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Passing the briefcase test

Q&A | Ed Feulner revolutionized the think tank world-and he continues to help lead opposition to Washington's profligate ways

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

Washington's largest locus of opposition remains the Heritage Foundation, headed by Ed Feulner since 1977. Feulner arrived in Washington during the Great Society years and was instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Before an audience of students at The King's College, New York City, he recalled those years and discussed ways to challenge the even Greater Society that the Obama administration hopes to create. Here is an edited transcript.

Q: You first gained a close-up view of the legislative process by working for congressmen and then directing the Republican Study Committee. Here is a trivia question for you: Who was Hillary Clinton's first boss in Washington? It was me. Can you believe it? She was from Park Ridge, Ill. Her congressman, a good conservative Republican, asked, "Can you take this very bright young Goldwater girl as an intern?"

Q: How closely did you supervise her? Not closely enough, alas. There are stories about a couple of her professors at Wellesley who viewed her as a particular challenge to make her into a liberal, since she had been a Goldwater girl, and they did.

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Q: And in the 1970s you started building Heritage. No congressman or senator had time to read full-length books. We needed a think tank that could produce short papers for congressmen, senators, and key staffers that were credible-all the facts upfront, conclusion separated-that were timely. If they came out too early, no one paid attention. If they missed the vote by a day or two, all you did was kill a tree and make some college librarians busier.

Q: Folks at Heritage explained to me that a paper should be short enough for a senator or congressman to read it in a cab between Capitol Hill and National Airport. I also heard about the briefcase test. The paper had to be short enough-four pages-to fit in the briefcase of a congressman or senator when he goes home for the weekend. Hopefully even a Chuck Schumer might have it in his briefcase, or he might read it on the little subway going from the Senate office building over to the Senate floor when he is about to vote.

Q: The Brookings Institution, on the liberal side, was known more for tomes, full-size books. We were trying to reach directly to the policy makers and not go through intermediate institutions or people. The model has been followed. Brookings, the American Enterprise, the Cato Institute, and other think tanks all do short studies.

Q: Conservatives have dominated the think tank world, but colleges and universities remain a vast wasteland. At the high­prestige colleges and universities, the Ivys especially, entering students know more about the basics-whether it is the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, or what our whole system and structure is about-than they know when they leave four years later.

Q: They've heard a lot of propaganda. Alumni should look at what is being taught in the classroom. If things are not the way they should be, they should not be giving money there. Instead, they should be looking for institutions like this one where they can give in order to build up the right kind of thinking and a real return to basic principles.

Q: Surveys show Democrats dominating college faculties. Is Heritage the Republican alternative? We believe in certain conservative principles at Heritage, but we are not Republican and we are not in the hip pocket of the Republican Party.

Q: In what ways is Heritage in the pocket of, let's say, the conservative movement, which includes many strains: Historically, hasn't Social Darwinism competed with compassionate conservatism? As unhyphenated conservatives we come out of a Burkian, de Tocqueville tradition, believing in the little platoons of society, in the tradition of subsidiarity, where it is much better to solve social problems at the local level than it is to try to solve them through a bureaucracy. You do raise a very delicate point: at Heritage balancing not only economic freedom, but working with some of our libertarian friends who would probably go further than I would, and with some of our social friends. How do you balance it? Very, very delicately.

Q: Has Barack Obama been good for the Heritage Foundation? Not necessarily good for the country, but good for the Heritage Foundation.

Q: There is nothing like a common opponent to unify groups that would otherwise be attacking each other. Have any of you been down at any of the Tea Party movements? These are not business stooges. Real moms and pops are there because they are worried about the future of the country.

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