Shortly before 4 o’clock on a crisp April afternoon, James Piereson, the executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, sat in the foundation’s sparse conference room in midtown, looking like a man who had just devoured a particularly satisfying steak.
“I guess I would say, looking back on this period, that it’s worked out a lot better than we had any right to expect when we started,” Mr. Piereson said of the foundation, which has been dispensing grants to conservative think tanks and intellectuals-the architects of today’s sprawling right-wing movement-for a quarter-century. “I’m sure some stuff failed or didn’t go anywhere, but not a lot of it.”
Mr. Piereson was in a reflective mood, and with reason. The work of the Olin Foundation-revered on the right, loathed on the left-is about to come to an end. During the next few months, the foundation will pack up its office and allocate its final round of grants, signing away the remaining $4 million or $5 million of what was, at its peak, a $120 million endowment. The foundation will cease to exist by the end of the year.
By closing its doors, this pioneer in the conservative movement’s network of cash dispensers is simply following the express wishes of its founding benefactor, John M. Olin, who died in 1982.
Fearful that his family might someday lose control of the foundation and that it would fall into liberal hands-much the same way that the descendants of Henry Ford lost control of his foundation to a board of progressives-Olin stipulated that the foundation’s trustees were to spend all of his money by the end of their lives. So, when the foundation’s longtime president, former Treasury Secretary William Simon, died in 2000, the remaining trustees dutifully decided to phase out the institution over the next five years.
Since Simon’s death, the foundation has been in a state of slow-motion self-destruction, gradually scaling back everything from staff size to grantees to décor.
Its legacy, however, figures to endure for years.
“The Olin Foundation was one of the two or three major conservative foundations that laid the intellectual infrastructure for what we see today,” said Lawrence Mone, the president of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which received nearly $5 million from the foundation between 1985 and 2003, according to Mediatransparency.org. “I think the reverberations of what Olin funded are still evolving.”
The institution’s adversaries wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
“These guys, individually and collectively, created a new philanthropic form, which was movement philanthropy,” said Rob Stein, a progressive political strategist whose recent study, titled “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix,” has become legendary in Democratic circles. “They are no longer the primary funders of the right, because there are now scores and scores of funders in the game …. But what they started is the most potent machinery ever assembled in a democracy to promote a set of beliefs and to control the reins of government.”
Mr. Piereson, 58, might not agree with the hint of conspiracy beneath this description, but he does acknowledge that Olin and several sibling funders helped pioneer a new form of philanthropy.
“I think back to the 1960’s, when the liberals could come up with an idea and march it through Congress without almost any questions being asked,” he said, his eyes crinkling behind an oversized pair of glasses. “Well, I think now it’s all different. Even if the Democrats were in the majority in the Congress, anything they brought up would be torn at by all the [conservative] groups that have been created.”
Beginning in the mid-1970’s, the foundation began pouring money into the conservative intelligentsia, moving conservatism from the margins of the American political conversation to its center. A stockade of conservative culture warriors like Allan Bloom and Dinesh D’Souza have received hefty funding from the foundation, as have hawkish policy journals like Commentary and The Public Interest, strict constructionist judicial groups like the Federalist Society and free-market think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute. In the process, Olin has created one of the most far-reaching-and, its critics say, ideological-public-policy machines in recent history.
The foundation’s decision to shutter its doors might be read as a declaration of “mission accomplished.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, its Madison Avenue offices were hushed and depleted. A 15th-century suit of Japanese armor that had sat for years in the middle of the foundation’s reception area had been returned to Simon’s estate and then sold at auction to the highest bidder. So had a Norman Rockwell painting and Simon’s collection of medieval swords, leaving only a row of exposed picture hooks and scuffed gray walls as reminders.
Even the receptionist had disappeared.
“In a way, [it] does solidify this idea that we’ve come to the end of an era,” said Mr. Piereson.
The John M. Olin Foundation was explosive from the very beginning. Literally. Its benefactor, John Merrill Olin, was a wealthy Midwestern industrialist and heir to an ammunition company that merged with a chemical corporation in the mid-1950’s. A man of elite tastes and posh hobbies, he raised champion Labrador retrievers and bred saddle horses and racehorses-one of which, Cannonade, won the Kentucky Derby in 1974. Along the way, he also took up philanthropy, setting up the Olin Foundation in 1953 to help dispense part of his fortune.
During its first decades, the Olin Foundation was governed less by partisan ideology than by the whims of its founder, whose fancies flitted from conservation to his alma mater, Cornell University. But in the 1970’s, in the aftermath of the 1960’s and Watergate, Olin decided to turn the foundation into a partisan trust to counter the counterculture. “My greatest ambition now is to see free enterprise re-established in this country,” Olin told The New York Times in 1977. “Business and the public must be awakened to the creeping stranglehold that socialism has gained here since World War II.”
