Phyllis Schlafly’s rhetorical genius

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Phyllis Schlafly speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference  in National Harbor, Md., on March 16, 2013. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons

Phyllis Schlafly speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 16, 2013. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons

Decades before anyone dreamt up alt-right verbal savagery, Schalfly steamrolled over Democrats, feminists, and AIDS activists.

Phyllis Schlafly was brilliant.

I agreed with none of her causes or methods.

But I was fascinated by the ways she deployed great intelligence, fierce determination and rhetorical talent.

In my interview with her for a Miami Herald profile in 1987, she gleefully explained how she turned McCarthy-esque guilt-by-association into a culture war weapon, how she took
the arguing-by-extremes technique to creative new levels.

And she was unabashedly proud of the damage she did.

So, her death, announced today, sent me back nearly 3 decades to that story:

August 6, 1987


Page: 1C


Cathy Lynn Grossman, Herald Staff Writer

If anyone thought conservative crusader Phyllis Schlafly would fade away after her biggest win — stomping the ERA ratification effort into a powder — he or she has another think coming.

After a few comparatively quiet years devoted to urgent, but arcane, issues such as SALT and SDI, the self-appointed champion of conservative politics and morality has once again found a popular platform, an issue as loaded with overtones of religion, sex and politics as the ERA.


U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has called for a public education campaign throughout society — including the public schools at the earliest grades — to prevent the spread of AIDS. In a 36-page report, Koop recommends information and behavioral change because there are not yet any medical or legal measures that will halt AIDS.

Schlafly scorns this. She claims Koop is advocating “safe sodomy” for elementary schoolers and she’s circulating that message among conservatives.

“There’s a lot of accurate information in his report, but when you get down to the bottom line, he does not call for any public health measures to protect the uninfected from the infected. He seems to lay the burden on the public schools to teach children how to engage in sex with condoms,” she says in a recent interview at the Washington office of Eagle Forum, the umbrella group for her various activities.

“This must be what he means when he says he wants to teach them the risk behavior by which you get AIDS. Sodomy is a risk behavior by which you get AIDS. And we just simply don’t think that grade school children need to be taught what homosexuals do.”

In Schlafly’s terms, “Teaching children to use condoms is about like teaching children who take drugs to use needles.”

She can’t actually point out a passage in Koop’s report, however, that says anything exciting or explicit. She finally says the condoms-and-kids association is one she has made based on Koop’s support for school-based health clinics which, among numerous other medical services, might offer family planning information.

Schlafly takes associations very seriously. In an anti-Koop letter she circulates, she and Paul Weyrich, another conservative spokesman, make a particular point of noting that the U.S. surgeon general once traveled to California at the invitation of “liberal Democratic officials who have strong connections to the homosexual community.”

That all citizens might feel free to invite the surgeon general to speak on national issues is clearly not what Schlafly means. She means to warn: This man is tainted by his associations.

Daughter of a working mother and a rabidly anti-New Deal father, Schlafly has been studying politics and society since girlhood.

She zipped through a master’s in political science on a fellowship to Radcliffe by age 20, working all the while. She reared six children, ran their Alton, Ill., mansion for her corporate lawyer husband and picked up a law degree while conducting her public opinion wars and political campaigns.

She won a 10-year national campaign to defeat the equal rights effort by 1982 with her impressive STOP ERA organization, which she founded and controlled. But she lost three big electoral posts — races for Congress in 1952 and 1970 and one for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1967.

Through it all, she smiles.

Schlafly has a wide and generous smile that seems as natural and constant to her as opening her eyes in the morning. Her mother recorded in her baby journal when Phyllis was 4 months old that this baby’s smile never quit. Neither did Phyllis.

Convictions give a body energy. At 63, the only gray in her life is in her hair. Schlafly adores absolutes. It’s an efficient way to reason in debates.

A serious debate requires an opponent of equal intellectual weight and moral force. Schlafly says she can’t think of any honorable spokesman for the opposition — someone of knowledge and integrity with whom she can respectfully disagree — on any issue.

People who think differently than she does are either lying, laughing or not truly confronting the issues, she says.

In the ERA heyday of the late 1970s, “I got to where I preferred the debates because there wasn’t any argument on the other side.”

She vilified those who disagreed with her as emotional, anti-family slobs, if not pro-lesbian radicals. Her biographer recounts how Schlafly described the 90,000 pro-ERA marcers who converged for a 1978 demonstration in Washington as “a combination of federal employees and radicals and lesbians.”

