Three days after the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, Heritage Foundation president Edwin J. Feulner headed to a retreat for House Republicans at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court Hotel, alongside Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “It’s a beautiful day in Baltimore, especially if you’re a Ravens fan — and a great day to be alive, especially if you’re a conservative,” he said. “The prospects for conservatism have never been better.”
Really? A couple of weeks earlier, they had looked grim, as President Obama delivered his second inaugural address. For conservatives, the grueling slog through four more years had begun. Yet Feulner calls himself “a congenital optimist.” Not only does he refuse to accept defeat, but he won’t even acknowledge its existence: “There are no permanent victories in Washington,” he says, “only a permanent series of battles.”
The soldiers come and go, however, and the conservative movement is about to lose one of its happiest warriors. On April 3, Feulner will retire from a long career at the Heritage Foundation. He was present at the think tank’s creation in 1973 and has served as its full-time chief since 1977, watching it grow from an idea on a piece of paper to a Capitol Hill juggernaut. Lots of think tanks try to influence the behavior of senators; Jim DeMint was a senator who wanted to influence the behavior of Heritage, abandoning his seat as a Republican from South Carolina to succeed Feulner. When DeMint takes over, he’ll inherit the house that Feulner built — an organization with an annual budget of more than $80 million and a financial base of more than 600,000 donors, making Heritage arguably the single most important right-of-center research institution in the country, if not the world. (Full disclosure: In the mid 1990s, I spent a year at the Heritage Foundation as a Bradley Fellow, writing my first book.)
The 71-year-old Edwin John Feulner Jr. is a tall man with a booming baritone voice. He usually sports a necktie decorated with the Heritage Foundation’s Liberty Bell logo. These ties come in a rainbow of colors — on the day of our interview, it’s blue bells on a salmon background — and Feulner keeps boxes of them in his office for gifts. He wears glasses, but no longer the ones with the thick porthole lenses that he relied on for most of his life. A little more than a decade ago, he was headed toward blindness, until cataract surgery saved his sight, a fact that Feulner revealed to Lee Edwards, a historian at the Heritage Foundation whose biography of Feulner, Leading the Way, has just come out.
Feulner was born in Evergreen Park, Ill., just outside of Chicago, to a family of German-American Catholics. His father was a real-estate developer and his mother a homemaker. Feulner says he was an instinctive conservative until he arrived at Regis College, a Jesuit school in Denver. “That’s when I came to an intellectual understanding,” he says. A history professor, Bernard Sheehan, encouraged Feulner to read Liberty or Equality, a book by Austrian writer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. It made a big impression. “You have to choose between liberty and equality,” says Feulner. “I picked liberty.” After Kuehneldt-Leddihn, Feulner turned to Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek. He discovered National Review in Denver’s public library. Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, published in 1960, helped him connect principles to politics.
So did an experience in the summer of 1961, before his junior year. Feulner embarked on a two-month tour of Europe with other Regis students. On the morning of August 12 — his 20th birthday — Feulner woke up at a campsite in Munich, expecting to make for Berlin. The visit was canceled, abruptly and mysteriously. A day and a half passed before Feulner learned why: The Soviets had started to build the Berlin Wall, sparking an international crisis. “It reinforced all of my worst prejudices about totalitarianism,” says Feulner. Anti-Communism would become a driving force in his career, and years later, he took special pleasure in returning to Berlin, hammering a chunk of concrete from the wall, and giving pieces to his children and colleagues in the United States.
After Regis, Feulner spent a year studying business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In Philadelphia, he became familiar with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative academic organization. It helped him enroll at the London School of Economics. Feulner figured he’d go back to Chicago and work with his father, but, through ISI, he had already met a pair of men who would change his life. Richard V. Allen, a future national-security adviser to President Reagan, persuaded Feulner to come to Washington, D.C. Phil Crane, an Illinois congressman, eventually would make Feulner a top aide.
