A changing of the Heritage guard

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 8:17 p.m.

Edwin Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation, the nation's most influential conservative think tank. Feulner, who is retiring in April after 35 years at Heritage's helm, spoke to the Trib about his legacy and the future of the organization.

Q: You shepherded The Heritage Foundation from a nine-member outfit to an organization that employees 275-plus and occupies three Washington, D.C., buildings. Were you confident setting out that you could grow the foundation into what The New York Times once called “the Parthenon of the conservative metropolis”?

A: We knew there was a gap to be filled when the late Paul Weyrich and I started Heritage but the notion that it would become the most broadly supported and the largest private think tank in the country was beyond our dreams.

We wanted to make a difference, we wanted to become a permanent institution in Washington and I think we've done pretty well with that.

Q: How did you build it up?

A: I think there were three factors. The first one was the absolute credibility of our research. Even liberals who disagreed with us on policy issues knew that they could take one of our studies (and) rely on the facts up front. Number two, we decided early on that marketing is probably as important as doing research, because otherwise you get a study that sits on somebody's bookshelf. Number three, you have to get your product out in timely fashion. Credibility, marketing and timeliness are the three big things I think have made Heritage what it is.

Q: What do you consider the foundation's most significant achievements under your watch?

A: It's been 35 years so I could go through a long, long list. But in the '80s, it has to be when Ronald Reagan (backed) the anti-missile defense system, or Star Wars, as it was then called, and (the ideas) that tax reform and tax cuts lead to a growing economy.

By the 1990s, we were integrally involved in things like welfare reform.

In the 2000s, it was (enabling) the Bush administration to say, hey, there is no (anti-ballistic missile) treaty with the Soviet Union because there is no Soviet Union.

Q: In an age where TV talking heads have seemed to take control over the flow of information, are you concerned at all about the future of not just Heritage, but think tanks in general?

A: It's a big concern to all of us. When we started Heritage, one of our objectives was to take an argument and do it in eight or 10 pages. Now, eight or 10 pages is long, when you've got to get things down to 140 characters in a tweet.

You can't do that with complex ideas, so how do we reach our target audiences? Hopefully you get at least 800 words in an editorial or an op-ed, rather than those 140 characters.

Q: How do you envision the foundation operating under (incoming Heritage president) Sen. Jim DeMint's leadership?

A: Well, he certainly is a solid conservative, so it was very encouraging when he was introduced (and) the first thing he said was the absolute credibility of the research has to be paramount.

Jim (was in) the private sector before he was in the House and Senate, so he has a very detailed background with his MBA in the marketing field, so I think he will take our marketing to even new and better levels than it's ever been under me. That's all to the good.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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