Leading from Ahead
Leading the Way:
The Story of Ed Feulner and the Heritage Foundation
By Lee Edwards
Crown Forum, 464 pages
Over the past 40 years, Washington think tanks have evolved from somewhat sleepy quasi-academic institutions to important public-policy institutions that can make or break major policies. Think tanks can help shape key policy changes such as welfare reform (my own Hudson Institute, among others) and the surge in Iraq (the American Enterprise Institute). One of the driving forces in this evolution has been the Heritage Foundation, the subject of Lee Edwards’s new book, Leading the Way.
Edwards is a long-time Heritage employee and an expert chronicler of the conservative movement, the author of biographies of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. His encyclopedic knowledge of the right’s rise is helpful, as the story of Heritage is a key element of its ascension. In the years before Heritage came onto the scene, the major organs of conservatism—think tanks, magazines, and media institutions—were all but nonexistent.
In the 1970s, as Edwards describes, Congressional staffers Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner were moved to create Heritage because they felt other think tanks were too reluctant to give direct policy advice to government officials. Famously, an AEI briefing paper on funding for the Supersonic Transport came out shortly after a key congressional vote on the issue. Weyrich called William Baroody, AEI’s president, to say, “Great study. Why didn’t we get it sooner?” Baroody’s response was, “We didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.” That conversation was the impetus for Heritage.
The new organization adopted a new model of providing timely, digestible information, and in doing so was extremely successful in educating members of Congress. The goal, as Edwards describes, was for members of Congress to think, “Let’s see what Heritage has to say,” on any major issue. It also scored a victory in producing 1980’s “Mandate for Leadership,” a blueprint for the incoming Reagan administration. Edwards’s opening chapter, which lays out how groundbreaking, influential, and risky the “Mandate” project was—“Mandate” cost Heritage, then a very modest operation, an astounding $250,000 to produce—is the best chapter in the book.
Most of Heritage’s success is due to Feulner, one of its key founders and until recently its president. Feulner knew absolutely every important conservative—he brought Friedrich Hayek in to meet with Reagan—and tried to hold the rambunctious movement together by making Heritage for many years the voice of mainstream conservatism. In Edwards’s telling, Feulner is equal parts manager, fundraiser, spokesperson, liaison, and thinker.
Unsurprisingly, other think tanks have taken notice of Heritage’s impact, and have followed its lead. The Progressive Policy Institute helped provide Bill Clinton with more moderate proposals than Washington liberal organizations were comfortable with, such as reinventing government. When Clinton won the White House, many PPI staffers joined the Clinton administration. Conservatives founded dozens of state-level organizations, like Illinois’s Heartland Institute and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, to bring Heritage-style information to state capitals.
While this series of imitations is in part a reflection of Heritage’s power, it has not necessarily been good for the standing of think tanks as providers of sophisticated and factually sound analysis. For as Heritage and think tanks in general have become increasingly powerful, they have also become far more political, a process that threatens to devalue the research think tanks can offer. Heritage has a great deal to do with both the increased influence and politicization of think tanks. The organization has recently hired the sitting Republican Senator Jim DeMint as president to follow the retiring Feulner, a choice suggesting that Heritage’s selection committee wanted to maintain a heavy political focus. Heritage has also aped the Center for American Progress, created by liberals to oppose the George W. Bush administration, by creating a more political 501(c)(4) organization that is not subject to the same limitations on partisan activities that tax-exempt 501(c)(3) think tanks operate under. Edwards acknowledges the argument against over-politicization, and my articulation of it in particular, but he dismisses it, writing that “Heritage does not share Troy’s gloom, confident that it can continue to maintain the right balance between research and marketing and to distinguish between electoral politics—the province of the do tanks—and policy politics, for which it is widely known.”
As this paragraph shows, Edwards is upfront about his views, his political and ideological leanings, and his willingness to speak on Heritage’s behalf. In the acknowledgments, he writes of being a conservative historian in the way that the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and William Manchester were liberal historians. The difference, Edwards notes, “is that I admit my philosophical bias.” But writing a history of the institution for which its author works proves something of an insuperable challenge. Leading the Way is a portrait without blemish, and spares no adjectives in praise of the talented and consequential Feulner.
It is precisely because of Heritage’s importance that it would be useful to have an unvarnished history of its rise to power. Less encumbered historians must write that history someday. In doing so, they will find this impressively researched book an incomparable resource.