Who has been the most consequential conservative of the past four decades?
We could say Ronald Reagan, the indomitable optimist who won two landslide presidential victories, ended the Cold War without firing a shot, and restored Americans’ faith in themselves and the future.
Or William F. Buckley, Jr., the renaissance author-editor-commentator who launched a thousand quips and made conservatism intellectually acceptable.
Or Barry Goldwater, the incorrigible presidential candidate who lost 44 states but won the future by raising the core issues, from taxes to entitlements to national defense, that have dominated American politics since World War II.
But where did Reagan get the policy prescriptions for his successful presidency? Who built the movement that cheered Buckley and made him a national celebrity? And who transformed Goldwater’s “far-out” suggestions, like a voluntary option for Social Security, into mainstream proposals?
These conservative giants turned to The Heritage Foundation and Ed Feulner to guide them on the rocky road to liberty.
President Reagan described Feulner—Heritage’s president for the past 36 years—as an “intellectual, administrator, politician, diplomat, but most of all, dreamer and darer.” Feulner understood, Reagan said, that “the best way to ride the tide of history is to make a few waves of [your] own.”
When Feulner was enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he invited Senator Barry Goldwater to speak. Feulner got a lesson in early-days political correctness when outraged liberal students threw eggs at the conservative candidate who dared to suggest we ought to seek victory over communism.
Feulner came to Washington in 1965 to work for Representative Mel Laird (R-WI) and then Representative Phil Crane (R-IL), and he soon saw that Congress lacked something: a conservative think tank that placed principle above party and would provide Members of Congress and their aides with timely, reliable, and concise information before—not after—an issue was debated.
It was a simple but brilliant idea that transformed the culture of Washington think tanks, which had contented themselves with producing pedantic studies that no one read but librarians. Heritage would use the “briefcase test”—producing policy analyses that a congressional staffer or Member could toss in a briefcase and read on the way to a meeting.
When he became president of Heritage in 1977, Feulner vowed that it would become a permanent Washington institution. Why? Because, as he always says, “In Washington, there are no permanent defeats, and there are no permanent victories.” The price of liberty is vigilance.
Heritage is that permanent institution today. It is committed to developing and promoting conservative ideas regardless of who is in the White House or who controls Congress.
At the same time, Feulner kept deepening and widening the conservative movement through the annual Resource Bank meeting (attended by more than 200 non-profit CEOs last year); the State Policy Network of more than 50 state think tanks; the Philadelphia Society, the nation’s leading organization of conservative intellectuals; Townhall, the largest conservative website, with several hundred columnists and commentators; and hundreds of thousands of Heritage members.
Ed Feulner never stops looking for ways to inform the people, rouse the people, and inspire the people. “If we do that,” he says, paraphrasing Reagan, “the people will remind Washington and its elected officials that we are not a government with a people. We are a people with a government.”
Feulner steps down as Heritage president next week. When people ask what difference he has made, recall what was said of the master English architect Christopher Wren: “If you seek his memorial, look about you.”
Historian Lee Edwards, Heritage’s Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, has written Leading the Way, a new biography of Ed Feulner and his leadership of The Heritage Foundation. Check out the book here.
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