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.”