Politics & Policy

Freedom’s Mr. Moneybags

John J. Miller on the John M. Olin Foundation.

John J. Miller, National Review’s national political reporter, is way ahead of a lot of us–his colleagues–in the book-writing contest. This week marks the publication of his third book, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America. I talked to John about Olin and the book, which doubles as a history of conservative activism, earlier this week.—K.J.L.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: So, how did the John M. Olin Foundation change America?

John J. Miller: For more than 30 years, the John M. Olin Foundation provided a venture-capital fund for conservative intellectuals–it helped create, shape, and promote the ideas behind the most significant political movement in the United States since the end of the Second World War. The foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this project. If the conservative intellectual movement were a NASCAR race, and if the scholars and organizations who comprise it were drivers zipping around a race track, virtually all of their vehicles at least would sport an Olin bumper sticker. Some of the best drivers, the real champions, would have O-L-I-N splashed across their hoods in big letters.

Lopez: Why isn’t John Olin a household name then?

Miller: Among many conservatives, it really is a household name–for years, it was impossible to read the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, for example, and not come across a “John M. Olin Fellow” with some regularity. But I take your point, and in fact the foundation never demanded credit for the accomplishments of its beneficiaries. Charles Murray is the founding father of welfare reform not because the John M. Olin Foundation supported his work early on, but because he made a compelling critique of an important problem and offered smart solutions in his book Losing Ground. So he deserves full credit for that. Yet Murray also would be quick to express gratitude to the foundation for helping make his work possible.

Lopez: What did the Olin Foundation make possible, when you consider other big conservative successes?

Miller: First and foremost, the foundation helped create what its longtime president William E. Simon called the “counterintelligentsia”–a group of scholars and activists who provided a balance to the liberals who have dominated the universities, the media, and the nonprofit world. When conservatism was still emerging from the intellectual ghetto, this was a critically important task, and this list of the foundation’s beneficiaries is incredibly long. Prominent groups include the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Individual Rights, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the National Association of Scholars, The New Criterion, and the Philanthropy Roundtable. And lots of individuals as well: Linda Chavez, Dinesh D’Souza, Milton Friedman, Robert George, Owen Harries, Samuel Huntington, Irving Kristol, Henry Manne, Harvey Mansfield, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Stigler. And if we’re going to isolate categories of giving, the foundation was especially important to the law-and-economics movement–a school of thought, born at the University of Chicago, which insists that legal rules have economic consequences. The foundation sank more than $68 million into law and economics, and because of this it had a big impact on legal scholarship, the training of lawyers, and judicial behavior.

Lopez: What motivates a man to fund a vast right-wing conspiracy?

Miller: “Philanthropy,” said Oscar Wilde, “seems to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures.” I’m tempted to say that John M. Olin liked nothing better than to annoy liberals. In truth, he began to fear for the future of capitalism. That’s hard to imagine today, with the Soviet Union becoming a distant memory and globalization on the loose. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, Olin watched with horror as university administrations let student demonstrators take over campuses, sometimes at gunpoint (the events at his alma mater Cornell, in 1969, really bothered him). He was astonished to hear Nobel Prize-winners attack the free market. In 1975, Time magazine asked a provocative question on its cover: “Can capitalism survive?” Olin became convinced that he needed to use his fortune to preserve the means by which it was amassed. And so he embarked upon a philanthropic program of defending free enterprise and limited government. He wasn’t sure he could make a difference, but he was determined to try.

Lopez: How close to home is the Olin money? NR get any?

Miller: In 1967, the John M. Olin Foundation gave a $5,000 grant to something called The Educational Reviewer, which was a nonprofit group attached to National Review. Its main activity was publishing The University Bookman, a quarterly journal of book reviews edited by Russell Kirk. (It’s still around today, edited by Gerald Russello.) The Bookman was sent to all NR subscribers, and NR received a fee for this service. So supporting the Bookman was an indirect way of helping NR, and everybody understood this. This gift in 1967 happens to be the first donation the foundation ever made to one of the conservative movement’s institutions. The foundation supported NR in other ways as well, though the magazine was never a major recipient of funds. William F. Buckley Jr. told me that he met Olin on two occasions, and once their conversation revolved entirely around horses–a subject of interest to Olin but not to WFB. Also, when Olin passed away, WFB wrote a thoughtful obituary in NR.

Lopez: Who are some of the writers we may not be reading today without Olin money?

Miller: It’s hard to say who would be obscure today but for the foundation–the foundation worked with so many brilliant people that many of them probably would have enjoyed successful careers without a penny of Olin money. But I’ll suggest that without the John M. Olin Foundation, Allan Bloom might not have written The Closing of the American Mind, the best-selling book that deeply influenced the way people think about the entrenchment of cultural relativism in the modern academy. As it happened, the foundation gave Bloom a small grant that allowed him to write an article for National Review, which was published in 1982. Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow encouraged him to turn the article into a book, which became this amazing runaway success, both critically and commercially. Throughout it all, the John M. Olin Foundation provided Bloom with steady financial support.

Another example might be Francis Fukuyama, best known for his “End of History” thesis. It was first delivered as a lecture at the Olin Center at the University of Chicago, and then it was published as an article in The National Interest, a foreign-policy journal that was created with Olin dollars. Frank is one of the smartest guys around, and he’d probably be successful no matter what, but the John M. Olin Foundation certainly played a key role in creating the conditions for this particular success. Incidentally, one of Fukuyama’s most prominent critics, Samuel Huntington, ran his own John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. It’s interesting to observe that the most provocative and fascinating debate on foreign policy after the Cold War–Fukuyama vs. Huntington–didn’t occur between Left and Right, but between two men who may reasonably be described as conservatives, and both of them beneficiaries of the John M. Olin Foundation.