#page#After arriving in the Capitol but before joining Crane’s staff, Feulner worked for Melvin Laird, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin. Feulner’s duties included supervising summer interns. In 1968, he received a call from Laird. “Eddie, you’re getting a new intern,” he said. “She’s from Wellesley College, and she’s a good Goldwater girl.” Her name was Hillary Rodham. “I remember her as very bright, very aggressive, and not very Republican,” says Feulner. She was one of several interns, and Feulner says he didn’t get to know her well, but he’ll still go down in history as the first Washington boss of the eventual first lady, senator, and secretary of state.
By the early 1970s, Feulner had become an important conservative staffer on the Hill, but he and his allies felt badly outgunned by liberals, who could rely on the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, or any number of other groups for policy research. After a close vote in 1971 that halted government funding for the supersonic transport plane, Feulner went to breakfast in a basement cafeteria of the Capitol. His companion, fellow staffer Paul Weyrich, showed Feulner a paper analyzing the pros and cons of the SST by the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. It was published shortly after Congress had voted on the plane. The tardiness wasn’t a blunder but a deliberate choice: AEI’s president, William J. Baroody Sr., had told Weyrich that he had not wanted the study to influence the vote. Feulner was flabbergasted. He and Weyrich decided to build a new kind of think tank that would respond quickly to unfolding events.
Two years later, they launched the Heritage Foundation, receiving significant financial support from Joseph Coors (whose involvement explains why the think tank often serves Coors beer at its events). Over the next few years, Heritage struggled in the fashion of many start-ups. It occupied a small office about six blocks from the Capitol, inside what once had been an X-rated-movie theater. Its employees cranked out reports on typewriters, duplicated them on a Xerox machine, and distributed copies by hand to congressional offices, not sure that anybody was bothering to read them. By 1977, Heritage was searching for its fourth leader — and Feulner was preparing to leave Washington for New York City.
William J. Casey, a prominent lawyer, had recruited Feulner to start a free-market think tank, one that ultimately would become known as the Manhattan Institute. When the board of Heritage asked him to head the foundation, however, Feulner changed his plans, leading to an awkward conversation with Casey, who went on to serve as CIA director in the Reagan administration. Years later, Feulner paid Casey a fundraising visit. “I gave the Heritage Foundation the biggest donation it’s ever going to receive,” said Casey. “I let it have Feulner.”
Under Feulner, Heritage began its steady rise. Within a year and a half, it had a budget of $2.5 million and 120,000 donors. It also developed the strategies that made it a pioneer among think tanks — a trailblazer not only because it was conservative but also for its innovations in marketing. “AEI, Brookings, and Carnegie thought they had a monopoly on ideas,” says Feulner. “We were an upstart trying to force our way in.” Heritage became famous for putting out short “backgrounders” on the issues of the day with a speed and frequency that astonished the more established think tanks. It also focused relentlessly on shaping opinions in Congress; Feulner has always viewed its 535 members as his first audience. Even today, he repeatedly gestures to the dome of the Capitol, visible from the window of his eighth-floor office, and comments on “those guys.”
Heritage could act swiftly in part because of its typical employee: a young analyst trying to build a reputation rather than an old warhorse from a past presidential administration who was seeking the sinecure of senior fellowship. Other think tanks may have had experts with impressive résumés, but Heritage outpaced them all and developed a brand whose name started to carry weight among conservatives.
In addition, although Feulner recognized the biases of the mainstream press, he refused to treat liberal journalists as enemies. He wanted Heritage to become a right-of-center resource for everyone. “You know what happened to us during the first year Fox News was on the air?” he asks. “The number of Heritage people who appeared on CNN doubled.” For him, this was a triumph.
Behind the smart marketing lay the ideas. In 1980, as Reagan ran for the White House, Heritage produced Mandate for Leadership, a 3,000-page research project that sprawled across 20 volumes. Following Reagan’s election, the think tank condensed Mandate into a single paperback of 1,100 pages that earned a reputation as the policy playbook of the new administration. “There was one group which gave us special substantive help we’ll never forget,” said Reagan in 1981. “I’m talking, of course, about that feisty new kid on the conservative block, the Heritage Foundation.”
