We held a memorial service on Monday for my father, who died at age 72 of cancer on April 28. Ordinarily I would think it best for a writer in a mostly political publication to keep private his reminiscences of a recently deceased father. There is nothing new, after all, about sons being able to share stories about the ball games where their fathers cheered for them and the barbecues and camping trips they shared. But not a lot of fathers were longtime lieutenants in the conservative movement. My dad, Haywood H. Hillyer III, was one such mid-level leader. (He’s been mentioned before in American Spectator articles.) His story of political activism can serve as a reminder that American government is not just the province of political professionals, but instead is the responsibility, and the privilege, of every American citizen.
That idea, by the way, is what the Tea Party movement and other recent grassroots activism is all about. Had he been healthy, Dad surely would have been an active Tea Party enthusiast. His whole life in volunteer politics was pursued remarkably without regard for the opinions of Washington elites.
Dad was a mildly left-leaning Tulane University student in the late 1950s when one professor’s particularly virulent leftist advocacy seemed to him to be so unfair and wrongheaded that Dad began re-examining his own barely formed beliefs. Soon, he said, he felt very alone. Even then, the prevailing “wisdom” on campus was so decidedly to the left that Dad wasn’t even sure if his own doubts made him a freak. By pure happenstance, in a doctor’s office, he stumbled across a copy of National Review — and suddenly felt no longer so alone.
Within short order, he became founder and president of the Tulane Conservative Club. He founded and edited one of the earliest college conservative papers in the country, called the Liberator. Somehow he prevailed upon rising conservative icon Barry Goldwater, who was making a speech in New Orleans, to submit an exclusive column for the Liberator‘s premiere issue.
Dad attended the famous Sharon Conference in 1960, at which Young Americans for Freedom was founded. He became active in what was then known as “College Young Republicans,” and cast one of the deciding votes that made the slightly younger Morton Blackwell the group’s Louisiana state chairman.
These were the days when nobody associated Republicans with segregation: The Southern officials who were vicious racists were all Democrats. Dad’s interests were all for freedom: smaller government to ensure it at home, and a strong military to defend it abroad. Indeed, Dad regularly ignored segregationist custom by going to the back rooms and back alleys to which black traditional-jazz musicians were relegated between sets, in order to just hang out with them and listen to their stories of the early days of jazz.
Anyway, when Dad became a Republican activist, fewer than 10,000 voters were registered as Republicans in the whole state. Dad believed in a two-party system, and in a conservative alternative to the Democratic old-boy network. He devoted his energies to building that second party, even at the expense of some awkward social situations.
Longtime Democratic congressman Hale Boggs and his wonderful wife Lindy had both been attendants (maid/groomsman) in Dad’s parents’ wedding, and Dad’s parents likewise served in the Boggs’ wedding. But a young conservative lawyer named Dave Treen ran against Boggs in 1962, and then again in 1964 and 1968, focusing especially in that earliest campaign on reining in the continuing excesses of the New Deal. As Dad later told me, “I didn’t want Hale to lose, but I really wanted Dave to win.” Dad told of pushing aside Treen’s meager furniture in 1962 to hold campaign strategy sessions on the living room floor.
Dad was elected in 1963 to the Orleans Republican Parish Executive Committee, and four years later to the State Central Committee — on which he served for a full quarter-century. He also volunteered in way too many campaigns, delighting in doing the scutwork of drawing up precinct “walk lists” for volunteers or serving as an election observer doing “ballot security” in neighborhoods where lots of voters were rumored to come early and often from the city’s famous cemeteries.
In my eulogy on Monday, I described the party committee meetings:
For the last dozen of [Dad’s years on the State Central Committee], I often attended meetings with him in the state legislative chamber. Almost invariably, the same scene occurred. For those unfamiliar with it, what the Central Committee does is, basically, to write the rules by which the party organization operates. They decide things such as whether or not the state party will have a primary or district caucuses to choose delegates for the presidential nominating convention. It’s pretty dry stuff, but passions almost always run high nonetheless, with various factions vying for advantage. And there they would go, loudly arguing to no real effect, creating a perfect cacophony of anger completely outsized for the subject matter. Finally, with exquisite timing, my father would ask to be recognized. Taking the mike, clearly and concisely and in quiet tones, he would lay out a sensible solution, explain why it was fair to everybody, and then move for its adoption. And, almost every time, the hostility would dissipate, the tension would break — and Dad’s proposal would soon prevail. That’s why, one time when Dad ran for re-election, the late Charlie Dunbar [A Louisiana Republican of even longer standing than my father] took it on himself to send a campaign letter on Dad’s behalf. Its first line, borrowed from the old E. F. Hutton commercial, was simple: “When Haywood Hillyer talks, people listen.”
