As 1964 drew to a close, the modern American conservative movement was at its nadir. “Mr. Conservative,” Senator Barry Goldwater, had been routed in the presidential campaign by Lyndon Johnson, who was poised to resuscitate the New Deal on a grand scale. Hundreds of conservative officeholders and candidates at all levels accompanied Goldwater in defeat. The theory and practice of Big Government held America in thrall. Pundits had all but completed their obituaries for conservatism.
Yet like the proverbial cloud with a silver lining, the Goldwater debacle cleared the way for the resurrection rather than the interment of the conservative movement. On November 7, 1964, just five days after the election, several of conservatism’s leading luminaries gathered to pick up the pieces and assess the movement’s future. They were determined not merely to paper over the damage, but to craft and forge a new vehicle through which the ideas and ideals articulated in the 1964 campaign could be advanced in the political arena without apology or retreat. Most thought that existing groups were limited in their appeal (such as Young Americans for Freedom) or too tarnished or discredited by controversy (such as the John Birch Society). In more immediate terms, they believed that an effective counterweight was needed to the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which they asserted in a subsequent statement “had been decisive in establishing a climate of opinion highly favorable to liberal legislation and liberal political candidates” in 1964.
Led by such figures as Frank S. Meyer, John Chamberlain, Jameson Campaigne Sr., John Ashbrook, Katharine St. George, William F. Buckley Jr., L. Brent Bozell and Robert E. Bauman (organizer of the founding meeting), this new vehicle—the American Conservative Union—was established in early December. The name was selected from among dozens of suggestions because it had “the ring of permanence,” according to one early account. Its three-fold mission: “consolidate the overall strength of the American conservative movement through unified leadership and action, mold public opinion, and stimulate and direct responsible political action.”
The first meeting of the original ACU Board of Directors was held December 18, 1964, at the Statler (now the Capital) Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. Members included Ashbrook, Bauman, Bozell, Buckley, Campaigne, Meyer and St. George, along with Lammot Copeland, Peter O’Donnell, John A. Howard and Congressman Donald C. Bruce of Indiana, who was elected the first chairman. At its second meeting on the following afternoon, the heads of five committees that comprised the 50-member Advisory Assembly were also elected to the Board ex officio: William A. Rusher, Stefan Possony, John Chamberlain, John Davenport and John Dos Passos. A Statement of Principles, virtually unchanged to this day, was adopted as Article 2 of the original constitution and bylaws. The formal announcement of ACU’s “founding conference” came in a statement to the media by Bruce on December 21.
ACU’s first steps into political action occurred on January 7, 1965, when the board committed it to “a program of action” against repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act’s right-to-work clause, and support of a tax credit plan as an antidote to Lyndon Johnson’s proposed federal education subsidies. In March, Donald Lipsett was hired as the first Executive Administrator. By May, membership stood at 3,500 (that figure would double by September). In June, a headquarters was opened at 1010 Vermont Avenue in Washington, replacing the original but temporary office at 53 D Street, SE. Consultant Marvin Liebman, another participant in the first meetings, was retained to provide initial organizing, fundraising and management services. Attorney Kenneth W. Parkinson helped prepare the original by-laws and rendered other important legal services incidental to the organization’s start-up.
On October 2, Congressman Bruce stepped down as chairman of the board and Ohio Congressman John M. Ashbrook was elected his successor. Ashbrook launched one of the first conservative grassroots mobilization programs, Action Now, designed to reach as many of the 27 million Goldwater voters as possible through a network of local conservative political action clubs. Headed by William Rusher, ACU’s Political Action Chairman, the initiative led to the first ACU state affiliates in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
With expanded membership and a revitalized treasury, ACU sallied fourth into publishing. In January 1967, the board voted to launch the Republican Report, to cover internal GOP affairs and serve as a sounding board for conservative opposition to the Ripon Society and other liberal influences in the party. Within the year, the Republican Report was renamed the Republican Battle Line and, in 1971, Battle Line. The first editor was Carol Dawson Bauman. Later editors would include future board member Jeffrey Bell, Patrick Korten and John D. Lofton. By November ACU had absorbed the membership of and merged with Public Action Incorporated (PAI), which sought to influence Congress through organized letter-writing campaigns.
