You might say that Lee Edwards is the Zelig of the conservative movement, except Edwards is nothing like the inconsequential eager-to-please character created by Woody Allen. Even so, Edwards has been present and a central participant in every single significant conservative event and development for close to 85 years.
I say 85 years because Edwards was present at significant events began in utero. His father, William Ambrose Edwards, was a noted reporter for the Chicago Tribune who lived and worked at the center of national events beginning in 1925.
Lee’s father covered the Lindberg baby murder trial in 1935. His father covered every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. He covered every national campaign. His father was actually there at the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 when Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers went after each other, the moment that spelled the eventual end of Hiss. Lee met Nixon when the young Congressman was a guest in the Edwards’ suburban Washington home. He met McCarthy, too, who was very close to his father.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Edwards suckled at the teat of good old-time conservatism and that nourishment never left him. It nourishes him still. And he remains at the center of everything, writing important books from his aerie at the Heritage Foundation.
After writing more than two dozen books, many under his own name, many others ghosted for important figures, Edwards has at long last written his memoirs—Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty (ISI Books, 2017)—something his friends, myself included, have been eager to see for many years.
Lee was present at the 1960 GOP convention that nominated Richard Nixon. A few months later, he was at young Bill Buckley’s estate in Sharon, Connecticut where they wrote the Sharon Statement, the document that created the most influential youth organization of the 1960s, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a group still defending liberty on leftist college campuses.
Not long after, Lee organized YAF’s first massive rally in New York City that drew 6,000 to a venue in Manhattan that held only 3,500. The rally landed on the front page of the New York Times and on the network news, early glimpses of Lee’s near mystical ability to draw attention to his organizations and his causes.
Not long after that, Lee went to East Berlin, only a few months after the Berlin Wall went up.
Not long after, Lee and his colleagues organized yet another rally, this one in Madison Square Garden. Imagine the chutzpah of those kids thinking they could fill that massive place. But they did. In fact, they filled it and more; ten thousand were turned away at the door. They called it “Victory Over Communism.” Thousands of kids screamed for Barry Goldwater who, standing at the podium waiting to speak, grew so frustrated he said, “Well, if you shut up, you’ll get him.” They screamed even more.
Shortly after that—are you picking up a pattern here, about how fast all this was moving?—they founded the Draft Goldwater effort and Lee was there at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC handing out press releases. That was April 1963. Three months later, on July 4th, Lee served as technical director for a Goldwater rally at the National Guard Armory where he also wrote remarks for television star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Goldwater was absent but seven thousand conservatives showed up anyway. Lee was asked to join Draft Goldwater full time.
Kennedy was murdered in November and Goldwater had not yet announced his candidacy. He seriously considered backing out—how do you run against a martyr whose death was pinned on you by the likes of Walter Cronkite?—but on January 3, 1964 he announced and Lee was invited along. These days it seems quite common for young punks to have big jobs on national campaigns, but those days were the reign of older and more experienced men, so it was quite astonishing that 32-year-old Lee Edwards became one of the top advisers to the Goldwater campaign.
Without going into the nitty-gritty of that campaign, one moment speaks volumes about Lee, his wit and creativity. The son of legendary evangelist Billy Sunday came to see Lee one morning at the Mark Hopkins Hotel where the Goldwater campaign had set up. Mark Sunday had a harebrained idea about projecting images on the front of the hotel sixty-feet high. Lee bought it, and they projected images of Barry Goldwater across the front of that staid hotel. The effort caused a sensation. Crowds gathered. Traffic snarled. Cops were disgruntled. Lee, however, was very much gruntled when Life Magazine used the photo of the stunt across two full pages.
Note, this brings us up only to 1964 in the life of Lee Edwards.
In February 1968, he organized “International Communism on Trial” held in the Hall of Nations at Georgetown University which brought together authentic victims of communist atrocities to act as witnesses. Edwards even brought in an attorney to defend communism which guaranteed media coverage. NBC’s legendary anchor Chet Huntley devoted several minutes to the trial on his nightly newscast. And someone blew up a wall in front of the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street near the White House.
Later that year, Lee and his wife Anne, who has been his frequent and valued collaborator, went to the Democratic National Convention and felt the sting of tear gas in their eyes as they retreated to their hotel room.
On November 11, 1969 Lee organized the biggest student demonstration in favor of the Vietnam War, right in front of the Washington Monument. The New York Times called Lee “The Voice of the Silent Majority.”
With his natural talent for writing and publicizing, Lee opened a PR shop in Washington DC and this was his bread and butter for next twenty years, never a lot of butter but plenty of influence. Lee worked for and in collaboration with literally every conservative of note. He was in on the founding of the New Right. He was the first and last editor of the Conservative Digest, the largest conservative publication of its time. He traveled the world, spent time with world leaders. He set up what appears to have been a few dozen non-profits that he led. He would have gotten rich from shilling for major corporations but he liked ideas too much so he stuck mostly with non-profits. Even before Roe was handed down in 1973, he raised the very first money for Americans United for Life and he got it from a glamorous movie star, Loretta Young.
Smack in the middle of middle age, and after a few decades of writing and speaking and organizing for the conservative cause, Edwards decided he wanted to become an academic, an intellectual. At 49 he enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate at Catholic University of America. It took him five years, but in the summer of 1986, he received his degree in world politics and set out to become the historian of the conservative movement, writing books on the history of the movement, also its heroic persons and institutions: Goldwater, Reagan, Buckley, the Heritage Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and more.
Besides his wife and two daughters, and his Catholic faith, Lee would no doubt say his most important work from the time he was young to this very day has been his fight for liberty and against communism. It is the arc and story of his life.
Almost 30 years ago, he set up something called the Victims of Communism Foundation. In 2001, Lee and his collaborators convinced President George H.W. Bush to declare World Freedom Day, celebrated each year on November 9, the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Eleven years ago, they dedicated a statue to the victims of communism on a tiny plot of land near the Capitol. President George W. Bush was there and he praised Lee’s indefatigable work.
Only a few days ago, President Trump announced that November 7 would forever after be remembered as the National Day for the Victims of Communism.
Lee Edwards did all this and so much more.
In a few weeks, Lee turns 85. I wonder what he will do next.
Editor’s note: Pictured above are Barry Goldwater (seated), Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr.