Chris DeMuth, Hack Extraordinaire

The leader of President Bush’s favorite think tank bids adieu.

Christopher DeMuth 

Not to be outdone by Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, and Tony Snow, Christopher DeMuth announced on Oct. 11 that he will leave the Bush team. Unlike these other Bush loyalists, DeMuth has not occupied a West Wing office—not lately, anyway. (Between college and law school, DeMuth logged two years as a staff assistant in Richard Nixon’s White House.) Instead, DeMuth has for the past two decades been president of the American Enterprise Institute, which more than any other nonprofit think tank in Washington has been the wellspring of President Bush’s worst ideas. DeMuth is now relinquishing that post, though he plans to remain as a senior fellow.

The Iraq war was, to a remarkable extent, an AEI production. Vice President (and Hawk-in-Chief) Dick Cheney was an AEI fellow immediately before joining the Bush White House, and his wife Lynne still is. Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy and, outside of Cheney, the most robotic defender of the Iraq invasion, was an AEI fellow. So was Laurie Mylroie, the leading academic proponent of the crackpot theory that Iraq was behind 9/11. Richard Perle is an AEI scholar. So is John Bolton. So is John Yoo, the Bush Justice Department’s former torture maven. When former Pentagon Deputy Secretary and Iraq hawk extraordinaire Paul Wolfowitz resigned as president of the World Bank (over a dust-up concerning a high-paying job he’d arranged for his girlfriend), where did he land as a visiting scholar? You guessed it.

The leadingneoconservative publication, the Weekly Standard, argued forcefully for deploying troops to topple Saddam (though subsequently it’s had more than a few quarrels with the Pentagon’s conduct of the war). The Standard is a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., not AEI … but its office is in the AEI building (which is nice for the Standard’s editor because his dad is an AEI “senior fellow emeritus”).

According to DeMuth, the current military “surge” in Iraq was invented at AEI. (It certainly wasn’t invented by the generals.) Should the United States bomb Iran in the near future, feel free to blame AEI for that, too.

To whatever extent the Bush administration has a domestic policy, it’s mostly piped in from AEI. Karl Zinsmeister, domestic policy adviser and director of the elusive Domestic Policy Council, previously edited AEI’s former in-house magazine, the American Enterprise. Lawrence Lindsey and N. Gregory Mankiw, two conservative economists who helped craft President Bush’s tax cuts, are currently incentivized to pour sauce béarnaise over subsidized filet mignon in AEI’s white-linen lunchroom. So is Leon Kass, architect of Bush’s restrictions on stem-cell research—but for the love of God, put away that ice-cream cone!

In 2003, President Bush said no fewer than 20 AEI scholars had served in his administration. This is the house DeMuth built, and it’s a classically depressing Washington success story. When DeMuth assumed the presidency in 1987, AEI was known around Washington as a conservative counterpart to the Brookings Institution. Its work product, as its name implies, focused heavily on economics, and was typically serious and responsible, if perhaps sometimes a little dull. Probably AEI’s flashiest scholars were William Schneider, who subsequently migrated to CNN, and Norman Ornstein, a Congress expert. Schneider and Ornstein frequently wrote for or were quoted in mainstream newspapers and magazines, but neither man, then as now, could be called ideological or partisan. In those days, the glamour right-wing think tank was the Heritage Foundation, which pioneered the art of producing pithy (if somewhat dumbed-down) policy briefs sculpted to Ronald Reagan’s hummingbird-short attention span. The more scholarly AEI, by contrast, was literally going broke.

DeMuth set his sights on making AEI the zippiest right-wing think tank in Washington. He lured Irving Kristol, “godfather of neoconservatism,” down from New York; he wooed Jeanne Kirkpatrick after her star turn as U.N. ambassador; and he welcomed Charles Murray, author of the anti-welfare tract, Losing Ground, after Murray’s inquiry into genetics, intelligence, and race (eventually published as The Bell Curve) started worrying his paymasters at the more scrupulous Manhattan Institute. Far from scaring funders away, Murray (along with the other new stars) “attracted large grants from conservative foundations such as Scaife and Bradley,” according to a December 2003 Washington Monthly profile of AEI (“ In the Tank“) by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. In 2002, AEI’s board of trustees installed as its chairman Bruce Kovner, manager of what Philip Weiss described in a New York magazine profile as “the largest hedge fund in the world.” DeMuth praised Kovner as “a true intellectual,” with a “highly intellectualized approach to investing.” AEI’s money worries were over.