ACU’s first important foray into national politics occurred in 1968. In March, the board passed and released a resolution urging conservatives to reject George Wallace’s presidential bid. It also dispatched Possony as its representative to the Republican National Convention Platform Committee––the first in a series of instances wherein ACU leaders played key roles in shaping the GOP platform. ACU also voted to try to raise funds to elect as many conservative Congressional candidates as possible in case the presidential election had to be decided by the House of Representatives. In September, ACU’s board unanimously endorsed the Nixon-Agnew team (in May 1971, amid speculation that Spiro Agnew would be “dumped,” it went on record supporting his retention on the 1972 GOP ticket).
Another milestone came in early 1970 with the creation of the Conservative Victory Fund (CVF), one of the first conservative campaign war chests. That year it raised more money––$148,000 (nearly $600,000 in today’s dollars)––and contributed to more campaigns than all other conservative groups combined, with 27 of the 61 House and Senate candidates it gave to emerging victorious.
By this time, the honeymoon between conservatives, as spearheaded by ACU, and the Nixon Administration was over. ACU’s first authentic lobbying program, in 1969, had been an all-out battle against Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (FAP) welfare proposal. ACU fought Nixon’s revenue-sharing scheme and also played a key role in defeating a proposal to abolish the electoral college. That initiative led to the creation in October 1969 of an ad hoc ACU project, later dubbed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), composed of conservative state legislators interested in sharing information and coordinating strategy on the electoral college issue. The project was so successful that ALEC continued after the electoral college fight was over. ALEC was officially established as a formal ACU project at a Chicago meeting in 1975 under the leadership of Illinois state legislator Donald Totten. A few years later, ALEC became an independent organization.
Next, in January 1970, ACU released “The Nixon Administration: The Conservative Judgment,” a 16-page critique prepared by Henry Hazlitt, Frank J. Johnson and M. Stanton Evans, which concluded that “conservatives get the words; the liberals get all the action.” Earlier, commencing in the summer of 1969, ACU had conducted a mail poll of its 15,000 members plus 20,000 “leading Republicans” about Nixon’s record, which, though unscientific by today’s standards, uncovered the first clear signs of conservative unease over the administration’s portside tilt.
In February 1971, Ashbrook retired as chairman and was succeeded by Evans, one of the newest ACU board members. Ashbrook’s stewardship had left ACU in the best condition of its short history. The new leadership immediately acted to build on that momentum. The first ACU “Rating of Congress” were compiled that year––although as far back as 1967, ACU had published The DMV Report, a yearly analysis of how frequently liberal and moderate Republicans in Congress had provided the Democratic margin of victory on key legislation. A greater emphasis was placed on successfully using the media to convey conservative ideas and positions, and ACU became a primary source for the authoritative “conservative view” on major issues.
In late July 1971, ACU made headlines with its stunning “Declaration Relating To President Nixon.” The manifesto (formally adopted as a resolution by the board in September) in effect severed diplomatic relations between the conservative movement and the Nixon White House, recounting the administration’s many policies that were anathema to conservatives. “In consideration of this record,” the Declaration said, “the American Conservative Union has resolved to suspend our support of the Administration,” adding that “we consider that our defection is an act of loyalty to the Nixon we supported in 1968.” Several other conservative groups and publications also associated themselves with the statement. This action first demonstrated the ability and willingness of conservatives not to be exploited by Republican regimes and that conservative support could not be taken for granted. In December, answering scoffs that the Right had “nowhere else to go,” ACU voted to support Ashbrook if he decided to challenge Nixon in the 1972 presidential primaries––which he courageously did.
By the end of 1972, ACU’s membership stood at 45,000, with an additional 13,500 gained through separate CVF efforts. The organization launched new, more aggressive programs, which included continued criticism of the Nixon Administration, battles against the liberal Congress, challenges to the media (including a highly publicized duel with NBC over a biased, pro-national health insurance TV documentary), and confrontations with the federal bureaucracy. At the 1972 GOP National Convention, led by Board members Donald Devine, David Keene and Morton Blackwell, ACU spearheaded the effort to defeat quotas and to reform the delegate selection process––reforms that essentially stand to this day.
In 1973, ACU launched three new initiatives: Public Monitor, a subsidiary under the direction of Howard Phillips intended to heighten awareness of bureaucratic abuses and pursue opportunities for legal action; the ACU Education and Research Institute (ACU-ERI), a scholarly and educational adjunct foundation that was the source of dozens of studies and issue analyses; and the congressional placement program, a job bank for conservative newcomers to Washington.
