his direct mail letters. He once hired a chauffeur to drive his black Lincoln Continental, but felt uncomfortable with the ostentation. He and his wife, Elaine, and their three children, Renée, fifteen, Michelle, fourteen, and Ryan, four, live in a new $250,000 Williamsburg colonial, complete with kidney-shaped swimming pool, on a cul-de-sac of other new homes in McLean.
Viguerie took me to his home for lunch. His wife is an attractive and friendly woman who has led her husband on a variety of religious explorations. The Vigueries are Catholics, but have put one of their children in a Christian fundamentalist school (for the academic and moral discipline), are followers and supporters of the late Edgar Cayce’s spiritualism, and also believe in various tenets of Eastern religions, including reincarnation. As he explained it to me, Viguerie made reincarnation sound as serviceable a doctrine as the Protestant work ethic. “We must experience things for ourselves rather than having the government do for us,” he said, “because we are constantly preparing ourselves for our future lives— perhaps thousands of them.”
The Vigueries’ house is decorated with French period furniture, which Mrs. Viguerie has a passion for buying at auctions, but there is a sparseness to the furnishings: an undecorated room, a gold mirror standing unhung in the dining room. She explains that they have moved often and it’s hard to keep up. The spacious, uncrowded rooms work well, however, for the entertainment that Viguerie schedules.
As we drove back to the office, the conversation turned again to politics, with Viguerie casually laying out elements of his political philosophy: “American leaders have lied to the American people about the Soviet threat,” he said. “They indicate that we can work things out with the Russians instead of spelling out that this is the enemy, the same as Nazi Germany. When have you heard a leader of the free world say that freedom is the way of the future and someday will prevail over slavery? First of all, we must resolve to win. It’s hardly a fair fight if one side believes it is a fight to the death and the other side doesn’t think it’s a fight at all.”
Viguerie ranged over problems domestic and foreign but, oddly, he didn’t sound particularly upset over any of them. In fact, he brings his whole picture of the decline of the West around to a sort of Dr. Pangloss optimism: “Things are going our [the conservatives’] way. The opposition is going to stay in control of Congress, at least through 1980. The world will continue to go to hell in a hand basket. Our position vis-à-vis the communists and Russians will continue to deteriorate. Inflation is going to get worse. They [the Democrats] are going to be appealing to a minority of voters out there, the blacks, the welfare class, the nonproducers basically. This is going to infuriate the producers. You are going to continue to have a polarization of Americans in politics.”
Some Republican leaders find Viguerie’s political prescriptions bizarre. He argued with one friend, for instance, that the day of ultimate victory would best be served by a Jimmy Carter win over Gerald Ford in 1976.
What really motivates Richard Viguerie? The social issues that he uses to inflame the passions and loosen the pocketbooks of a tiny minority of true believers do not necessarily add up to either a coherent political philosophy or a formula for creating a political majority.
Viguerie’s motivations seem very much in keeping with the familiar Washington method by which lawyers, consultants, and various other entrepreneurs do well for themselves while contributing their own versions of public service. Viguerie acknowledges as much. “I wouldn’t just want to be manufacturing widgets. I like the fact that I can combine a successful business with politics and I can help orphans and people who have leprosy in India and whatever. I guess I’m one of the first to make a living in a business way on a full-time basis in the conservative movement. There may have been a few others before, but I certainly have done it on a bigger scale than anybody else before.”
As we passed the Robert Kennedy home, Hickory Hill, Viguerie remarked, “I’m like the Kennedys in one regard. I’m very competitive and I hate to lose. I can be playing a fourteen-year-old kid on the pinball machine in the basement and I want to beat him.” Jim Martin, a former employee and current golfing partner, noted that the competitive fever that makes Viguerie a great businessman serves him poorly on the golf course, where he races through eighteen holes in two and a quarter hours, half the time needed for a well-played, leisurely round.
Nevertheless, Viguerie has a passion for the sport. His personal office is decorated with photographs of the world’s famous golf courses, and with trophies he has won. A close look at the trophies and at several plaques reveals that nineties-shooting golfer Viguerie masterminds his own competition. The golf trophies were won in the semi-annual Richard A. Viguerie Golf Tournament, a regulation, four-day, expenses-paid tournament which he sponsors at lush vacation spots for a dozen employees and close friends. One plaque from his employees honors him on the tenth anniversary of his company. Another plaque, awarded by a close political associate, honors his role in defeating a campaign reform bill. It’s almost as if Viguerie has set the rules by which he is judged, whether in sports or in politics. And he has played by his own rules with great success.