In 40 years of devotion to American social politics, her ideas have changed no more than her techniques. Be it an admirable steadfastness or a commitment to ignorance, she seems impervious to experience and new information. A lifetime of activism, marriage and motherhood all confirm what she expected in life as if she had been born to her philosophy.

“I’m sure I’ve grown in some areas. There are certainly a lot of areas I know about now that I didn’t have views about earlier, but I can’t think of any area that’s a real change. Certainly even three years ago I never could have dreamed I’d be talking about condoms in public, for heaven’s sake. I am really so angry at what people have done to us that they made us talk about these things all the time,” she says. Schlafly’s style is to present herself as a standard-bearer for valiant victims struggling to preserve their families, society’s endangered species deserving of protection. Indeed, she draws on the environmental protectionists’ methods to describe her own techniques.

“Don’t we have a new line that every time we pass a law, we should have an environmental impact statement? Isn’t that exactly what the environmentalists do? They say it might hurt some bird that might possibly perch, even though that bird isn’t from that neighborhood. Maybe that bird never comes to that part of the country. You’ve got to have determined whether you are going to affect the snail darter or the whales or whatever.”

Here’s what a social environmental impact statement looks like in Schlafly terms:

There is a proposal before Congress to require companies to provide up to 18 weeks of parental leave after a couple has a baby. It is “a windfall for yuppies” she says in The Phyllis Schlafly Report, her monthly newsletter that for 20 years has been her direct, unedited line to legions of fellow conservatives. She mails it to 45,000 people now, she says.

She projects that parents working for separate companies could each demand a maximum 18-week leave and then abuse it.

“This would be a real fringe benefit to the well-paid yuppie couple who could use their mandated leave for vacationing instead of parenting,” her report says.

That’s hardly likely, she acknowledges. But likeliness is hardly the point. She smiles delightedly at the image of greed and laziness she has conjured in this worst-case scenario.

“That is what you could do. And if you are going to impose a cost burden on your fellow employees and on your employer, we’ve got a right to know what you might do with it.

“Could” is a big Schlafly word. So is “might.” They are the words by which she projects threatening visions.

Here’s how she used them to help persuade several members of a pro-life committee planning a dinner honoring Koop to withdraw their sponsorship this spring.

Schlafly co-signed a letter with Weyrich, president of the conservative Coalitions for America, in which they complained that Koop said in a television interview that pregnant women with AIDS “could” have an abortion.

Since 1973, any American woman could have a legal abortion. But “he said it in a way that implicated that he might think abortion was all right,” Schlafly says.

“Your die-hard pro-lifers will not accept abortion under any circumstances.”

Should Koop have used that opening to make a statement against abortion?

“I don’t think it’s necessary that I answer that question,” she says.

“Now — enough of that!”

Well, not quite enough. The Schlafly-Weyrich letter goes on, saying, “Many believe that his statements about AIDS are a cover-up for the homosexual community. His report on AIDS issued last November reads as though it were edited by the Gay Task Force.”

And it concludes, “It would be very unfortunate if the homosexuals were permitted to divide the pro-family movement.”

So what is Schlafly trying to say about Koop?

She replies slowly, “I believe Koop has presented the issues the way the homosexuals want them presented.”

Jim Brown, a spokesman for Koop, dismisses the condoms-for- kids bit and other charges as sloganeering nonsense. He also says the surgeon general does not comment about Schlafly.

Meanwhile, Schlafly, characteristically, has issued her own AIDS Plan of Action.

She would mandate AIDS antibodies testing for virtually everyone in health or safety jobs from doctors to airline pilots. Public schools “must not teach or facilitate ‘value- free’ sexual acts, explicit descriptions of sexual acts, the use of so-called ‘safe-sex’ devices or nonmarital lifestyles.”

Those who volunteer for testing should have confidentiality, she says, but those facing mandatory testing, such as marriage license applicants, prisoners and immigrants, would not have confidentiality. Schlafly wouldn’t mandate testing for teachers, but she would evict teachers with the AIDS virus from the classroom. The fine points — how these tests would be conducted, how those with the AIDS virus would support themselves — are ignored. She has mailed her plan to all the Republican
presidential candidates — but none of the Democrats.

She smiles as if it were a curious notion to send ideas to Democrats. It is the generous, natural smile of a woman in her element.