In 1980, my father was one of eight Louisiana “steering committee” members for Ronald Reagan’s primary campaign effort against George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and others. (Dad was chairman for the Second Congressional District.) In 1986, Ed Meese’s Justice Department chose him as a nominee for the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals — but when the Democrats took over the Senate, Dad was borked behind the scenes (this was actually before Robert Bork himself was borked) and withdrawn.
(The nomination, by the way, came out of the blue. He had never asked to be considered. He had held, or would hold, numerous elected leadership positions for the New Orleans Bar Association, the Louisiana Bar Association, and the Federal Bar Association — but Dad never once, in all his years of volunteer service, had ever asked for a contract, legal case, or other perk in return for political work or bar association service. He loved his country. For him, that was enough.)
Dad bounced back from the disappointment. In early 1988, he saw a growing rift between the rapidly growing Christian Coalition in Louisiana and the old-line Republicans of both conservative and moderate bents. Worried that the party would erupt in internecine warfare, and realizing that he was one of the few people trusted by both sides (he was not a member nor an ally of the Christian Coalition, but he shared some of its members’ concerns and had always encouraged their participation), he decided on very short notice to run for the state’s lone Republican National Committeeman spot. He won, and spent the next five years (a quirk of election scheduling extended the normal four-year term) working in concert with his old friend Morton Blackwell to try to push the RNC to pressure the elder Bush’s administration to the right. As a labor-relations attorney by trade, Dad particularly worked hard with Blackwell to try convincing the RNC to adopt a resolution urging the administration to implement (codify) the new Beck decision giving union members the right to withhold that part of their dues that was being used for political activity. The administration, though, convinced an RNC majority to quash the resolution.
Meanwhile, Louisiana Republicans were faced with the bizarre, dangerous, and meteoric political rise of ex-Klan leader David Duke. (In a wonderful and welcome news story on Dad’s death, the New Orleans Times-Picayune quite accurately characterized Dad’s brave activities against Duke, albeit by quoting me far too extensively when plenty of others could have attested to Dad’s work.) Suffice it to say that the journalists who covered the Duke story most closely all credited Dad with being a stalwart opponent of his.
Worn out, Dad finally stepped back from most political volunteerism once his National Committee term ended. But he did spend nearly four years doing untold hours of pro bono legal work and other organizing for a struggling New Orleans radio station known for mixing conservative talk shows with a few daily hours of traditional jazz.
Health problems, Hurricane Katrina, a new wife’s three-year bout with cancer, and then his own year-long cancer battle followed. Dad’s long work in the conservative vineyards came to an end.
The lesson of all of which is … well, what, exactly?
Well, first, Dad showed for four decades a unique, admirable, and constructive dedication to a good cause. His work merits the memorialization that only print (or cyber-print) can provide.
Second, though, is something not unique to my father. The truth is that despite what is indicated by most of the media’s coverage of politics, the real heart and soul of the American political system is not the consultants or the congressmen, not the spoils seekers or the wheeler-dealers, but the tens of thousands of volunteers who stuff the envelopes, knock on doors, make the phone calls, show up at the rallies, and ferry neighbors to the polls. Haywood H. Hillyer III was one of these people, these loyal and patriotic Americans who see political work as a civic duty. His heart wasn’t in the back rooms where influence was peddled. It was in two other places instead: the world of ideas, to which publications such as The American Spectator, National Review, and Human Events so mightily contributed during the years he was active; and the neighborhood/district political meeting or nominating caucus, where those for whom politics was not vocation but avocation do the critical but unheralded work of small-“r” republican government.
For me, he was the best dad in the world for innumerable reasons having nothing to do with politics. For his country, he was one of many — albeit a particularly devoted one — who served his nation due to a sense of duty and gratitude. The rest of us should always endeavor to do likewise.