The change that turned our hard-hitting investigative journalists into weenie stenographers, government propagandists, and apologists for the administration (as long as it was a conservative Republican administration, that is) was driven neither by financial necessity nor some elemental and irresistible cosmic force. It was a deliberate conservative conspiracy that had definite origins, sponsors, centers, designers, and strategic planning. It’s time to take a look at who – and what – they were.
The American Enterprise Institute
In 1943, Lewis Harold Brown, the CEO of Johns-Manville, primary manufacturer of asbestos, decided that FDR was a Communist, that his programs were at best socialist, and that what the country needed was a think tank for the development and spreading of conservative ideas. He founded the American Enterprise Association and hired about a dozen of the country’s top conservatives to staff it and to figure out how to get conservatives into power positions with the aim of killing the New Deal and eliminating personal and corporate income taxes. Brown was one of a number of far-right industrial barons at the time who were enraged with FDR and wanted him impeached or otherwise put out of the way.
They weren’t just PO’d and they weren’t the kind to sit on their hands and let democracy take its course. They were the kind who hired strikebreakers to kill unionists and arranged for union leaders to be murdered or even framed for murders they didn’t commit. They were the kind who corrupted local police and bought & sold local and state politicians. They were the kind who, like Jerry MacGuire, a top Wall Street bond salesman and former Commander of the Connecticut American Legion, and William Doyle, Commander of the Massachusetts American Legion, fantasized about a fascist military coup that would remove Roosevelt by force and replace him with a pro-Wall Street dictator, and then went out and tried to engineer it.
Brown wasn’t quite that flamboyant – or that stupid. His approach was much quieter, much deeper, but it didn’t grow much fruit during his lifetime. Three years after he died in 1951, William Baroody took over the AEA and renamed it the American Enterprise Institute. Baroody was much more in line with the MacGuire/Doyle brand of thinking, if he wasn’t willing to take it quite as far as they did. He was a proponent of aggressive, take-no-prisoners conservative political action, and he was focused almost single-mindedly on infiltrating far-right-wing conservatives into the US government. He saw himself, as Rick Perlstein wrote in a profile two years ago, as “a conservative empire builder”.
William J. Baroody Sr., the son of an immigrant stonecutter from New Hampshire, I relate in my book on the rise of the conservative movement, “was cagey, Machiavellian, hungry – a conservative empire builder”: he turned a humble business lobby against wartime price controls, the American Enterprise Association, into a full-service conservative “think tank,” the American Enterprise Institute. What a hustler he was! He told reporters, “I really can’t say whether I am a liberal or a conservative.” He put up pictures of himself with Hubert Humphrey up on his office walls; thus was AEI’s status as “non-partisan,” suitable for tax-deductible donations, vouchsafed.
He also, when it came time for his man Barry Goldwater to run for president, made of himself a sort of money launderer.
In early 1965, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch studied the expenses of the American Enterprise Institute for the previous, presidential, year. He found that the budget of AEI had suddenly and inexplicably grown 22 percent. Baroody Sr. spent the year on “paid leave”—indeed, earning a more than 10 percent raise from the employer he did not work for that year; instead, he occupied the office next to Goldwater’s at campaign headquarters, running his research operations, with several AEI employees on staff beside him. The AEI offices might have mostly been empty. Nonetheless, the outfit’s biggest budget item for 1964 was, fishily, “overhead.” Plainly, people were sluicing money to the Goldwater campaign through AEI as contributions to a tax-exempt “educational” institution.
Baroody built AEI into a conservative powerhouse. By the 1970’s, Baroody had grown it exponentially, ” from a group of twelve resident ‘thinkers’ to a well-funded organization with 145 resident scholars, 80 adjunct scholars, and a large supporting staff. This period of growth was largely funded by the Howard Pew Freedom Trust.” According to SourceWatch, “The Howard Pew Freedom Trust is one of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Financed by the Sun Oil fortune, it played an important role in the 1970s in greatly expanding the budget of the American Enterprise Institute, giving the AEI a total of $6 million between 1976 and 1981.”
Baroody used the money to buy influence and, not surprisingly, succeeded. By the 80’s, the Reagan Administration was hip-deep in AEI Fellows and Members – Richard Perle, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Fred Kagan, Newt Gingrich (a first-term Representative at the time), Norm Ornstein, Dick Cheney, Michael Ledeen (who was a courier for Oliver North during the rogue arms-for-hostages op), “Fat Tony” Scalia, Michael Novak, and even one Cabinet Sec, George Schultz at State.
More importantly, AEI had managed to secure positions in the media for a raft of its members and fellow travelers. Bill Kristol, Charlie Krauthammer, Herb Klein, and Ben Wattenberg have all belonged, David Broder and Robert Novak were honored guests (and receivers of targeted leaks), and the likes of George Will, Fred Barnes, and Michael Barone gave speeches there and were invited to all the dances. They are the visible evidence of the success of the conspiratorial planning and operations of the AEI conservatives and their intention to turn the “liberal media” into a toothless tiger and then rebuild it as a fully operational conservative jackal.
The Heritage Foundation
So successful was AEI’s invasion of the halls of government in affecting policy during Nixon’s first term that by 1972, another “think tank” had been endowed with a small fortune, first by right-wing crackpot billionaire Joe Coors and then by right-wing crackpot billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, both of them easy, gullible targets for even the most unappetizing and irresponsible whackos of the fringe Right. This was the Heritage Foundation, whose Mission Statement is a model of generalized hypocritical self-satisfaction.
To formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.
