Heritage on the Hill
The Right's preeminent PR machine
by James Ridgeway
The Nation magazine December 22, 1997
The Heritage Foundation, which celebrates its twenty-fifth
anniversary beginning next month, has grown into one of the largest
and most successful advocates for conservative thinking in Washington.
From its unadorned, mud-colored headquarters building two blocks
from the Capitol, Heritage provides research to back up the Republican
right's drive to abolish what's left of the welfare state. At
the same time, and of equal importance, Heritage has become a
powerful propaganda arm in the war to re-create government along
Heritage is a "pillar" of the Washington political
scene, according to Ronald Elving, the political editor of Congressional
Quarterly. "It's up there with party organizations. It's
terribly important," he says, noting that Heritage provides
high-level jobs for conservatives as well as a meeting place for
all sorts of conservative political figures. "Steve Forbes
comes to town and he likes to talk there," Elving says. "It's
a good forum. They don't check your conservative credentials at
Even opponents, while criticizing its policies, don't see
Heritage in the same light as they do the more extreme conservative
groups. John Cavanagh, co-director of the Institute for Policy
Studies, says that while both organizations share a desire to
move power down to the local level, Heritage is "for devolving
power to local and state levels, but not giving them any re sources."
Still, adds Cavanagh, "they never said you're a bunch of
commies and we won't talk to you."
Cavanagh recalls that for many years, Heritage "fundraised
around I.P.S., as the great menace of the free world." Now,
he says, with Heritage "twenty times bigger than we are,
it's a little hard to use that." The Heritage Foundation's
annual budget in 1996 was $28.7 million, with individuals accounting
for 52 per cent of revenues, corporations 7 percent and foundations
21 per cent. Board members include Richard Scaife, whose various
foundations have been a Heritage mainstay; Jeb Bush, son of former
President Bush and a Florida gubernatorial hopeful; and William
Simon, a former Treasury Secretary.
Organized in the early seventies by Paul Weyrich and Edwin
Feulner, two young Congressional aides, with the prodding and
financial support of beer magnate Joe Coors, Heritage caught fire
with the Reagan presidency. It became Reagan's brain trust, and
its Mandate for Leadership, prepared in 1980, be came the I ,1
00-page blueprint for taking over and refashioning government.
"Mandate was one of the bibles for Reaganites," recalls
Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former spokesman.
Abroad, Heritage argued for much more consistent application
of commando-style guerrilla activities in places like Nicaragua
and Afghanistan to counter what it perceived as the threat of
communism, while at home it called for the rapid privatization
of government programs and reductions in social programs. The
foundation's agenda suffered setbacks such as the defeat of Robert
Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, but the election and re-election
of Bill Clinton have done little to slow it down. Its greatest
opportunity, in fact, is represented by the takeover of Congress
by conservative Republicans in 1994, and its greatest success
by the subsequent knuckling under of a putatively liberal President
to the agenda set by Congressional leadership.
We truly have become an extension of the Congressional staff,
but on our own terms and according to our own agenda," Kim
Holmes, Heritage vice president for foreign policy and defense
studies, wrote in the foundation's 1995 annual report. Heritage
effectively argues for welfare "reform" and tuition
tax credits, and tends toward support of a flat tax. And it is
already in the midst of planning for change in the next century-the
privatization of Social Security, overhaul of the tax system,
elimination of the federal presence in education and the conversion
of Medicare into a voucher-based medical system. "Heritage,
more than the others, is interested in maintaining and preserving
contacts with Republican leadership on the Hill," says Robert
Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and
now at the Brookings Institution. "But I don't think they
are the lap dog of the speaker or majority leader."
The foundation has sixty analysts working on issues across
the board. Michael Franc, the vice president who oversees government
relations, goes back and forth to the Hill three or four times
a day, briefing staffs of conservative members and meeting with
members themselves. On the Hill, Heritage representatives will
hand out backgrounders on a bill heading for the floor the following
week. If a bill's in trouble, Franc may go back to headquarters
and pull out an apt Op-Ed from The Wall Street Journal or produce
a quick executive memo. A staffer who knows that his office is
going to have to deal with a controversial bill comes to work
and finds a short Heritage report on the subject in his in-box.
He can quickly find out what's involved and pass it on to his
boss to use in a floor statement or in answering letters from
constituents. Recalling the role of Heritage staffers while he
was working for Gingrich, Blankley says, "They were useful
for conservatives to quickly summarize key points on breaking
issues on legislation."
