OAKLAND, California - Last month, the Heritage Foundation, Washington's largest and one of its most influential conservative think tanks, celebrated its 35th anniversary of saying no to so-called 'big government' and yes to privatisation, deregulation, eviscerating the United States' social safety net, 'traditional family values' and pre-emptive military strikes and a muscular foreign policy.
In a pre-anniversary address at the foundation's headquarters this past November, President George W. Bush told the crowd that he believed '50 years from now an American president will be speaking to Heritage 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 Foundation opened its doors, the War in Vietnam was slowly winding to an inglorious ending, the Republican Party's hold on the White House was slipping as Vice President Spiro Agnew had resigned in disgrace, and President Richard Nixon was soon to be toppled by the Watergate scandal.
The civil rights and women's movements had won a number of transformative battles, and the term 'culture wars' had not yet slipped into the national consciousness.
In his 1997 book 'The Power of Ideas', Lee Edwards wrote that 'Conservative leaders and conservative ideas were out of public favor... In foreign [affairs], dÃƒÂ¨tente was riding high... [as Nixon] traveled to Communist China to kowtow to Mao Zedong.'
Out of this disarray grew a political movement that would come to dominate U.S. politics in the latter part of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st.
The Heritage Foundation became a major player leading the country's transformation from the liberalism of the 1930s to the conservatism of 'The Contract With America'. The brainchild of Paul Weyrich, now considered to be the 'Godfather' of the New Right (as it was called at the time), and its current president Edwin Fuelner, the foundation received substantial start-up funds from several wealthy right-wing conservatives, most prominently beer magnate Joseph Coors, and heir to the Mellon fortune, Richard Mellon Scaife.
According to the late William Simon, the Heritage Foundation was envisioned as an institution that, over time, would 'break the back of the dominant Liberal Establishment.' Simon, Nixon's former energy czar and treasury secretary, and at the time the president of the conservative Olin Foundation, accused liberals of being concerned with such notions as 'equality' and of being 'possessed of delusions of moral grandeur'.
Simon called for a 'counter-intelligentsia', and argued that 'funds generated by business ... must [be] rush[ed] by the multimillion to the aid of liberty ... [and]funnel[ed] ... to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty.'
The Heritage Foundation became one of the primary beneficiaries of the call to rush funds. From 1985 -- when MediaTransparency.org, a website tracking money behind the conservative movement, began scrutinising grants to the think-tank -- through 2006, the foundation received more than 66 million dollars from a host of conservative foundations including The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation (Coors Family), Dick and Betty DeVoss Foundation (Amway), and the John M. Olin Foundation. It also received many millions from giant corporations.
The Heritage Foundation'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'. The work became the intellectual blueprint for the so-called 'Reagan Revolution', including trickle-down economics, massive cutbacks in social programmes and the Star Wars Defence Strategy.
During the 1980s, the foundation was also an avid supporter of Reagan's foreign policy initiatives, which included welcoming leaders of contra movements in Central America and Africa to its doors.
These days, few could argue with Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, who in a Feb. 21 Townhall.com column pointed out that when the foundation 'opened its doors for the first time ... the policy landscape was forever changed.'
In his celebratory Townhall.com column dated Feb. 15, Edwin Fuelner, the president of the Heritage Foundation, 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, the former Soviet newspaper Pravda admitted that 'in a matter of just 10 years, the Heritage Foundation has covered a mind-boggling distance.'
Fuelner also pointed to a host of Heritage Foundation accomplishments, including its contribution to the downfall of the Soviet Union; its firm advocacy of 'missile defence' (Star Wars); its promotion of welfare reform and marriage.
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,'' a People for the American Way 'Fighting the Right' profile noted.
The foundation played a key role in the march to war against Iraq.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast and parts of New Orleans, a Heritage Foundation Special Report titled 'From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities', presented a set of guidelines and recommendations that clearly represented three decades of Heritage advocacy: According to the report, the key to rebuilding was privatisation, relaxing environmental and other government regulations, suspending labour laws, and advocating school vouchers.
Recently, Heritage Foundation staffers have been urging the Bush administration to act militarily against Iran.
According to Fuelner, 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 foundation -- housed in headquarters that includes intern and fellow apartments, a 200-seat auditorium, a private fitness centre, and floors dedicated to an ever-expanding research department -- is still a major political force.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column 'Conservative Watch' documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.
© 2008 Inter Press Service