Building on the periodic Conservative Awards Dinners of earlier years, ACU in 1974 took the lead in sponsoring the first Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Unlike the self-congratulatory programs of the past, CPAC was designed to help train, inform, inspire and energize conservative activists nationwide. From the beginning it succeeded in attracting the movement’s top names as well as its emerging leaders.
A particular effort was made during the 1970s to build state organizations affiliated with ACU, a program spearheaded by future board member Becky Norton Dunlop. At its height, ACU boasted more than three dozen such affiliates, some of them (such as the Conservative Party of New York) quite substantial. Hallmarks of their activities included ratings of state legislatures, tax limitation campaigns, and state and regional CPACs.
In June 1975, ACU became closely involved in one of the pivotal episodes in American politics when it called upon long-time friend and ally Ronald Reagan to seek the presidency in 1976. That same year, ACU became a co-plaintiff in the landmark Buckley v. Valeo case, working closely with the lead attorneys and helping coordinate support for the long legal battle. The resulting decision was of historic significance, setting the stage for independent political campaigns and political action committees––a possibility to which ACU, through its close involvement in the case, was instantly alerted. After Reagan announced, ACU and its state affiliates undertook one of the first independent, non-party campaigns on behalf of a presidential candidate. Since the official campaign posture was to in essence remain “above the fray” instead of challenging President Gerald Ford directly on the issues, ACU leaders believed such an effort was urgently needed: only by hitting hard on the issues could Reagan dislodge a sitting president.
Stressing the theme “There Is A Difference,” ACU sponsored hundreds of radio and newspaper ads contrasting Reagan’s conservative vision with Ford’s liberal drift. The ads focused on such irritants as Ford’s retention of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, his choice of Nelson Rockefeller to be Vice President, and the administration’s (namely, Kissinger’s) intentions to relinquish U.S. control of the Panama Canal.
ACU’s efforts began with the Florida primary and then targeted North Carolina, where the political cognoscenti said Reagan was fated to meet his Waterloo. The independent effort also targeted Texas, Indiana and Nebraska. As it happened, Reagan won the primary in all five states, due partly to the candidate’s increasingly energetic campaigning, but also thanks to ACU’s grassroots-oriented efforts. ACU’s state affiliate activists worked hard in the Reagan cause, setting the stage for a victorious repeat performance four years later.
Indeed, ACU had pioneered the development of independent campaigns, heralding a dramatic change on the American political landscape. This shift also marked an unofficial beginning of the long-term drive by conservative activists to wrest the leadership of local, county and state GOP organizations from liberal control.
Illinois Congressman Philip M. Crane was elected ACU chairman in February 1977. While the Reagan defeat had temporarily taken the wind out of the movement’s sails, ACU was nonetheless firmly cemented on the political scene as the flagship of the conservative movement. Under Crane, it turned its attention to activism on high-profile, high-stakes national issues with less heed paid to squabbles with the GOP or other conservative groups. The task force concept was given much greater emphasis as ACU recruited leading experts backed by budgets and ACU staff to tackle such topics as energy policy, tax reform and defense. These led to major ACU successes, such as the Stop OSHA project and airline deregulation.
The two most profound ACU initiatives under Crane’s leadership were the campaign against President Carter’s proposed giveaway of the Panama Canal and the start of a project to defeat the SALT II arms control treaty. ACU’s Panama Canal effort projected the conservative message to the general public more widely and strongly than at any time since Goldwater’s campaign. High-profile “Truth Squads” crisscrossed the country. A TV documentary was produced, ads in newspapers and on radio were placed, rallies were held, letter-writing and petition campaigns were launched, and direct lobbying of Congress was ongoing. ACU membership soared to 325,000 and income topped $3 million by December 1978.
As 1979 dawned, ACU membership, income, scope of activity and staff stood at record levels. Congressman Crane stepped down as chairman in order to seek the 1980 GOP presidential nomination and was replaced by Maryland Congressman Bob Bauman. On June 28, 1979, ACU became incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
ACU’s key successes in this period were the fight against SALT II, employing most of the same mechanisms used in the Panama Canal campaign, its leadership in coalitions that defeated national health insurance and secured trucking industry deregulation, a strong protest against U.S. abandonment of historic ties to the Republic of China, and its involvement in the 1980 Reagan campaign. Several of ACU’s directors and staffers participated in the campaign and went on to serve in the Reagan Administration while Reagan himself, as president, would speak at every CPAC except one during his eight years in office.
