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Remembering Conservatism's Unsung Hero By: David Keene
The Hill | Wednesday, July 30, 2003


I am told that we conservatives are in disarray -- that we have lost our moorings and don't quite know what to do about the fact that everything isn't going our way and that some of us actually disagree with each other on just where we ought to be going.

These things are true. But they have been true from the beginning. Conservatives are and always have been a fractious bunch. The movement that grew out of the writing and feverish activity of folks interested primarily in ideas and policies has grown up but is as fractious as ever.

Successful ideological and political movements operating within democratic societies must, by definition, reach out if they are to be successful. They have to both develop and market their ideas to recruit the political foot soldiers and, yes, voters that allow them to translate their ideas into policies. In the process, they compromise on tactics and interim versus long-range goals. For if they don't, they risk failure.

Tactics and strategy have always been hot topics of debate among conservatives and continue to be so today. But the movement has survived and prospered because most of those who have been thrust into positions of leadership within it have remained true to the core ideas for which conservatives have fought since the '50s. They have known instinctively, in fact, that if their core ideas are strong enough, and if those they recruit sign on because of those ideas, the movement has a chance of both succeeding and moving the society in the direction it wishes.

They have known, that the strength of the modern conservative movement from the beginning has been the willingness of thousands and finally literally millions of Americans to devote their time and resources to it success because of their beliefs rather than an ephemeral desire for power or patronage.

I can remember knocking on doors in 1964 when we all knew that Barry Goldwater wasn't going to win the presidency. Like many of my generation, I even dropped out of school to help because, to repeat the theme of that campaign, in our hearts we knew he was right and because win or lose, he was himself part of our movement.

And so was Ronald Reagan. He knew he owed his success not simply to his charm, wit and speaking ability, but to the principles for which he stood and the ideas he popularized. He almost beat a sitting Republican president in 1976 and then swept into the presidency in 1980 at the head of an army of activists who were willing to devote their every waking moment to a candidate who shared their vision.

Reagan always understood that his successes depended on the people in the political trenches who put him in a position where he could make a difference.

I was reminded of all this just last week with the passing of Lou Rotterman.

Rotterman was the product of an earlier generation; few of today's conservatives have even heard of him. He wasn't an elected official or a philosopher. He simply believed and dedicated himself to doing what he could to make sure those who shared his beliefs would succeed.

Like many of his generation, he went to war. He flew more than 50 combat missions and won the Navy's Distinguished Flying Cross at the battle of Leyte Gulf. He came home after the war and worked as a journalist in Ohio and, finally, Washington where he met a young, unknown congressman from New York. Lou liked what young Jack Kemp had to say about taxes and joined him as executive assistant and press secretary to help do something about cutting taxes.

In those days press secretaries and speechwriters worked behind the scenes to put the people they believed in into the spotlight. They asked little in return other than that those for whom they toiled remain true to the principles they shared. Kemp could not have succeeded without Lou, and Reagan would not have been the president he was without the ideas the two promoted.

Lou Rotterman is gone. But his successors are out there today working just as hard as he did. We don't read their names in the paper either because they aren't in it for the glory, but to do their part to make this world a better place for all of us.


David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm.


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