Senator Jim DeMint’s appointment as the next president of the Heritage Foundation will probably prove to be the first really significant response from the Right to Mitt Romney’s defeat and the widespread impression that conservatism is in major retreat. A Senator of unimpeachable conservative opinions, both well connected and knowledgeable about Beltway and national politics, is about to take charge of what is generally acknowledged to be the strongest ideas machine in Washington. This combination needs only to be spelt out for its formidable character to be obvious. As an alumnus of Heritage (Class of ’79), I naturally wish the senator well. Success is never guaranteed — the only certainties are death and taxes — but he is well-placed to lead a conservative fight-back.
But any successes the senator may achieve lie in the future. His appointment, however, testifies to the remarkable achievement of Heritage’s current president, Ed Feulner, in taking the foundation from a minnow of an institution to a whale of one in 35 years. No one in 1977, when Ed was elected Heritage president, would have forecast his successor would be a sitting U.S. Senator. I know that because I was there.
One afternoon in early 1977 I dropped by the Republican Study Committee on Capitol Hill to meet two old friends from the Mont Pelerin Society: one was Bob Schuettinger, who now runs the Washington International Studies Center in Oxford, and the other was Ed. I was on a lecture tour, making people’s flesh creep with my accounts of “The British Disease,” and coincidentally collecting material for a Daily Telegraph article on the American Right, then flat on its back following Watergate and the rise of Jimmy Carter. Their briefing of me went on until late in the day when Ed announced that he had to depart to attend an AGM and Bob invited me to come along.
Since Bob and I were dining that night, I did so. The meeting was a small one, about 25–30 people as I recall, and the proceedings were brief and formal. No one seemed to mind my presence provided I didn’t vote. After the usual minutes and votes of thanks Ed was, to my surprise, elected president of this small foundation. He was the fourth president in about as many years. I was far from sure he was right to give up his directorship of the Republican Study Committee, which he had made into an important instrument of conservatism on the Hill, for what seemed a much more chancy prospect. But I wished him well over a drink, and he whizzed off, apparently to start work right away.
At dinner Bob soothed my anxieties somewhat. He was convinced that Ed was exactly the right man to run what would be a new kind of think tank — and that we would see results very soon. Bob was astonishingly right. About a year later Heritage launched the journal Policy Review in the U.S. and in Britain. (Because the distinguished novelist, Kingsley Amis, also a friend of Bob Schuettinger, sent out the invitations under his own name, the London launch was a smash hit.) Topical issue papers began to pour out of its (initially very small) headquarters in north-east Washington — so that Congressmen would find an accurate guide to what they were voting on that morning rather than after the vote. And quite soon Heritage had established itself as the place where visiting conservatives from Europe and Asia went to first in Washington — among them a newly-elected Prime Minister Thatcher who ignored her embassy’s advice that Heritage was too conservative. (She recalled that the U.S. embassy had said the same about her in 1975.)#more#
I joined Heritage as director of studies and editor of Policy Review in 1979, when Bob resigned his editorship to run for the U.S. Senate, and I stayed there for four years. This was the period when Ronald Reagan announced that Heritage was his favorite think tank — not surprisingly since the foundation’s detailed administrative guide to implementing a conservative revolution, Mandate for Leadership, had become his second manifesto. Heritage was growing throughout this period like kudzu. When I left to return to the Telegraph in 1983, the foundation had migrated to its third lodgings — a spacious office building near Union Station. It is now in its fourth and largest accommodation. Its staff — about 35 with a management board of eight when I joined — is now about 240 people stronger.
Many reasons could be given for Heritage’s extraordinary growth in everything from size to influence. I am inclined to believe that the main reason was Ed’s decision to rely financially not on corporations and major donors but on raising contributions from small donors across the country through the then relatively infant industry of direct mail. There are some problems with that approach; it means that Heritage has been compelled to be harder-edged in its arguments — too primary in its coloring, so to speak, and perhaps too immediate in its concerns — in order to inspire the donor to sit down at his desk and put pen to check. Overall, however, that decision proved triumphantly right. It meant that Heritage built up a base of enthusiastic supporters who felt rightly that they were part and parcel of a conservative renaissance arising after Watergate. Ed was recruiting conservatives as well as donors through his fundraising — just as he was spreading classical liberal ideas internationally through his long work for the Mont Pelerin society. (But that is another story.)
Younger conservatives who are gloomy about the current situation should try to imagine the post-Watergage depression of conservatives in 1977. Liberaldom then dominated all. The Right had National Review, the American Enterprise Institute, the fledgling American Spectator, and not much else. (Well, okay, Ronald Reagan too, but paragons don’t grow on trees.) Today, even in durance vile, we can fall back upon a rich institutional and organizational network in which to re-think a practical conservatism. Several distinguished minds contributed to this conservative city. In think tanks alone, they include Bill Baroody and Chris deMuth at AEI, Gene Meyer at the Federalist Society, and Ed Crane at Cato. But it was Ed Feulner who, at exactly the moment when conservatives needed to be lifted out of a nearly clinical depression, set about building a conservative movement with an encouraging practicality that lifted our spirits more than any rhetoric.
Ed’s motto is borrowed from Noel Coward. (He may not know this): “Work is so much more fun than fun.” He’s leaving Heritage but not retiring. What he will do next I don’t know. But it won’t be anything small. And it will be fun for others as well as for himself.