Direct mail advertising, at least as old as the 1872 Montgomery Ward catalogue, is today a $6-billion-a-year business, selling more than $60 billion worth of goods and services. Charities raise $10 billion a year through the mail; $500 million of that goes to the mailing consultants. Politicians have asked for money through the mail for years, but on a small scale until George McGovern, cut off from the traditional big contributors, raised $20 million by mail in 1972. Viguerie raised $7 million for Wallace. And this year candidates and committees will have taken in more than $100 million via the mails.
It is, however, an expensive advertising medium, and so it is crucial that it be aimed accurately at the most receptive audience. A letter asking for money to defeat a candidate who favors gun control legislation ideally should go only to rabid antilegislation gun owners; voters in favor of gun control, who would be enraged by the letter, should not see it or even have any idea that it’s being sent.
“The interesting thing about direct mail,” says Viguerie, “is that when it’s professionally done, it has a devastating impact. It’s like using a water moccasin for a watchdog—it’s very quiet.”
Viguerie’s computer room in Falls Church is very quiet too. His 30 million names represent no more than 15 million people, once duplications are eliminated, but among these is a hard core of 4 million conservative activists, and the power of Viguerie and his clients rests on those 4 million—an enormous number of people in light of the political inertia of the American public. For access to this list, one must go to Richard Viguerie.
There are also about 4 or 5 million activists at the other end of the political spectrum. But no single fundraiser commands their names, and after years of writing generous checks for civil rights, ending the war in Vietnam, impeaching Richard Nixon, and saving the whales and the redwoods, the liberal activists are sluggish.
Viguerie’s clients don’t just ask for money; recipients are prompted to deluge Congress and the White House with letters, whether in protest of the Panama Canal treaty or against a piece of pro-labor legislation. Make-it-easy, pre-addressed postcard messages are included. For example, a direct mail fund-raising solicitation from the Conservative Caucus, opposing the Panama Canal treaty, included this prewritten postcard message to U.S. senators: “I pledge never again to vote for any elected official who supports the surrender of U.S. sovereign jurisdiction and control over the American canal and zone at the Isthmus of Panama. I will not be fooled by cosmetic understandings, reservations or amendments to these treaties .... Where do you stand, Senator?”
Viguerie’s ability to exploit technology is at the heart of his success. The ten IBM magnetic tape units spin endlessly, combining lists, adding new names, deleting others, selecting names that will be responsive to a particular campaign. The IBM 3211 printer can print two letters simultaneously in one second. “These printers,” says Viguerie, “are the bottlenecks in my system.” They limit him to sending out two million letters a week, and he is itching for IBM to perfect a laser printing process which would increase his potential output sixfold.
Nevertheless, he is proud of his present capability. “The letter being printed on the left can be asking Mr. Jones to double his $20 gift from February and the one to Mr. Smith on the right can be asking him to match his $10 gift. The more genuinely personal a letter is, the more successful it will be. This machine can do a strikeover, where you appear to erase an error. You don’t want a letter to look too perfect.”
Getting people to open the envelope of a direct mail solicitation is tough. Viguerie uses the name and return address of a member of Congress as one lure, and likes to use first-class stamps instead of the commercial bulk-rate frank, which announces “junk mail inside.” He even has a machine that can apply the stamps slightly askew, thus simulating the human touch.
The key, of course, is the letter itself. Viguerie, who has been called the best copywriter in the business, has a few fundamental principles:
1. The letter must appear highly personal—thus, Senator Jesse Helms will start off with a chatty note about the latest doings of his family.
2. The letter must involve the reader. Viguerie uses various “involvement devices,” such as asking the recipient to join an advisory committee, be privy to a confidential report, or respond to a poll on issues (the results of which will provide further computerized information about the reader for use in other mailings to him).