To help fulfill this ambition, Olin recruited an influential East Hampton acquaintance-William E. Simon-to become president of the foundation in 1977. Simon, a leveraged-buyout baron, had served as Treasury Secretary under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
According to Mr. Piereson, Simon was “difficult and mercurial, but passionate,” and as president of the foundation advanced a brand of philanthropy that was aggressive, strategic and, at the time, novel. His idea: to create a “counter-intelligentsia” that would challenge liberals’ “collectivist” and “egalitarian” ideas and, simultaneously, promote a vision of the world based on the old-time religion of free markets and traditional values.
Writing in his 1978 book, A Time for Truth, Simon fleshed out this theory into a quasi-manifesto, calling on business leaders and foundation directors to fund “intellectual refuges for the non-egalitarian scholars and writers in our society who today work largely alone in the face of overwhelming indifference or hostility. They must be given grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, and more books.”
Indeed, that’s what the Olin Foundation began to do under the leadership of Simon and a new executive director, Michael Joyce. (Mr. Joyce’s mentor, the grand neoconservative pooh-bah Irving Kristol, also played an important role, serving as a kind of philanthropic consigliere guiding the foundation to grantees and vice versa.) Drawing on a relatively humble $4 million or $5 million a year during those early days, but eventually spending as much as $20 million annually, the foundation set about underwriting scholars at right-leaning journals and think tanks.
The foundation underwrote the inflammatory author Charles Murray while he was writing part of Losing Ground, his attack on the welfare state, in the 1980’s. Dinesh D’Souza, the scourge of campus multiculturalism, received as much as $1.5 million from the foundation between 1988 and 2002 to write and promote his books, according to the Web site Mediatransparency.com. And David Brock, the conservative reporter turned liberal media activist, spent a year on an Olin Fellowship at the Heritage Foundation in 1991. By the end of the fellowship, he had written a book proposal on Congress’ role in shaping foreign policy, but then the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings came along and he abandoned his wonky project for the thrill of tearing down Ms. Hill. Thanks to a small grant from the Olin Foundation, he was able to hire a research assistant to help him write his screed The Real Anita Hill.
“Those grants were rather easily acquired,” recalled Mr. Brock, who eventually disowned much of the work he did at that time. “There was a lot of money available for an awful lot of conservative-oriented projects … and that helped develop a kind of farm team of people who would later become quite influential.”
But the foundation didn’t stop there. In an effort to extend its reach into the very heart of what Mr. Piereson called the liberal “citadels of power,” the foundation began seeding new programs of study, or mini-disciplines, at the country’s top universities. The most influential of these, perhaps, has been the Law and Economics program that Olin has bequeathed to the law schools at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia and dozens of other institutions. Though not inherently ideological, the program-which uses economic principles to evaluate legal rules and procedures-skews to the right, pumping up arguments against everything from environmental regulation to anti-trust laws. The program also serves to bring sympathetic professors into one of the most influential realms of the university.
“My theory was that we were trying to establish a beachhead at these places,” said Mr. Piereson, who was himself an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania before he joined the foundation in 1981. “I always thought the big advantage of it was [that] it was a way of getting faculty of a certain persuasion into these elite institutions.”
When the Olin Foundation cuts its final round of checks, and when the last dollars have been drained from its once-flush accounts, the foundation will have plunged some $380 million into its project of creating a conservative intelligentsia.
By foundation standards, this number is actually rather modest-the quaint equivalent of what some of the liberal titans, like the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute, drop in a single year or even six months. But measured against the bang of its influence, the figure is a rather startling testament to the efficiency of the Olin model, particularly during its heyday.
None of these lessons has been lost on liberals, who have recently begun studying Olin and its sibling foundations, hoping to gain some kind of osmotic insight into how to resurrect their own flailing fortunes. “You can’t not admire their strategic focus,” said political strategist Rob Stein. “So long as progressives don’t have an infrastructure of some sort, they will continue to frustrate anything we try to do in promoting change and in public policy.”
Mr. Piereson, who will soon be migrating to a top position at the William E. Simon Foundation, was skeptical that the Democrats could create a political majority simply by imitating the Olin strategy. But he did acknowledge that liberals “might be poised for a comeback.” And, as he sat in the foundation’s swordless conference room, he took a moment to wonder aloud about what the next phase of conservative philanthropy-and, by extension, the broader right-wing movement-would portend.
“It’s interesting, because if you go back to the 50’s and 60’s-to the time, say, about when [John F.] Kennedy was shot in 1963-the liberals generally felt that they owned the future,” he said. “But it turned out that they didn’t, really. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I do think we’re into a new era.”