And they impress many of their Democratic opponents. "They
hustled," says Dan Buck, legislative aide to former Representative
Pat Schroeder. "You had to give them credit. They got their
stuff out and in a timely way. They were a new breed of think
tank- much more activist oriented, jumping on things; their stuff
was hand-delivered." He adds, "The problem with so many
liberal groups is they think they're right and therefore you're
supposed to agree with them. So they don't hustle as hard."
The key ideological player at Heritage is Stuart Butler, a
British supporter of Margaret Thatcher who came to the United
States in the late seventies as a keen exponent of free-market
economics. Butler is for transforming public housing to private
ownership through tenant organizations; backs changes in Social
Security that would allow contributors to invest a portion in
the private markets; and is exploring the notion that a stable
society may be enhanced by religious practice. Reischauer says
Butler re mains an independent voice on Capitol Hill: "I've
been on panels in which Stuart has been very critical of positions
that the Republican leadership has taken...on health care, taxes,
the budget balancing plan this summer."
Butler says that over the years, he has tried to reach out
to Democrats, including liberals such as Barney Frank, in the
hope of exploring coalitions. Frank, however, says he can barely
re member sitting on a panel on homelessness with Heritage a decade
ago, and that he has no current dealings with the foundation.
"They're just loyal soldiers in the right-wing army,"
he says. Heritage has been something of a model to the Progressive
Policy Institute, which is associated with the New Democrats around
Clinton and Gore. When Clinton first took office, P.P.I. published
Mandate for Change, which was modeled after Heritage's Mandate
While many of the fights in which Heritage is engaged have
been going on for the whole of its existence, the atmosphere in
which it goes about its work has changed. Under Reagan, anti communism
was the glue that held all the competing strands of the conservative
revolution together, from supply-siders to Christian fundamentalists.
Today, it is the concept of the free market, tempered not by regulation
but by the tax code.
Meshing Christian family values with economics has been a
major challenge for Heritage. Lee Edwards, the author of a new
Heritage history called The Power of Ideas, says, "There
has al ways been a healthy debate about emphasis. Heritage did
stay away from cultural issues and so-called traditional-value
policy deliberately for almost twenty years." Then in the
early nineties, under conservative prodding, William Bennett was
hired to lead a cultural studies program. "Bill Bennett got
his first start talking about cultural issues here at Heritage,"
Edwards recalls. "The little book coming out of that was
The Book of Virtues."
Heritage finds itself in accord with much of the Christian
Coalition's work, but "we don't deal with them at all on
their central issues of religion," Butler says. "We've
not ventured much into that except to say that people should have
as much opportunity to have their children educated in schools
with religious values as they wish. That's why we support vouchers."
As for abortion, "We meticulously avoid that."
Like the Christian evangelists with whom they share a some
times tense alliance, the conservative advocates at Heritage believe
in spreading their message to the uninitiated whenever and wherever
they can. As an indication of the importance attached to this
role, almost half of Heritage's annual budget goes into marketing
ideas. While it promotes itself as a think tank on a par with
Brookings or the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage is really
much more of a public relations operation. Hill & Knowlton,
not Brookings, provides a more fitting comparison. Indeed, as
Elving points out, much of the conservative reform now being debated
on Capitol Hill emerged from initiatives at the state level and
was launched in the late seventies by members of Congress, Gingrich
was one-well before Heritage found its own footing.
They've done one hell of a job as a bunch of hard-assed promoters,"
Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, says. "It's
not a research and analysis think tank-I can't think of a serious
piece of original research that has come out of the Heritage Foundation.
It's not that they are biased and people like us are not. They
are not a think tank in the sense that they do research and come
up with their own data. Pretty much all their effort goes into
influencing policy. Straight ideology."
Heritage operates as a sort of clearinghouse on conservative
ideas across a wide range of issues, and it has enthusiastically
encouraged the creation of some thirty-three different state think
tanks, often modeled after itself. Lawrence Reed, president of
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, the
largest of the state groups, says, "We're in constant touch,"
adding that he calls Heritage to "get the latest from Capitol
Hill on issues." Every year the foundation hosts a meeting
where the regional think tanks get together, and, as Melanie Kirkpatrick,
assistant editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, puts
it, "bounce ideas off one another. It's a bulletin board
for conservative ideas." It also hosts monthly get-togethers
for young conservatives, a practice started during the Reagan
Heritage works hard at getting its ideas into the mainstream.
Its Guide to Public Policy Experts contains a listing of 1,900
experts, indexed by 108 different subjects of expertise. The book
is now in its fourteenth edition, with more than 50,000 copies
in print. The foundation's bimonthly magazine, Policy Review,
goes out to 13,000 subscribers.
