A Deliberate Life: Ed Feulner, WG’64, President of the Heritage Foundation
08 August, 2012
category: Joseph Wharton Dinner, Social Impact
Ed Feulner conserves his strength. You wouldn’t know it, as he embarks on his 36th year leading an influential organization and traveling 150,000 miles a year, to teach and serve his constituencies. His art is not to hold back energy; just not to squander it. He’s Strunk and White applied to action.
Since earning his MBA at Wharton in 1964 and, incidentally, founding the Wharton Club of Washington, D.C., in 1966, Ed quietly sought to impact the world around him. The late 1960s and early 1970s were not kind to conservative ideals; nevertheless, he held them. Through various political and cultural climates, Ed Feulner has developed his organization, and today, according to a 2012 University of Pennsylvania study, it is among the foremost think tanks in the world.
What is the Heritage Foundation?
The Heritage Foundation is a public policy research organization, or think tank. We’re dedicated to a certain set of principles: individual liberty, free enterprise, a strong national defense and traditional American values. We espouse those in a nonpartisan way, but in a way that’s committed to conservative principles.
When you became the President of Heritage 35 years ago, you had a nine-member staff working out of rented offices. Today, it has 250 employees occupying three buildings close to the Capitol. A lot of foundations have come and gone. How did Heritage grow?
From the beginning, Heritage strove not to be an ivory tower institute, but an action-oriented think tank. We wrote policy papers that, first, were credible, which allowed everyone to agree on the facts and numbers upfront, so that if you tore out the last page that comes to a conclusion, at least everyone was arguing from the same set of facts. That, in itself, would be accomplishing something significant. Second, we produced short studies so that a busy policymaker would actually read them. Third, they were timely. If the paper comes out too early, nobody pays attention. If it comes out a day late, you’ve missed your target. Back then, that was a new concept. The usual method was to get scholars together to write a 200-page tome, and if a vote came along while you were halfway through the project, no matter — just keep plugging away. Maybe five years from now someone will read it, but chances are that they won’t.
Can you share the structure of the foundation?
Sure. One thing that makes us unique is that we work from a shared agenda. We don’t have people doing their own thing or raising their own project funds. When you sign up for Heritage, you sign up for a shared vision.
We have an independent, self-perpetuating board of trustees. They elect the officers of the corporation. We’re a non-stock D.C. corporation. Besides me, we have a COO, a senior vice president for marketing, and line vice presidents on the research and support sides. We’re not for profit, but we’re not for loss either. We try to run as efficiently as a business, which goes back to my Wharton training. To accomplish that, the board has a serious budget committee, a separate audit committee, a development committee to keep the doors open, and recently, an executive organization and structure committee to plan succession issues. So, the board stays active and involved. Internally, we have a weekly management meeting with 35 managers.
What are the opportunities for Wharton alumni at think tanks like Heritage or the Brookings Institution?
Areas of public policy, which are of concern to everyone at Wharton, all intersect with what we do here at Heritage. My major in 1964 was in transportation economics, and within three years of my coming to Washington, the issue of airline deregulation was front and center at Congress. That’s what I wrote my MBA thesis on (back then, theses were required for an MBA). So the overlap is always there. If your major is marketing, our two main divisions are research and production, and the other side is marketing, which includes communications, government relations and outreach to the academic community.
One of the key interests in Wharton is finance. We have a $100 million asset base — primarily, equities that need management. Both our board of trustees and 700,000 donors care deeply that we maximize the return in a prudent manner. We have a $90 million annual budget, 250 employees and 700,000 members around the country, so our needs are multiple.
We partner with knowledgeable people who are concerned with what exactly the government is doing with 30% to 40% of their income. Say your area of expertise is aviation security — chances are that Heritage or Brookings Institution will be doing a program on that subject, and someone with hands-on experience can contribute more than a government expert. Heritage has programs that enlist key academics and supporters around the country to help us think outside the box on major policy challenges, such as education reform.
Who are the target audiences for the research and writing done by Heritage?
We can look out our window and see the dome of the U.S. Capitol one block away. Our target audience includes senators, congressmen and congresswomen, and key staff aides. Most people don’t know this, but there are 35,000 congressional staffers on Capitol Hill. They pull together data for their bosses on how he or she should vote on a forthcoming bill.
In the longer term, regional policy leaders are a target audience. To reach these influencers beyond our 700,000 members, we have regular columns in 400 newspapers nationwide, and I write a column in the Washington Times, which has a fair distribution inside the Beltway. I wrote an op-ed last week, with my colleague from the American Enterprise Institute, in the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday, we were on the CBS Evening News. So we are trying very hard to get our message out.
Has the Heritage Foundation embraced social media?
Who would have thought that, every Tuesday, Heritage would host a blogger’s lunch here, with 30 bloggers? So it’s worthwhile for an Eric Cantor or John Boehner to come over, sit down and talk to them. Five years ago, this wasn’t even on the horizon.