Lopez: Ralph Neas has got to hate the Olin Foundation, doesn’t he? How much is Olin to blame for the notorious Federalist Society?

Miller: If you were to identify the single most important grant in the history of the John M. Olin Foundation, there’s a good case to be made that it involved seed money for the Federalists. In 1982, a group of conservative law-school students wanted to hold a conference at Yale featuring some bright legal minds, such as Robert Bork, Ted Olson, Richard Posner, Antonin Scalia, and others. They got some funding from the John M. Olin Foundation, and then a funny thing happened: National Review wrote about the conference and made a small mistake in its reporting. The magazine said that the sponsors of the conference were “a group of conservatively inclined law students, with chapters at Yale, Columbia, and Chicago.” As it happened, there were no “chapters” of anything anywhere, but inquiries began to pour in and the conference organizers realized there was a demand for such a thing. And so the conference at Yale became the springboard for the creation of the Federalist Society. The John M. Olin Foundation picked up most of the tab for that first meeting, and ultimately gave $5.5 million over 20 years to the Federalist Society.

Lopez: Who are the important figures involved in the Olin Foundation history who folks might not be well-acquainted with?

Miller: The most important figures who aren’t well known are probably the foundation’s three executive directors. The foundation was created in 1953, but it didn’t really have any staff for two decades. Then Frank O’Connell helped get the modern operation running in the 1970s, often working one-on-one with Mr. Olin himself. His successor was Michael Joyce, who became better-known some years later at the head of the Bradley Foundation. And since 1985, Jim Piereson has served as John M. Olin Foundation’s executive director. He’s the guy who is now in charge of turning off the lights.

Lopez: Why is the John M. Olin Foundation turning off the lights? Is this a smart decision, to spend its entire endowment and basically go out of business?

Miller: Former NR editor John O’Sullivan once defined “O’Sullivan’s First Law”: “All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” Although there’s no denying that the John M. Olin Foundation was a conservative organization, Mr. Olin worried that liberals might eventually take it over. He saw what happened at the Ford Foundation–specifically, Henry Ford II quitting in 1977 because he thought the foundation was too anti-capitalist–and resolved not to let it happen to himself. So he told his board that he wanted the foundation to survive only one generation beyond his own life. Olin died in 1982; later this month, his foundation’s board of trustees will make a final round of grants. So it’s closing on time, and the liberals never took over. A lot of conservatives wish the foundation weren’t going out of business, and who can blame them? By spending money rather than hoarding it, however, the John M. Olin Foundation had an outsized influence upon its time. Although its total assets were never much greater than $100 million, it had a grantmaking profile of a foundation many times larger. Olin believed that the causes he supported were so urgent that they required immediate help. He also thought that the citizens of the future would do a better job of addressing their own problems than he would do of anticipating what they might be. When I started writing A Gift of Freedom, I was an agnostic on this question of whether philanthropies should spend themselves out of existence. Now I think it’s a good idea.

Lopez: You had full access to the foundation’s archives?

Miller: Yes. They let me see everything, from the minutes of board meetings to the staff evaluations of various figures and organizations. Nobody else has enjoyed this level of access, and it gave me outstanding source material to tell an important story that’s never been told before.

Lopez: What surprised you the most during your research?

Miller: When I was reviewing some financial statements from the 1950s and 1960s, I stumbled across several that looked peculiar. None of the executive directors or program officers knew what they were, because this was all before their time. With a bit of detective work, I figured out that the foundation was helping the CIA fight the Cold War. To make a long story short, the CIA was running a secret program of trying to combat the influence of Communism upon artists, writers, and intellectuals in the Western democracies by making a series of coordinated grants to them. The CIA didn’t want the recipients to know the source of their funding, so the spooks worked with philanthropies as pass-through agencies. There have been books written about this effort, so I’m not breaking any ground in telling this part of the story. Until now, however, nobody as far as I know has identified the John M. Olin Foundation as one of the groups that worked with the CIA on its campaign. Nearly $2 million passed through its accounts, most of it eventually going to something called the Vernon Fund, which was a CIA group that spent a portion of its money on teacher education. The National Education Association was one of its recipients. For his part, John Olin considered it his patriotic duty to participate in this campaign. He wanted to help his country. It demonstrated Olin’s willingness to use his resources for large-scale political and cultural goals. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that the foundation became a big-time sponsor of the conservative movement.

Lopez: Tell us something else nobody knows about John M. Olin.

Miller: This isn’t exactly a state secret, but Olin was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1958. He was a great outdoorsman, and the magazine profiled him. The photo on the cover is of Mr. Olin and his wife Evelyn. They’re carrying guns and hunting for birds. We reproduced a picture of it in A Gift of Freedom.

Lopez: With the John M. Olin Foundation gone, who will provide conservative intellectuals with venture capital in the future?

Miller: There are already some foundations doing it now, with the Bradley and Scaife Foundations probably the best-known examples. But there’s no getting around the fact that the demise of the John M. Olin Foundation leaves a big hole in conservative philanthropy. The hope must be that someone new will come along and try to fill it.

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