The Heritage Foundation’s 35 Years


Last November, President Bush told a Heritage Foundation audience that while he only had 14 months left in his presidency he was going to be "sprinting to the finish line." Bush complained about the Senate being slow to confirm Michael Mukasey for attorney general, urged Congress to make the Protect America Act permanent, and blasted "MoveOn.org bloggers" and "Code Pink protesters."

He wrapped up his speech by saying that he believed a president of the United States will come to the Heritage Foundation 50 years from now and say, "Thank God that generation that wrote the first chapter in the 21st century understood the power of freedom to bring the peace we want."

When the Heritage Foundation first opened its doors, the Vietnam War was finally winding its way toward a conclusion; Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace and President Richard Nixon would soon follow; the civil rights and women’s movements had won a number of transformative battles; having a social safety net was still a shared social value; privatization was a relatively little used term; and the "culture wars" had not yet punctured the national consciousness.

Historian Lee Edwards, in his book The Power of Ideas, pointed out that, "Conservative leaders and conservative ideas were out of public favor…. In foreign [affairs], dètente was riding high…[as Nixon] traveled to Communist China to kowtow to Mao Zedong."

Out of this conservative morass came the Heritage Foundation. While Heritage wasn’t the first conservative think tank—the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Washington, DC-based American Enterprise Institute had been slogging along for years—it was the first to be consciously embraced by a host of wealthy right-wing benefactors (including beer magnate Joseph Coors and heir to the Mellon fortune, Richard Mellon Scaife) who had more on their minds than just churning out policy papers that few would read. One of the ideological guides to the foundation’s creation and early work was Paul Weyrich, now considered the "Godfather" of the New Right.

The Heritage Foundation was envisioned as one of the institutions that would "break the back of the dominant liberal establishment, which [the late William Simon, Nixon’s former energy czar and Treasury Secretary, and the then-president of the conservative Olin Foundation] accused of enforcing misguided concepts of ‘equality’ and of being ‘possessed of delusions of moral grandeur,’" as Robert Parry wrote in Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.

Simon determined that conservatives needed what he called a "counter-intelligentsia." He wrote, "Funds generated by business…must rush by the multi-million to the aid of liberty…to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty."

This counter-intelligentsia would put a full-court press on what was accepted as conventional liberal wisdom. In his 1986 book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Sidney Blumenthal wrote: "The Bastille to which they [conservative foundations] laid siege was the fortress of liberalism, the hollow doctrine of the old regime. These intellectuals impressed their thoughts on public activity, staffing the new institutes, writing policy papers and newspaper editorials, and serving as political advisors, lending the power of the word to the defense of ideology."

The Heritage Foundation became one of the leading recipients of funds from conservative foundations. From 1985—when MediaTransparency.org began tracking grants to the think-tank—through 2006, Heritage received more than $66 million from a host of conservative foundations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation (Coors Family), Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation (Amway), and the John M. Olin Foundation. It also received many millions from giant corporations.

It is fair to say that Heritage’s breakthrough moment came during the 1980 presidential campaign when it produced a 3,000-page, 20-volume set of policy recommendations called "Mandate for Leadership." This proved to be the intellectual blueprint for the so-called "Reagan Revolution," including trickle-down economics, massive cutbacks in social programs, and the Star Wars Defense Strategy.

According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, the Heritage Foundation played a huge role in designing and supporting President Reagan’s contra wars in Latin America and Africa: "The Foundation worked closely with leading anti-communist movements, including the Nicaraguan contras and Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement in Angola to bring military, economic and political pressure on Soviet-aligned regimes. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Foundation’s support for the Nicaraguan contras and Angola‘s Savimbi proved extremely influential with the United States government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and other governmental agencies. The Heritage Foundation presented its case for armed support for these movements, and United States support soon followed."

The Foundation’s foreign policy analysts "were deeply intertwined players in these conflicts, visiting the front lines to provide political and military guidance to Savimbi and the contra leadership," SourceWatch points out.

Few could argue with Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, who in a late February Townhall.com column pointed out that when the foundation "opened its doors for the first time…the policy landscape was forever changed." By "parlay[ing] its extraordinary talent and strong commitment to timeless principles," the Heritage Foundation was able to become, "the nation’s most influential conservative think tank and a huge force in advancing the cause of limited government, free enterprise, a strong national defense, individual liberty and traditional American values."

Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, took the creation of the think tank one step further, maintaining that the day of its launch on February 13, 1973 should be considered as much of a "landmark" in conservative history as January 20, 1981 (President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), November 9, 1989 (the day the Berlin Wall fell), and December 25, 1991 (when the Soviet Union formally dissolved).

In his mid-February Townhall.com column, Fuelner proudly noted that the New York Times once called the foundation "the most aggressive and disciplined of the conservative idea factories," and that in the early 1980s.

A People for the American Way (PFAW) "Fighting the Right" profile notes that the mission of the Heritage Foundation is "to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."

According to PFAW, "Heritage’s publications are distributed to many thousands of people, including Members of Congress, congressional aides and staff, journalists, and major donors." While it grew up during the Reagan years, "It takes credit for much of President Bush’s policy, both domestic and foreign, referring to Bush’s policies as ‘straight out of the Heritage play book’."

According to Feulner, there are 21 members on the Board of Trustees, 240 employees, and 320,000 members of the Heritage Foundation around the country. While not the newest kid on the block, the Heritage Foundation, now housed in headquarters that includes intern and fellow apartments, a 200-seat auditorium, a private fitness center, and two floors dedicated to expanding the research department, is still a major force to be reckoned with.

If a Democrat is elected president in November, the foundation’s influence will no doubt wane, but only slightly. In any case, the sight of dozens of Bush administration officials, policy wonks, ideologues, and administrators moving out of their powerful policy-making positions and scurrying back to the right-wing think tanks from whence they came—including the Heritage Foundation—will be worth the price of admission.

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.