Then, last month, we co-sponsored here, with Google, a half-day seminar on how to open up Cuba to the Internet. This is a technological challenge that Google is on the cutting edge of. So, new ideas are something that we look for here, and when someone comes up with one, I like to think that we are open to hearing them.
Where do you get your energy?
This is such a neat job — it energizes me! I’m able to interact with major, even historic, figures. Ten days ago, I sat with Lady Thatcher for 45 minutes — to hear her concerns. She’s a longtime patron, and as sharp as ever. Occasionally, I have breakfast with Eric Cantor or Ben Bernanke to discuss policy. Yesterday, I had lunch with the Swiss ambassador to talk trade policy. And then, people around the country write to me and say, “I don’t like my senator, so I regard you as my representative.” That trust is intimidating, yet invigorating.
President Reagan awarded you the Presidential Citizen’s Medal. What do you remember about him?
I was deeply moved by the award because it honored the two most important things in my professional life — the Heritage Foundation, and the conservative movement. It acknowledged the power of ideas to shape policy in the cause of freedom everywhere. When President Reagan spoke at a Heritage event, which was often, he was always gracious, humorous and relaxed because he knew he was among friends. He knew that he could rely on Heritage for the right analysis on a tax bill or a defense bill, or how to keep Americans proud while not undercutting or pulling apart the social safety network. We were privileged to work closely with a great American president who — to name one accomplishment — ended the Cold War without firing a shot.
Does Heritage reach out to constituencies who aren’t considered conservative?
Yes! In every demographic, there are more conservatives than you might think. In all major polls, Americans self-identify as being 40% conservative, 40% indeterminate and 20% liberal. Jack Kemp, for whom I was Chief of Staff in 1996, in his run for the vice presidency, talked about economic opportunity, to make sure that everyone can get to the first step up the ladder. Heritage fights for that through multiple programs. For example, we assert that the intact family not only is better for your own economic condition, but also, as Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and Jennifer Marshall of Heritage write, is the glue that binds those intermediate institutions between government and the individual. We work to conserve and reinforce those first principles that bring us all together, and improve us all.
Ronald Reagan used to say “Trust the people.” In New York City, where some of my children live, up to 48% of your gross income is going to local, state and federal government. Are they incentivizing the midsize businesses to not only employ people, but also let them move up the economic ladder? We publish the annual Index of Economic Freedom with the Wall Street Journal. Countries are scored by hard numbers on 10 indices, such as cronyism, tax levels and increased regulation (Hong Kong was No. 1 again, while the U.S. fell to No. 10). These issues affect every American citizen, and they are what we analyze every day.
What are three books that you give to others?
Three classics: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, written in 1953, introduces key thinkers, such as Edmund Burke and John Adams; key principles, such as that right and wrong exist; and historical examples of the hubris of reformers. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, written in 1944 (we produced 400,000 copies of this classic), describes the rise of totalitarianism, and is still relevant in describing the problem that any government has in having up-to-date knowledge compared with how a market works, because millions of people are inputting their own perspectives and information into the market. Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, is an eloquent, clearly laid out case for free markets and decentralization.
What are your thoughts on the Wharton School?
I regularly devour Wharton publications that stretch my own thinking, and help me look beyond my own conventional wisdom. I’m proud just to have gotten into the institution, and it’s neat to get to go back to listen and learn. ♦
Dr. Edwin J. Feulner, WG’64, has served as the President of the Heritage Foundation since 1977. He was a Founding Trustee of Heritage in 1973.
As a result of Dr. Feulner’s vision and leadership, the Heritage Foundation has grown from a nine-person policy shop in rented office space to what the New York Times has called “the beast of [all think tanks], the almost mythical Heritage Foundation … the Parthenon of the conservative metropolis.” Dr. Feulner is widely credited with establishing the Heritage Foundation as the most dynamic and far-reaching public policy research organization in the world.
In 1989, President Reagan honored Dr. Feulner by awarding him the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for his work as “a leader of the conservative movement.” He is also the recipient of a 2012 Bradley Prize.
More recently, Dr. Feulner was named one of the “Seven Most Powerful Conservatives in Washington” by Forbes magazine. He has also been featured on Fox News Sunday as a “Power Player of the Week.” The Daily Telegraph in London named Dr. Feulner as one of the “100 Most Influential American Conservatives” in 2010, and GQ magazine included him in its list of the “50 Most Powerful People in D.C.” He was included in a 2010 Washingtonian list of the “45 Who Shaped Washington.”
Dr. Feulner has served as the Chairman of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and President of the Mont Pelerin Society and the Philadelphia Society, of which he is a Distinguished Member.
Dr. Feulner has received honorary degrees from 15 colleges and universities. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, pursued further graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University, and received his B.S. from Regis University.
He has been married for more than 40 years to Linda Leventhal Feulner. They have two children and three grandchildren.