The Man Who Replaced Phyllis Schlafly

At Eagle Forum, a bitter battle between Phyllis Schlafly's oldest friends — and Ed Martin, her chosen successor

Dec 7, 2016 at 6:00 am
In Phyllis Schlafly's twilight years, a bitter fight over her chosen successor divided her empire.
In Phyllis Schlafly's twilight years, a bitter fight over her chosen successor divided her empire. GAGE SKIDMORE

On March 11, 2016, a frail political icon slowly made her way on stage at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis to do the unthinkable: Endorse Donald Trump for president.

Phyllis Schlafly, 91, had been a conservative star even before Fox News turned that into a job description. An outspoken opponent of the feminist movement, Schlafly was instrumental in quashing its 1970s-era bid to enshrine gender equality in the constitution via the Equal Rights Amendment.

Those bona fides notwithstanding, Schlafly remained a populist outsider at heart, a merry mischief maker who loved to criticize the East Coast party bosses and backroom dealmakers who presumed to speak for heartland Republicans. For her, Trump's attacks on that crowd were pure catnip. She also shared his views on immigration.

However, on that spring afternoon, the GOP nomination was still up for grabs. Most of Schlafly's closest allies on the right flank of the party preferred Ted Cruz. His policies and piety seemed a surer bet. Trump, meanwhile, was a thrice-married New Yorker who'd recently defended Planned Parenthood. Even if Schlafly liked Trump's style, many of her colleagues pleaded for her to hold off on an outright endorsement.

Which might be why few of Schlafly's trusted confidants knew what she was planning until, suddenly, there she was on stage at Trump's one and only St. Louis rally with a twinkle in her eye, sanctioning the outsider who many Republicans feared was blowing up their party.

At four minutes, Schlafly's remarks weren't lengthy, but to a pumped-up crowd restless for fireworks, her digressions down memory lane seemed to ramble.

As Schlafly made her way past an anecdote about telling off Senator Everett Dirksen, who died in 1969, to a criticism of President Obama, the beaming big guy who had escorted her to the dais and now hovered behind her intervened. "Introduce him now," he suggested.

"Alright," Schlafly said, a little thrown off. "They're ready for him now, and I — "

Cheers swelled, muffling her words.

"This year, we have the candidate who really give us — really will give us — a choice, not an echo," Schlafly said, referencing the title of her first, most important book, the one she self-published in 1964. "So please give a big St. Louis welcome to Donald J. Trump."

At that point, the candidate himself entered stage right, and the audience went nuts.

Phyllis Schlafly died not quite six months later, which makes the St. Louis rally one of her last public appearances. Today some Eagle Forum associates scrutinize the YouTube footage of her remarks as if it's the Zapruder film, a window into Schlafly's state of mind in her twilight period — and into her relationship with the man on her right.

His name is Ed Martin, and he is the man Schlafly brought on to run Eagle Forum in the final two years of her life. Some longtime friends and staffers say he did far more than that — and that his effect on Eagle Forum has been catastrophic.

"If you've watched that video and you know Phyllis Schlafly, that was not Phyllis Schlafly on that stage," says Glyn Wright, who served as the executive director of Eagle Forum's Washington, D.C., branch. "That was not the woman I went to work with six years ago. He pushed her out on that stage."

Others disagree with that assessment — they say Schlafly was genuinely enthusiastic in her support of Trump. But they all agree that Schlafly, while still sharp, wasn't quite herself by March. She was tired. She was sick. And within a month, everything she'd worked her whole life to build — the grassroots advocacy organization with a presence from coast to coast — would erupt in infighting and litigation.

For that, many longtime friends blame Ed Martin.

"Ed was in her office every single day — taking her to lunches, driving her car to get her oil changed, taking her to fundraisers," Wright says. "If you're 90 years old and this decent-looking younger man is talking a big game, telling you all this media stuff he could do to ensure your legacy and bring in the next generation, which was so important to her ... he used Phyllis. And he continues to use her name. It's sick."

Like many non-profits with a charismatic founder, Eagle Forum was bound to encounter difficulties with Schlafly's passing. And certainly some Republicans would say its glory days were already in the past: Its greatest victory, the blockage of the Equal Rights Amendment, was decades ago.

But for the women who joined Schlafly in the fight, and continue to labor in the trenches for "the cause," it was still astonishing — and painful — to see how quickly everything fell apart.

Says Donna Hearne, a conservative activist who has known Schlafly since the 1960s, "When you've worked with somebody most of your life, somebody who was so amazing a person, and so brilliant, and such an incredible pathway for so many of us, to see her being used and maneuvered by Ed Martin, it really was heartbreaking."