For the next four years, ACU was active in working to secure appointment of bona fide conservatives to key posts in the Reagan Administration and in supporting important administration initiatives, such as the Gramm-Latta budget bill and projects to de-fund the Left. In that regard, ACU launched Project One Million in 1981, seeking at least one million backers of a petition of support for Reagan’s economic plan. ACU revisited its once-prominent position as a leader on defense/foreign policy issues, adopting out-front roles opposing the nuclear freeze movement and vigorously supporting the president’s Strategic Defense Initiative as a long-term objective through its Peace Offensive project.
In December 1984, political campaign strategist David A. Keene, a former National Chairman of Young Americans for Freedom, was elected ACU
chairman following the resignation of Congressman Marvin “Mickey” Edwards of Oklahoma, who had succeeded Congressman Bauman. At that time, the board reached a consensus that the interests of ACU would no longer be necessarily best served by members of Congress heading the organization. A by-law was passed guaranteeing that future chairmen would be public citizens rather than government employees. By this time, both CVF and ACU-ERI had become independent entities. In their places arose the ACU Political Action Committee (a separate segregated fund) and the John M. Ashbrook Educational Foundation (later renamed the American Conservative Union Foundation).
By the beginning of 1987, ACU was again active in support of conservative nominees to the Supreme Court and other federal benches and on behalf of the administration’s SDI project. As finances improved, the staff was expanded and New projects were begun, such as a campaign to support anti-Communist initiatives in Central America and publication of the Congressional Guide To the Strategic Defense Initiative.
In 1989, ACU celebrated its silver anniversary, highlighted by paying homage to President Reagan as the Conservative of the Decade. The rise of George H.W. Bush, who on the surface was seemingly committed to continuing the Reagan Revolution, produced mixed results. ACU led the conservative movement in strongly supporting some Bush Administration policies (the Clarence Thomas nomination and legislation to outlaw flag-burning were two major examples), but in other instances found itself forced to play the role of critic. Indeed, the Bush years proved to be difficult ones for ACU. The organization focused on foreign policy issues, particularly in the wake of the Soviet Empire’s demise, and produced spin-offs of its annual congressional ratings, such as SDI ratings and a voting index on pork-barrel spending. Largely in lieu of Battle Line, a series of ACU periodicals arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including ACUmen and Capitol Review. Ultimately, dissatisfaction with both the Bush Administration’s policies and its treatment of conservatives prompted the board in February 1992 to pass a resolution endorsing Patrick Buchanan’s presidential candidacy.
The presidential election victory of Bill Clinton was the harbinger of both good and bad news for ACU. The bad news was that liberals again controlled the White House, Congress, and the federal bureaucracy. The good news was that his victory re-awakened complacent conservatives in large numbers, holding out the promise of renewed interest in and support for ACU.
For 1993, ACU’s strategy was to focus on one key issue––health care reform, the Clinton Administration’s crown jewel––rather than stretch limited resources in an attempt to cover the waterfront. Preliminary direct-mail tests produced the best results in years, and a highly aggressive direct-mail campaign was put on a fast track. The roster of ACU members and supporters quadrupled from 1991-92 levels to approach an all-time high by 1994.
In the spring of 1993, under the leadership of ACU director Donald Devine, a coalition was created to do battle with the Clinton Administration on the health reform issue. Citizens against Rationing Health (CARH), co-chaired by Devine and former Texas Congressman Beau Boulter (a future board member), was formally announced at a July 1, 1993, press conference. CARH inaugurated an ambitious program of “national town meetings” across the country, rallying the grassroots against the Clinton national health scheme. CARH published an early critical analysis of the Clinton plan, outlined a conservative alternative, and was the first to suggest a “no compromise” strategy. CARH’s activities culminated in the National Health Care Truth Tour in August 1994, a bus trip from the Northeast to the Midwest featuring national and local speakers at rallies and press conferences at more than a dozen sites. The trip was reprised that fall through the California Health Care Truth Tour in cooperation with the National Tax Limitation Committee, headed by ACU director Lewis K. Uhler. The second major ACU project was the mass production and distribution of a 15-minute videocassette featuring congressional leaders and outside experts warning of the dangers of “Clintoncare.” The third element in the ACU battle plan was the use of millions of pieces of direct mail.