3. The letter must appear credible and authoritative—therefore, Viguerie goes for long messages, supplying many specific details. The donor is asked not to contribute $100 for the campaign, but to contribute an “urgently needed” $98.45 so that the candidate can rent a billboard. A group of conservative members of Congress regularly lend the prestige of their letterheads and signatures, although Viguerie and his copywriters of course write the letters.
4. But most important, “the successful direct mail fund-raising letter must evoke a strong emotional response.”
“We didn’t invent playing to fears,” says Viguerie. “The liberals try to scare their people as we do ours. People vote against long before they vote for. People aren’t interested in sending money for good government; that is something they expect. They will give money quicker to defeat someone who is opposed to their beliefs.”
Direct mail consultants are happy with a 2 percent positive response when they prospect for new members or donors. That 2 percent will pay for the mailing and the organization will then concentrate on getting repeated contributions from its new supporters. Lists of people who have responded to direct mail appeals are the most valuable assets in the business. An organization’s membership list is an asset to sell, to lease, or to trade with other groups. Viguerie requires his clients to share ownership of their lists with him. His contracts provide that he, not the client, can rent the client’s list to others, and the client can solicit its own contributors only through his computers.
Since he started in the business in 1965, armed with 12,000 names of contributors to the 1964 Goldwater campaign, he has acquired the lists of dozens of his clients. His biggest breakthrough came in 1975 with his annexation of the George Wallace contributor list, a potential gold mine. Anyone who wants to mine the Wallace list today has to lease the names at five cents apiece from Viguerie’s American Mailing List Co.
His ownership of his clients’ contributor lists has not gone uncriticized. Thomas Winter, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union (an “Old Right" group and not a Viguerie client), says that Viguerie has a chronic conflict of interest in deciding which lists to use for his clients. Should he mail his own lists, thus collecting four to six cents a name, or should he get other lists that might serve his clients’ needs more effectively? David Cohen, president of Common Cause, is appalled that any group would let its fundraiser control its membership list. And Francis Andrews, chairman of the Direct Mail Marketing Association and president of American Fundraising Services, Inc., a rival to Viguerie in the philanthropic field, says Viguerie’s ownership of his clients’ names is unethical.
But Viguerie just smiles. “That’s what freedom is all about. I don’t hold a gun and say they have to do this. I think it has been a phenomenal asset to the conservative cause. This is one way you hold down the costs of fund-raising. Once you have raised funds for conservative organization A, then a new conservative organization B doesn’t have to go to a totally fresh prospect list, inventing the wheel all over again.”Viguerie’s practice is also defended by his liberal counterpart, Roger Craver. “Viguerie is a wildcatter,” he says. “Unlike the rest of us, who work for a retainer and get paid whether a campaign works or not, Viguerie takes the prospecting risk. His contracts provide that if the campaign doesn’t produce, he doesn’t get paid. He is entitled to something for the risk-taking.” Viguerie’s risk-taking is minimized, however, by the fact that he always pays himself first and that each new contributor he recruits becomes an asset for his future ventures.
In the past, he leased his names only to his own clients. But this year, in a bid for bigger profits and greater influence, he offered to lease to hundreds of conservative candidates names of conservatives in their states or legislative districts.
Viguerie operates an integrated business in which he stands to profit from every phase of direct mail except the postage. The Richard A. Viguerie Co. prepares the copy and runs the computers; the Diversified Mailing Co. does the printing for letter inserts; the Mail House stuffs, stamps, and mails the letters; the American Mailing List Co. rents out his names; Prospect House, a book publisher and distributor, and Viguerie Communications, which publishes Conservative Digest and The Right Report, publicize Viguerie’s clients and causes.
His charges are higher than those of most other direct mail consultants, and his contract conditions more demanding, but he commands business because he offers candidates and groups a chance to share in the conservative market without risking too much money. When Representative Jack Cunningham (RWash.) ran for Congress in a 1977 special election, he turned to Viguerie for fund-raising help he had been denied by traditional GOP sources. Viguerie produced “up front” $5000 donations from NCPAC and the other New Right groups; a few strings were attached. The seed money had to be invested with Viguerie in a direct mail fund-raising campaign, the proceeds of which had to be reinvested in a get-out-the-vote direct mail campaign. Viguerie had the whole piece of cake and Cunningham is happy because he won. “You can’t tell Viguerie what to do,” said Cunningham. “He is the master of his ship, and if you’re going to tie your dinghy to it, you go where he goes.”
