Feulner Champions Conservative Values; Edwin J. Feulner Jr. Has Helped Shape the Heritage Foundation into an Influential Think Tank That Has Fundamentally Changed the National Policy Agenda

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Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

The Heritage Foundation was founded 30 years ago by young conservatives who thought it would be a good thing if there were a think tank in Washington that could get well-researched and well-argued policy statements to U.S. senators and representatives that clearly and succinctly argued the conservative position on issues before Congress.

Succinctness was important, says Edwin J. Feulner Jr., who was there at the founding and has been Heritage's president since 1977. "It wouldn't do to be book size," he says. "The studies had to pass what we later called 'the briefcase test,' small enough to fit into a congressman's or senator's briefcase for weekend reading."

From small beginnings and with financial help from Joseph Coors and a host of others, the Heritage Foundation has grown into one of Washington's most influential institutions and an essential contributor to the conservative movement.

Recently the Heritage Foundation doubled the physical size and modernized its headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. The new Heritage plant, Feulner tells Insight, "means we're better able to carry out our mission."

But "more significantly," he adds, "what I think it affirms is that Heritage is a permanent institution here in Washington." The staff, Feulner says, will remain at 200. Otherwise, he says, "you've got too many assistants, people are running into one another. Beyond 200, the marginal return on the additional person is not as great as it should be."

Feulner's conservatism was fueled by growing up in suburban Chicago "10 years old with a vegetable garden out back. You can sell cucumbers for a dime and tomatoes for a nickel, and whatever you make you can keep."

His father, who came from a working-class family on Chicago's South Side, became very successful in business and a trustee of Loyola University. He also played a major role in Feulner's faith in free enterprise and American liberties.

As a young man he read such conservative classics as Erik von Kuehneldt-Leddihn's Liberty or Equality and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. These books, along with what he calls his "discovery" of the National Review, "intellectualized" his right-wing sympathies.

Insight interviewed Feulner in his new office with its fine view of Capitol Hill, where he was working three decades ago when the idea for the Heritage Foundation began to take form in his friend Paul Weyrich's mind and in Feulner's mind too.

Insight: Describe the role the Heritage Foundation has played in changing Washington's attitude toward conservative ideas.

Edwin J. Feulner Jr.: In the 1970s the most common comment it was almost parody was that the whole modern conservative movement could meet at any time in a telephone booth. Today you have John Podesta, the chief of staff of the most recent liberal president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and you have [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)] talking about the things liberals have to do, and one of them is to invent their version of the Heritage Foundation.

That is a giant difference! But in terms of a measure of effectiveness? The national policy agenda is fundamentally changed. Two decades or so ago, meeting with the House Republican leadership over breakfast, I started talking about Social Security reform. Bob Michel [former House minority leader] pulled at my sleeve and said, "We don't use those words inside the Capitol."

Now you've got a president of the United States, George W. Bush, who last time ran on Social Security reform and wasn't pilloried for doing so. That happened, I think, because Heritage and a couple others but I would argue primarily Heritage did some specific studies about Social Security. And one of those studies showed that blacks in the inner city, in Los Angeles, actually had a negative rate of return on Social Security. …