Usually Mission Statements are expected to a be at least a tad more specific than “Our Mission is to change the world” and most organizations are encouraged to throw in a few specifics to give people a rough idea of their actual agenda but conservatives have never had any trouble Thinking Big even when they’re thinking small and scared. As always with conservatives, the aspects of the MS are buzzwords that don’t sound like code but are: “free enterprise” means the freedom from any restrictions on profit-making, and, allied with “limited government”, freedom from government regulations – the freedom to pollute, the freedom to produce and sell hazardously defective merchandise, the freedom to treat their employees like serfs, and, of course, freedom from their tax obligations.
In practice, HF fashioned itself as a hothouse of “studies” that were used to “prove” that conservative policies were effective both fiscally and socially. In the 70’s and 80’s HF published numerous “poverty studies” that affected to “prove” that being poor was a self-inflicted injury and that liberal programs, pilot projects, and proscriptions were counter-productive. They did this, first, by the old trick of writing their conclusions in advance and then pruning the study so they got what they’d decided to get, and second, by fudging the numbers. Their “studies” were so flagrantly lopsided in the beginning that no one took them seriously. It was not until Ronald Reagan was elected that the far-right views represented by HF were considered “mainstream”. Not that they were. They weren’t. But the carload of far-right whackos who got elected with Reagan in 1980 pretended they were, and before we knew it Reagan’s bogus “welfare queen” was being confirmed by equally bogus HF studies.
HF made a point of distributing these studies free to the press, becoming the second arm of the conspiracy to game journalism.
These two powerhouses were soon joined by a raft of other conservative “think tanks” (read: “propaganda centers”), all of whom shared members, consultants, sponsors, and interlocking boards.
Richard Vuguerie and Direct Mail
The third leg, and perhaps the most important one, was the advent of direct-mail marketing. It made possible mass pressure on the media to change its format, viewpoint, personalities, even its journalistic standards.
The father of conservative direct mail is without a doubt Richard Viguerie. Viguerie all but invented direct mail mass marketing as a tool of conservative fund-raising that used political messages, blatant fear tactics and intimidation.
A native of Pasadena, Texas, Viguerie was the originator of innovative direct mail fundraising techniques that bankrolled an array of conservative causes. Viguerie got his start in politics back in 1961, when he was named the Executive Secretary of William Buckley’s newly formed Young Americans for Freedom. It was that group that pushed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential Campaign. Goldwater’s drubbing by Lyndon Johnson set the stage for more than a decade of grass roots conservative organizing that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election to the Presidency in 1980.
But he really broke in his techniques running direct-mail fundraising for Billy Joe Hargis, one of the earliest of the crackpot religious Right.
Hargis preached on the evils of sex education and Communism, and urged the return of prayer and Bible reading to public schools long before the modern Religious Right. He referred to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as revolutionary foundations of Marxism. He accused the government, media and pop culture figures — among whom he included the Beatles — of promoting Communism.
Hargis’ career ended in what has come to be the standard manner for right-wing preachers – a sex scandal – and Viguerie moved on to other things, including the creation of the far-right American Freedom Watch with the barely coherent ex-Georgia Representative Bob Barr and founding Conservative Digest magazine. In the 80’s, his conservative activities, especially CD, having eaten up most of his fortune, according to dKos he was rescued by none other than the Rev Sung Myung Moon. His connections helped put movement conservatives together with fundamentalist Xtian theocratic activists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and he raised money for all of them with his patented pitch-style: hysterical capital letters, acres of exclamation points, and the kind of outrageous, not to say paranoid, charges against the Left that Hargis and his followers became famous for.
Roger Ailes and Candidate Marketing
The fourth and final leg of the plan was the need for someone who could sell the American public on programs and policies that were profoundly not in their best interest. They needed a marketing manager, somebody who could sell candidates as if they were soap, and just by co-incidence one happened to be handy.
In 1967 Viguerie was doing some polling for one Richard Nixon, who was running for president after being ignominiously defeated first by Kennedy for president in 1960 and then as Gov of California by Pat Brown in ’62. During the campaign Nixon appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, a popular syndicated tv talk show from Cleveland. The 28-yr-old producer of that show was a kid named Roger Ailes (now the CEO of Fox). The young Goldwater conservative and the old McCarthy conservative got on like a house afire and Nixon hired Ailes as his campaign’s media consultant. Ailes met Viguerie and was entranced by what he saw as the untapped potential of direct mail marketing in politics.
But it would be some 15 years before he had a chance to help DM reach that potential. In the meantime, he applied the merchandising techniques he had learned at the University of Ohio to selling a president rather than boxes of corn flakes. For Ailes, as Joe McGinniss documented in a seminal book on the ’68 campaign, The Selling of the President, there was no difference between the two things. Selling was selling.
Nixon’s ’68 campaign is generally credited with being the second least substantial presidential campaign in modern American presidential politics behind Reagan’s zero-substance ’84 “Morning in America” campaign. Ailes – as Karl Rove was to do 30 years later – staged every Nixon appearance and controlled press access to the candidate to a degree that was at that time unprecedented. Nixon, convinced he had lost to JFK because he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to his television image after the debate debacle when the media talked of nothing but his 5 o’clock shadow and his jowls, gave Ailes a free hand. Ailes in turn produced a decisive victory over Hubert Humphrey and a model for high-level campaigns that became the norm over the next 20 years and was brought to its fruition by Rove in the 2000 campaign.
Gathering the Team
As it happened, then, just when the conservative think tanks were getting a grip on a plan and what they needed to pull it off, two key movement conservative ideologues had arrived and were ready to hand them the tools to change not just the way politics was played in America, but even the way it was discussed. Control the message, Ailes would say, and you control the election. Prophetic words. As it turned out, he wasn’t far wrong.