Cunningham expressed his gratitude by signing a fund-raising letter for NCPAC. The letter is a Viguerie classic. “I was just elected to Congress two weeks ago,” it began. “I arrived in Washington one week ago. And I must warn you. What I found when I arrived here was unbelievable.”
The words “New Right” have been used in a variety of conservative contexts. At its broadest, the term describes the renewed conservative activism in the country during the last few years. At its narrowest, some veteran conservatives have commented sardonically, the New Right is nothing more than Richard Viguerie and his clients. The term has been used to differentiate between older conservative groups, such as the American Conservative Union (founded in 1964), which concentrates on economic issues, and newer groups, which have focused on social, or “pro-family,” issues such as homosexuality, school busing, abortion, and drugs.
What is “new” about the New Right, most conservatives would agree, is pragmatism. The new organization is reflected in the weekly strategy sessions, held over drinks and a light dinner, in the conference room of Viguerie’s office. There are staff from the Senate Steering Committee and the House Research Group, new alliances of conservative Republicans; members of older conservative groups such as the National Right to Work Committee and the American Conservative Union; and the leaders of the new groups that Viguerie’s fund-raising has spawned.
The conservative activists debate which congressional candidates to support and plan common strategy on legislative issues. They take some of the credit in the present Congress for defeating common situs picketing, labor law reform, a consumer protection agency, and federal financing of congressional elections, and claim a major role in defeating postcard voter registration, an issue the Republican leadership thought too popular to oppose. Even their loss on the Panama Canal had some pluses, they feel. Hundreds of thousands of conservatives were identified, and new resources were discovered.
Viguerie and his coterie distinguish between conservative “spokesmen”—such as Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater—and actual “leaders”—in which role they cast themselves. “The difference,” says Viguerie, “is that spokesmen make speeches, and leaders make things happen.” If Reagan had been a leader rather than just a spokesman, Viguerie believes, the Panama Canal treaty would have been defeated.
Among elected officeholders viewed by Viguerie as “leaders” are Senators Hatch (R-Utah), Helms (RN.C.), and Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), and Representative Philip Crane (R-Ill.), whom Viguerie envisions as the conservative choice for President in 1980. Viguerie’s ideas about his own leadership are not taken seriously by all conservative officeholders. Laxalt, for example, sees Viguerie as “the best direct mail mechanic in the business,” but not as a leader.
Among his New Right colleagues, Viguerie is respected for his integrity. But other conservatives see him as an opportunistic businessman who has exploited the conservative movement for maximum profit. Their complaints usually have to do with the amount of money that goes to fund-raising costs rather than to candidates. Wyatt Stewart, a former Viguerie employee who now raises money for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, says that Viguerie’s costs are much too high. Stewart has raised about $8 million a year for the GOP committee through direct mail at a cost of $2 million, or 25 percent. Viguerie’s fund-raising costs for New Right groups have averaged about 50 percent of the proceeds. But Viguerie’s clients say they are not unhappy. “We probably could get someone cheaper, but Richard can get the job done when you need it done,” said Paul Weyrich of the Committee for Survival of a Free Congress.
Viguerie has ready answers to the criticism of his high costs. Initial prospecting for a new organization or a new candidate may be very expensive, he says, but costs drop dramatically as mailings yield renewed contributions. Like capital expenditures in business, he says, these costs can be viewed fairly only by amortizing them over a period of years.
Even when costs run as high as 100 percent of funds raised, as in an unsuccessful conservative campaign to defeat Senator Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Viguerie has an explanation. “The purpose of our mail isn’t just to raise funds. We are building a movement. Direct mail is a way to get people involved, to educate them, to turn out the vote. Direct mail is a form of advertising and conservatives have found it a way to communicate with our people and to pay for the communication. What are the critics suggesting? That we raise money by direct mail and then spend it on television?”
Viguerie’s associates and employees respect the consistent values they find in his business and family life and his political beliefs. “I’d be shocked if Richard ever took a project to make money that hurt the conservative cause,” said Terry Dolan, the NCPAC chairman. “He is one businessman who won’t do anything that counters his principles.”
