By the time Ed Feulner was a sophomore in high school, his father insisted he get his college degree from the Jesuits.
Feulner’s father was a trustee at Loyola-Chicago and had seen what a Jesuit education could do.
“I didn’t want to live at home so I looked around,” Feulner said. “Next thing I knew I was in Denver at O’Connell Hall.”
Feulner, RC ’63, has carved out one of the most impressive careers in conservative politics. He helped establish The Heritage Foundation, revolutionizing the way think tanks help drive political thought. On multiple occasions, he’s been recognized as one of the most powerful conservatives in the United States, helping to guide policymaking for President Ronald Reagan and to develop new tax policy on the transition team for President Donald Trump.
But for Feulner, his entrance into the political arena began more than 50 years ago, on the campus of Regis University.
How did Regis set the tone for your career?
I had professors who introduced me to conservative volumes and others who were liberal and encouraged dialogue. Really all ideas were welcome and healthy debate was encouraged. There was no media or social media to grind you down or reinforce your prejudices. It was more about thinking things through. It was more “what do I believe.” That’s what was so good about a Jesuit education. Jesuits and laymen would propound the questions and give a range of answers. It was very, very different than I was used to, but it was very good.
You started the Heritage Foundation and developed the current think tank we think of today. How were you able develop this into the organization it is today?
Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say “Washington has one industry, and that one industry is government, and government has one product and that’s to produce laws. And laws have one input and that one input is ideas.” The question is where does a political figure get his or her ideas. It doesn’t matter if you talk about lobbyists, pressure groups on the left or right, or television campaigns, it all fundamentally goes back to ideas.
During your time at The Heritage Foundation, when did you realize you were at the forefront of conservative politics?
Our real break came in 1979 when (future Attorney General) Ed Meese started talking about think tanks. He said it would be great if someone on the outside could put together ideas a new conservative administration would adopt. It was take the ideas in a practical political sense and say what a Republican candidate would do in office. We created a 32-person volunteer task forces and had more than 400 people working on this. The final book was 1,092 pages with 2,500 specific recommendations. After the election, and well before inauguration, President Reagan got 30 copies and put it around for his cabinet. We were unknown, but we had done the blueprint for what the Reagan administration would look like. We were the new kids on the block and not respected. This really sort of propelled us.
No one thought President Trump had a chance. Why did you join his transition team?
When he asked me, I told my wife, “I’m pretty sure this is going to be short term, and I don’t think he has much of a chance.” I thought it was going to be a three-month stint, then I’d pack up a couple of boxes and come back to Alexandria, Virginia. About a month out, I thought this could happen. I was hearing things. When you’ve been at The Heritage Foundation as long as I have, you have a range of contacts. But it wasn’t just people at The Heritage. It was the taxi driver, or people in restaurants I’d talk with. I thought this might be happening. So it was not a complete shock or anything.
We’re in possibly the most contentious political landscape in our history. Is there a chance Democrats and Republicans can ever come together?
There are too many people on the right and left who tend to only communicate with ideas and institutions that reinforce their prejudices. Whether it’s social media, or what they are reading. A longtime friend of mine and I were talking about a story and he asked if I saw it on the front page of The New York Times. I asked if he saw the editorial in The Wall Street Journal. But if I’m not reading The New York Times and he’s not reading The Wall Street Journal, how do we bridge the gap? That’s mature adults and not teenagers or college students.
When you look at your career, what are some things that helped make you successful?
Whether it’s people or policy, you’ll have a stronger team when you can multiply whatever your own vision is. But if your vision is false or insincere people will see through you. I think I’ve always had a candor and a willingness to say “this won’t be easy and it may not work this time but this is how we will lay down the basic premise so in six months or three years, or whenever, it will work.” I’ve been able to get people on the same team. The biggest thing I’ve realized is politics and life are all the art of the compromise. I can really say the basis for that goes back to 1959 to 1963 and what I learned at West 50th and Lowell.