Heritage "issue bulletins"-some 200 a year-typically
go out to 650 editorial page editors and thirty to forty national
columnists, along with 450 talk-radio hosts. Op-Ed articles are
sent regularly to fifty papers across the AP Data Feature wire,
and to 200 others by mail, and one Op-Ed is prepared every week
for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. Mike Duggan, editor
of the news service, says the Heritage Op-Eds go to all 350 of
its client papers, where they wind up in 5-10 percent of them.
"Heritage is probably the most successful" of the think
tanks Knight Ridder approached in an effort to develop an array
of political views, Duggan says. "Their material is well
written, and Heritage is not so much on the far right as it used
Walter Mears, vice president of the Associated Press, describes
the conservative movement as "a growth industry." Referring
to Heritage, he says, "Given the shift in political life
on the Hill, they've been at the right place at the right time."
Thomas Bray, editorial page director at The Detroit News, says,
"The brilliant thing they did was to figure out how to get
their viewpoint on your desk the next morning. Every day you open
up the mail and there's a blizzard of releases from Heritage.
It may not be the most thorough, or in depth, but it's there and
it spells out a definite viewpoint and suggests ways of looking
at things that might not have occurred to you."
Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Journal says, "What sets them
apart from other think tanks is that they reach out to the heart
land." As one example, Edwin Roberts, who runs the editorial
page at The Tampa Tribune, says that "if there is a major
tax-cut proposal such as the child credit business, they will
run [data] through the big computer they've got and they will
figure out how much extra money goes to people who live in every
Congressional district. Nobody else is doing that."
Heritage pays relatively little attention to TV. Instead,
"we concentrate on talk-radio," Herb Berkowitz, the
~P. for public relations, says, "because you get more time
on talk radio." The foundation has two radio booths to accommodate
radio hosts and charges only for the phone lines. Michael Harrison,
editor of Talkers Magazine, the industry trade paper, and himself
a talk-show host, says, "Nobody understands the new media
and talk-radio as keenly as Heritage. They welcome all legitimate
talk-show hosts to use their facility. No strings attached. No
payback." Says Mary Matalin, George Bush's campaign manager
and now a talk-radio host, "I rely on them for studied views....
I know they are touted as conservative and ideological, but they
don't come on and just blow rhetoric. Know what I mean? They're
numbers guys. They're facts guys. They're just scholars. They're
Recently Heritage's pre-eminence within the conservative movement
has been challenged by the libertarians at the Cato Institute,
who pick at the contradictions in the big foundation's consensus
style. Barney Frank says, "Cato seems to me to have a good
deal of integrity and independence. I don't see that in Heritage."
On a different front, media critic Norman Solomon just received
a $100,000 grant to put together a "truth squad" to
combat Heritage and other right-wing think-tank propaganda. The
idea is to counteract a Heritage press release with one from Solomon's
own group of scholars. "Heritage is in the line of fire because
they're so prominent in mass media," Solomon says. "They've
gotten almost a free ride. They've gone unchallenged." Modern
Washington is like one big movie set. Nothing just happens; every
appearance, each statement, is carefully crafted to gain the maximum
political effect. Heritage's genius has been to recognize the
capital for what it is and jump in with the financial resources
to make itself really count. To think of the place as a think
tank underestimates its importance. Heritage is a production company
that has become a key player in creating the set every day. It
is the city's Disney, and the impact of its message-flat tax,
privatized Social Security and religion-based public policy-can
Former Heritage Foundation senior vice president Burton Yale
Pines called them "the shock troops of the conservative revolution."
They are the multitude of Washington-based, right wing think tanks
that, like Heritage, have been instrumental in bringing the conservative
message to Congress, the media and the public. Here is a short
selection of four of the most effective on the issues-mainly domestic-that
are currently at the center of national debate. Our apologies
to the many that also deserve honorable mention.
§ Cato Institute: Except for Heritage, no think tank's
influence is felt more strongly in Washington than the libertarian
Cato Institute. Founded in San Francisco in 1977, Cato moved to
Washington four years later but didn't really hit the national
spotlight until the Republican landslide in the 1994 Congressional
Like its namesake, the Roman statesman who opposed tyrants
such as Julius Caesar but also helped crush the slave rebellion
led by Spartacus, the Cato Institute is full of seeming contradictions:
The group takes a conservative, market-driven approach to the
economy but progressive stands on numerous civil liberties and
foreign policy issues. Cato was a key opponent of Clinton's early
efforts at health care reform; it has pushed regressive tax changes
(one top official recently took a leave to work for Dick Armey
and a flat tax at the Congressional Joint Economic Committee);
and it advocates abandoning both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered
Species Act. At the same time, it has called for the legalization
of drugs, a lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba and a withdrawal
of U.S. military commitments in both Europe and South Korea.