Yet there runs through his professional career a stream of complaints about his fund-raising practices. His direct mail business has specialized in philanthropy as well as politics, and his work for charitable causes has drawn many objections from state officials and Better Business Bureaus—the essential charge is that too much of the money raised goes back to Viguerie. New York State took action in 1973 against Citizens for Decent Literature, an antipornography group, on grounds that 93 percent of funds raised went to Viguerie. In 1977, New York State banned solicitations by the Korean Cultural and Freedom Foundation after discovering that of the $1.5 million it raised in 1975 to help hungry children, less than $100,000 went to the children and more than $900,000 was paid to the Viguerie firm. (The rest went to administrative and other expenses.)
The Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Philanthropic Advisory Service has a thick file on Viguerie’s charity projects, including a recent complaint concerning Bibles for the World. This group seeks to give a Bible to everyone in the world listed in a telephone directory, but in its first year it raised $802,028 from Viguerie’s direct mail at a total fund-raising cost of $899,255.
Viguerie’s defense, again, is that initial costs are enormous. Nevertheless, contributors don’t realize that their money is often used to build a bigger and better contributor list.
Viguerie’s book company, Prospect House, gives away “conservative book packs” to students, ministers, and veterans. Direct mail appeals to names on his various lists ask for donations to subsidize these book gifts. This is in fact purely a business venture, and the Council of Better Business Bureaus worries that the mail solicitations look as though they are nonprofit or charitable. These appeals utilize the letterhead of some worthy cause. One solicitation, under the letterhead “Help Our Police,” featured a picture of a policeman being beaten by an antiwar demonstrator. Funds contributed would be used to provide a newsletter for policemen, alerting them to dangerous radicals. Viguerie insists that his letters make clear that they are business ventures and at some point in the letters Prospect House is mentioned. By his own advertisements, Prospect House has received at least $2.7 million in “contributions” from 165,000 “donors.”
It is too early to predict whether Viguerie and his New Right clients have the staying power for political survival. David Cohen of Common Cause questions whether the New Right groups represent “a citizens’ movement or merely a direct mail movement.” For the moment, however, the right wing is riding high, and the conservative political marketplace is a seller’s dreamland.
But direct mail has inherent limitations. David Keane, a political consultant to Reagan and Gerald Ford, noted: “A direct mail message that is opened and read by the 2 percent true believers can be effective in a primary, but totally inappropriate when you need to get 51 percent in a general election. Then you must appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, and the hot, emotional rhetoric and issues which raise funds from the conservative faithful can be self-defeating.”
The computerized slickness of direct mail can also go awry. In a 1976 Montana Senate race, Viguerie, in a stock “involvement device,” had Republican Stanley Burger ask thousands of people to serve on his advisory committee. Burger was embarrassed when it turned out that he had invited his opponent, Senator John Melcher, as well as various members of Melcher’s family and staff, to serve on the committee.
The continued effectiveness of lobbying Congress with mountains of prewritten cards and letters is also in doubt. Labor unions are retaliating with their own mass mail. “If Congress wants to respond to mail by tonnage,” says the AFL-CIO’s Ben Albert, “we’ll equal their tonnage, hernias to postmen notwithstanding.” An overwhelmed Congress is now installing its own answering machines—so that computers are talking to computers.
It is still not certain that a solid coalition can be shaped from voters who rise to the bait of a single, emotion-laden issue. For individual campaigns, maybe. But no one knows. The union member worked up against gun control and the Catholic housewife who believes that abortion is murder might not stick with conservatives on traditional bread-and-butter issues.
William Brock, chairman of the Republican National Committee, says Viguerie and the New Right are concentrating on the wrong issues: “You can’t build a party around those emotional social issues, and I’m not sure government can solve them. The New Right groups are competitive not only in that they draw away money from us but they draw away attention in Congress from the broad issues of tax reduction, job creation, health care, housing—the American Dream issues. We can only become a majority party by bringing together people around those issues.”
Unfortunately, for Democrats and Republicans alike, the vast majority of us are increasingly apathetic politically, and we permit the arena to be dominated by small, intensely partisan splinter groups. The answer, of course, is for more people to become more involved. The kind of citizen participation that is needed goes well beyond mailing a prewritten postcard to a member of Congress. But neither Richard Viguerie nor any other political wizard has a magic prescription to make a majority of Americans care about and participate in their government.