- - Sunday, July 31, 2016


By Jason Stahl

The University of North Carolina Press, $34.95, 248 pages

On Inauguration Day 1981, I attended a brunch gathering on Capitol Hill that University of Minnesota historian Jason Stahl would probably consider proof of the underlying thesis of his book on the impact of conservative think tanks. All of the several dozen guests gathered to view Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address over Mimosas, Screwdrivers and Bloody Marys were conservatives — writers, editors, congressional staffers, scholars, journalists, economists and the like. A smattering of us had already served in the executive branch in past Republican administrations, myself as a White House speechwriter for presidents Ford and Nixon. But just about everyone present, one way or another, had ties with leading conservative think tanks such as the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation. Many of us would soon occupy middle and upper level slots in the Reagan administration, where I would spend 1981-1983 as director of presidential speechwriting for the Great Communicator himself.

Personnel input aside, many of the policy initiatives of Ronald Reagan’s first term could be traced to a single volume published by the Heritage Foundation in 1980, “Mandate For Leadership”. Just as AEI under its founder, William J. Baroody, Sr., had provided most of the “Brain Trust” for Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful but groundbreaking conservative presidential candidacy in 1964, Heritage would serve as a deep source of both people and policy throughout the Reagan presidency. A small qualifier to Mr. Stahl’s account of AEI’s formative years: The author makes much of a 1962 letter from Mr. Baroody to Karl Hess stating that, “The Institute does not press any particular policy position. The Institute does attempt to provide the research assistance which will bring to bear upon any policy consideration the most pertinent facts available and the most knowledgeable considerations by acknowledged authorities in the field.” While Mr. Stahl takes this as evidence that AEI was not yet into the business of policy advocacy, those of us who knew the late Karl Hess — as much of a loose cannon as he was a talented conservative writer — would argue that it was a specific admonition to a single employee to concentrate on building substantive policy dossiers rather than tilting at personal windmills under the AEI banner.

AEI’s real metamorphosis occurred much later when, after a period of declining influence following William Baroody, Sr.’s death, it was resurrected as a neoconservative policy bastion. As such it would play a major role during George W. Bush’s presidency, though mainly in the realm of defense and foreign policy. For better and/or worse, we are still living with the consequences in Iraq and the greater Middle East today.

Mr. Stahl does not exaggerate the impact of conservative think tanks on public policy. It has been both palpable and sustained. Where he does err is in treating the rise of conservative think tanks as a blatantly partisan phenomenon that has somehow replaced a more enlightened “liberal technocratic ideal” with the rough-and-tumble world of a “marketplace for ideas,” relentlessly moving policy debate on a “rightward plane.” What has actually happened has more to do with competitive rigor and less to do with ideology per se. From FDR’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” policy discussion and the institutions contributing to it — Ivy League and other elite, liberal-dominated universities, pre-conservative think tanks like the massive Brookings Institute, most influential newspapers, magazines and the big three broadcast networks — exercised a virtual monopoly over the “marketplace for ideas,” so much so that it was really more of a corrupt company store than a real marketplace.

Liberals and other advocates of a Big Brother state have always been attracted to both the official and unofficial sources of government power. Their whole approach is based on the assumption that an enlightened (as defined by them) set of central policies and ever-increasing mandates and entitlements are the way to a better future — or at least one more to their liking provided they can define and control it. It took generations of central government intrusion and abuse to awaken a conservative response to the liberal monopoly. Now that the liberals have lost it, they decry the partisanship that will always be a part of a “balanced marketplace for ideas”.

Jason Stahl may not fully appreciate this, but his diligently researched book offers readers an informative account of the origins and rise of conservative think tanks in American politics.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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