In 1996 Cato had a staff of fifty and an operating budget
of $7.9 million. Its biggest financial benefactor has been the
Koch family, owners of Koch Industries, an oil, natural gas and
land-management firm that is the second-largest privately owned
company in America.
§ American Enterprise Institute: This group's main current
contribution to conservative efforts may well be the steady stream
of "experts" it provides to the media. Increasingly,
it also pays the salaries of "journalists" who double
as A.E.I. scholars and fellows. On television, there is Lynne
Cheney, co-host of Crossfire Sunday; syndicated columnist Ben
Wattenberg, host of PBS's Think Tank; and William Schneider, world-hopping
political analyst on CNN. And then there is James Glassman, seemingly
everywhere. Not only does he appear on CNN's Capital Gang Sunday
and PBS's Techno-Politics; he also writes a week ly column for
The Washington Post and biweekly essays for U.S. News & World
Report. Not even the Internet is free from the irrepressible Glassman,
who has written for Microsoft's online magazine, Slate. As for
the print media, there is former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick
with her regularly syndicated columns; Irving Kristol and Herb
Stein, both contributors to The Wall Street Journal; and Karlyn
Bowman's columns in the influential Capitol Hill journal Roll
A.E.I. also maintains a strong presence in academia, supplying
about a hundred adjunct scholars or fellows to U.S. campuses.
The institute has been active in opposing welfare, taxes and regulatory
restrictions on business; it has also pushed for heavier military
spending and NATO expansion.
A.E.I. has a staff of 135; its budget was $13 million, with
40 percent of revenue coming from corporate donors. The Bradley
Foundation has also been a big donor, giving more than $2 million
between 1990 and 1992.
§ Free Congress Research and Education Foundation (and
National Empowerment Television): Free Congress Foundation, the
largest conservative think tank devoted primarily to social issues,
was founded twenty years ago by its current president, Paul Weyrich,
a conservative Catholic who was also a founder of the Heritage
Foundation. Weyrich recently made headlines when National Empowerment
Television-a private cable station that started out as a division
of F.C.F. and now claims to reach more than 15 million households-asked
him to resign as president. The board of NET, whose programming
runs to groups like the National Rifle Association and Phyllis
Schlafly's Eagle Forum, was apparently concerned about his increasingly
shrill attacks on Republican Congressional leaders like Senator
Trent Lott, whom Weyrich accused of selling out his country by
supporting a chemical weapons treaty.
Weyrich's falling out with NET is not unlike his falling out
with Heritage-which, as it has grown increasingly influential
in the capital, has come under attack from Weyrich for becoming
overly Beltway-focused and losing touch with its grassroots base.
F.C.F. Iobbies extensively on state ballot issues, among them
gun control, medical marijuana and gay employment discrimination.
F.C.F. is active in favor of school prayer; it also tracks Clinton's
candidates for judicial appointments and was a major opponent
of Clinton's health care reform bill. Perhaps F.C.F.'s most creative
project is the Clinton Sexual Harassment Hotline, launched with
a $250,000 ad campaign to get the number out. "If you believe
you have been sexually harassed by Bill Clinton," answers
a recorded voice at 1-888-HARASSU, "please leave your name
and number." The mailbox was full when The Nation called.
Free Congress has a staff of thirty-four and its 1996 budget
was $7.7 million. Two of its biggest backers have been the Scaife
affiliated Carthage Foundation and the Bradley Foundation.
§ Family Research Council: No Washington think tank has
been more active in lobbying against abortion rights and on gay
issues than the Family Research Council. F.R.C. has also been
at the forefront of efforts to eliminate funding for the Education
Department, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National
Endowment for the Arts, which F.R.C. president Gary Bauer once
described as a group that "has allowed itself to be used
by a small cadre of cultural revolutionaries, militant homosexuals
and anti-religious bigots who are intent on attacking the average
American's most deeply held beliefs while sending them the bill."
F.R.C. was founded in 1983, but didn't really take off until
it merged in 1988 with Focus on the Family, an advocacy group
led by Bauer, a former Under Secretary of the Education Department
under Reagan. The two groups later parted ways, but Bauer, a top
political leader of the Christian right, remained as head of the
organization. The F.R.C. Iobbied on behalf of a school prayer
constitutional amendment and was a big public backer of Cracker
Barrel Restaurant's decision not to hire gays. It has a staff
of seventy and a 1996 operating budget of $10 million.
James Ridgeway is the Washington, D. C., correspondent of
The Village Voice. Research support provided by the Investigative
Fund of The Nation Institute.
Control and Propaganda