After the White House conceded defeat, Hillary Clinton herself was quoted as saying that she had underestimated the skill and determination of opponents, citing conservatives’ direct mail and mass media campaigns as the key elements that doomed the administration’s plan. A highlight of the 1995 CPAC was ACU’s recognition of the cooperating groups and grassroots activists who contributed to victory.
In the meantime, in May 1994, ACU for the first time in its history obtained a permanent headquarters, purchasing a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Also in 1994, the ACU PAC was able to contribute to candidates beyond token amounts for the first time in more than a decade, donating to 33 candidates (mostly challengers), of whom 25 were victorious.
Moreover, the movement enjoyed its most stunning electoral success in history in 1994 as conservatives took over Congress and scored triumphs in state and local races across the country. Several newly elected congressmen and senators had participated in CARH events, and ACU welcomed the new majority at a gala Capitol Hill reception in early December 1994. For 1995, following adoption of a formal strategic plan at the beginning of the year, ACU’s focus shifted toward the need to quickly enact conservative policies and principles into law. “The conservative position,” as ACU outlined in letters and lobbying visits to Congress, was advanced on more than a score of issues. Most notably, ACU took charge of the conservative movement’s activities on term limits, the thorniest of the Contract with America initiatives.
In April of 1999, with an eye toward a dramatic increase in ACU’s visibility and effectiveness, Chairman Keene put together a new staff headed by Christian Josi, a young, New-York-based political consultant. The new team has made an impact—lobbying success is at an all time high and members and supporters are at the one million mark and climbing.
On May 26, 1999, the ACU Foundation celebrated the irreversible impact the conservative movement has had upon American politics by hosting the Conservative Century Dinner in Washington, DC. At this once in a lifetime event, Ronald Reagan was named the Conservative of the Century and keynote speaker William F. Buckley declared “what is good for the ACU is good for America.” Most recently ACU was widely credited with being the first to expose, on a national scale, President Clinton’s then-quiet decision to grant clemency to 16 members of the FALN, a Puerto Rican terrorist group. ACU produced a 60-second television ad, entitled “Terrorists,” and called on Congress to condemn the clemency decision. The ad was featured on virtually all the major network political and news programs, and shortly thereafter Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn the president.
In ACU’s 48th year of existence, its supporters and friends can look back and agree that since ACU was born, American politics has never been the same. Indeed, many of its liberal foes concede that ACU enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a trusted, respected and influential voice, with the rare capacity to persuade even them to follow its lead from time to time on particular public policy issues. ACU’s farsighted founders stepped into the breach at a time when the conservative cause seemed to be all but lost, and kept the flame burning. Over the decades, scores of conservatism’s most distinguished figures have contributed their unremunerated time and talent to serve as ACU officers and directors. Many others who have had an important impact in politics got their start or honed their skills as members of ACU’s staff. At the grass roots, tens of thousands of Americans became active in shaping their country’s future thanks to the efforts of ACU. Many thousands more gave generously, even sacrificially to support action with dollars.
Two-time Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and businessman Al Cardenas was elected Chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) in February of 2011, succeeding David Keene, who had held the post since in 1984. Under Chairman Cardenas’ leadership, ACU has expanded its programs in a number of ways. First, ACU brought its commitment to conservative ideals to the states, by rating members in five legislatures in 2011. In 2012, ACU scored 15 states, as part of its five-year plan to bring ratings to all 50 states — scoring every legislature in every state, every session.
Second, ACU has expanded its Conservative Political Action Conferences, the nation’s largest gathering of conservatives, by taking CPAC out of Washington, D.C., and on the road to selected regions across the country. In 2011, ACU hosted the first Regional CPAC in Orlando, Florida, and in 2012 hosted CPAC in Chicago, Illinois, and a few months later in Denver, Colorado. In 2013, ACU hosted its regional CPAC in St. Louis, Missouri.
Even after 40 years, CPACs continue to educate, bring together and energize thousands of attendees and all of the leading conservative organizations and speakers who impact conservative thought in the nation. From Presidents of the United States to college students, CPACs have become the place to find our nation’s current and future leaders and set the conservative agenda each year. It’s been an amazing 49 years for ACU, but there’s much more still to come.