#page#The relationship between Heritage and Reagan eventually attracted attention at the highest levels of geopolitics. In 1985, Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev for the first time. He urged the Soviet leader to stop supporting Communists in Latin America and also informed him that the United States would not negotiate away its plans to build a missile-defense system. Gorbachev accused Reagan of crumbling under “right-wing pressure” in general and from the Heritage Foundation in particular. Reagan confirmed that he did indeed rely upon the think tank’s research and find it valuable. Back in Moscow, Gorbachev blasted Reagan as a tool of the American extreme right wing, “represented by their ideological headquarters, the Heritage Foundation.”
When he accepted the job at Heritage, Feulner thought that he’d run the group for ten years or so, then take a job in government or business. In 1983, as Heritage moved into its new office at the address it still keeps, Feulner knew he was a lifer. “I recognized that I was making a big commitment to build a permanent institution,” he says. Today, it’s hard to identify a corner of economic or foreign policy that the Heritage Foundation has not touched, from abstinence education to sanctions on North Korea to zero-based budgeting. Heritage is more than twice the size of AEI, and in the next few years, it could become the first conservative think tank to enjoy a budget of $100 million, which is roughly what the Brookings Institution now spends every year.
If the Heritage Foundation has grown, so has the federal government — to a bloated size and scope that Feulner could barely have envisioned when he entered the think-tank business. Was it worth it? In a world of trillion-dollar deficits, unaffordable entitlements, and an electorate that has given its popular vote to Democrats in five of the last six presidential contests, has the Heritage Foundation really accomplished anything at all?
“I think we’ve made conservative ideas mainstream and equally credible,” says Feulner when he’s asked to identify Heritage’s most important achievement. He points to welfare reform and missile defense as two particular areas in which Heritage has made a difference. “Even on Social Security, we’ve made progress.” He recalls a meeting in 1981 with Republican House minority leader Robert Michel. “I went over to the Capitol and talked about our agenda,” says Feulner. When he finished, Michel put his hand on Feulner’s shoulder. “Ed,” he said, “we do not talk about changing Social Security in this building.” A quarter-century later, in 2005, President Bush pushed for private accounts. “It didn’t happen, but look at how far we’ve come,” says Feulner. “We took an obscure think-tank notion and made it an issue that a president could talk about. We haven’t had reform yet, but we will, when people realize Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that can’t go on.” Michel, who just turned 90 and still shows up for work at a law office in Washington, concurs: “People have finally woken up to the fact that budget control requires entitlement reform.”
Feulner admits a few mistakes. “I’m a softy with people,” he says. “I’ve not been as tough as I should have been with people not cutting it.” As for policy blunders, he confesses to one without prompting: Heritage’s support for an individual mandate in health care, an idea that it promoted more than two decades ago but came to reject, and that now forms the basis of Obamacare. “I got snookered on that one,” he says. “Our principles weren’t wrong, but the practical application of them could have been better.”
Feulner believes it’s possible to balance the federal budget in ten years. “I have an eight-year-old granddaughter,” he says. “We should be able to do this by the time she’s a freshman in college.” Heritage, of course, has a five-point plan for getting there.
“Obama is not a terminal condition,” says Feulner. “Conservatives have come back before and we’ll do it again.” He emphasizes recent conservative successes in the states, where Republicans hold 30 governorships and control 26 legislatures. He’s gleeful about the adoption of a right-to-work law in Michigan, “the home state of the UAW!” He thinks shale gas represents a thrilling new era of energy production, at least if politicians and regulators at all levels permit its extraction. Finally, Feulner has a deep faith in voters. “Most of the people are with us most of the time,” he insists. Before long, he’s talking about 2016. “Look at our bench strength,” he says, ticking off a list of familiar figures who may run for president. And then he returns to his ever-present theme: why it’s wonderful to be a conservative right now, when the future looks so good.