A chart showing the growth of AEI’s net assets between 1994 and 2005, the last year for which data are available, looks like Mount Everest, only taller. The steepest rise was after Kovner became chairman. In 2005, revenues  were $37.9 million, a 35 percent increase over the previous year, and outlays were $21.5 million. AEI has so much cash that it’s starting to reverse the flow. This past February AEI got caught offering scientists and economists $10,000 apiece (plus expenses) to attack a U.N. report on global warming, possibly at the bidding of ExxonMobil. (Ironically, one of the AEI ringleaders was named Green!) DeMuth’s response? “The effort to anathematize opposing views is the standard recourse of the ideologue; one of AEI’s highest purposes, here as in many other contentious areas, is to ensure that such efforts to do not succeed.”

If the newer, tarted-up AEI has come to represent the views more of corporations than of independent conservative scholars (Kass’s stem-cell opposition is a rare though not particularly cheering exception), that evolution is not inadvertent. DeMuth is admirably straightforward about this. “There is a movement afoot,” he said at AEI’s annual dinner in March,

to treat the political views and interests of corporations as inherently suspect and in need of official supervision. Senators are warning firms not to advance incorrect views; pension funds, the accounting profession, and the plaintiffs bar are being deputized in various efforts to bring the corporation to political heel. This is a pernicious development. The corporation is the transmission belt of much of our saving, prosperity, and progress. It is the place where many Americans pursue their vocations and spend most of their lives. And it is the locus-point of tremendously valuable social intelligence—information about society, economy, and technology that is to a unique degree generated by reality and analyzed with an eye towards something other than politics.Those who objurgate the corporation as an independent source of ideas and activism include the major media—themselves corporations—and political representatives—themselves eager for corporate funding. But the Constitution affords them no monopoly on policy debate, and for them to acquire one would be dangerous to our social climate and political health.

Note DeMuth’s embattled opposition to a hopelessly left-wing mainstream press, the compulsory posture for any right-wing apparatchik. But in a valedictory op-ed published Oct. 11 in the Wall Street Journal, DeMuth warbled a different melody. “AEI essays,” he boasted, “appear more frequently than those from other think tanks of all persuasions, not only in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal but also those of the New York Times and Washington Post.” So much for the liberal media.

Under DeMuth’s leadership, AEI demonstrated that a Washington think tank committed to the betterment of mankind is a market inefficiency. In the old days, tycoons bequeathed vast fortunes to nonprofits so that they might pursue research about and possibly even help to solve the world’s problems. Some (notably, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) continue to follow this creaky model. Increasingly, though, corporations don’t wait for their chiefs to start feeling sentimental about their accumulated assets. Instead, the corporations themselves invest “charitable” contributions in a different sort of nonprofit—a simpatico think tank dedicated to researching and possibly even helping to solve the corporation’s problems, real or imagined, in the political arena. DeMuth didn’t invent the new model, but he buffed it to a hard sheen.

(Full disclosure: Slate’s D.C. office was once located, improbably, in the AEI building. This real-estate deal was midwifed by the late Slate contributor Herbert Stein, an AEI scholar of the old school, whom I never met. I did work in that office, however, and helped myself to the lunchroom’s subsidized filet on more than one occasion. My interactions with the AEI folk, including DeMuth, were always pleasant and courteous, the only possible exception being the time Michael Novak—AEI’s resident expert on faith, traditional values, etc.—shushed me in the lunchroom. I’d let out a joyous whoop on learning from my Slate colleague Jack Shafer, till then a lifelong bachelor, that he was engaged to be married. I wish to inform Mr. Novak that Jack and his wife Nicole are now the proud parents of two adorable girls.)