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Brookings: The Establishment’s Think Tank


“I want it implemented…. God damn it, get in and get those files. Blow the safe and get it.” So railed President Richard Nixon (Abuse of Power, Stanley Kutler) to his aides about papers regarding the Vietnam War that he thought were at the Brookings Institution.

The documents the White House apparently wanted to get hold of allegedly showed that Johnson curtailed the bombing of Vietnam in 1968 to boost the Democrats’ election prospects. How things have changed: In the strange world of 25 years ago, stopping a bombing boosted a president’s standing, and Brookings could be at serious odds with a Republican administration.

To this day, Brookings is commonly, and inaccurately, dubbed “liberal” (e.g., Baltimore Sun, 8/9/98; Cincinnati Enquirer, 7/30/98; Dallas Morning News, 7/1/98; AP, 5/29/98). CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg even publicly chastised one of his colleagues for not tagging Brookings as “liberal” in his reporting (Wall Street Journal op-ed, 2/13/96). It’s called “centrist” almost as often, but never “conservative,” though that label would be more accurate than “liberal.”

In fact, much of Brookings’ top brass has come from Republican administrations. Its current president, Michael Armacost, was an undersecretary of state for the Reagan administration and ambassador to Japan under Bush. Brookings’ president from 1977 to 1995, Bruce MacLaury, spent most of his career in the Federal Reserve, with a stint in the Nixon Treasury Department.

As for Brookings’ most prominent analysts: Richard Haas, who heads the think tank’s foreign policy department, was a senior director at the National Security Council under Bush. Stephen Hess was a speech writer for Eisenhower, an advisor on urban affairs for Nixon and editor-in-chief of the Republican platform under Ford. Brookings has dubbed itself as the home of “fanatic moderates,” offering the “full spectrum of opinion from K to Q” (Brookings Review, Winter/97)–but, moving right, it’s becoming more like “M to V.”

The liberal tag for Brookings is itself a victory of right-wing think tanks. The conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) used the Brookings as a model–and its dubious “liberal” tag as a rallying cry for fundraising. Robert Roosa, Brookings’ chair from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, and a senior partner at the Wall Street firm Brown Brothers, Harriman and Co., resented AEI’s pitch: “AEI is selling against Brookings. They don’t have to do that–they have a role to fill,” he commented. “We do some things on the conservative side–and more so now.” (The American Establishment, Silk & Silk)

Brookings Vs. Brookings

Brookings, though hardly considered “hot,” is huge. It sometimes dominates media discussions so thoroughly that it can get more than one staffer into the same story. A Knight Ridder story on Clinton’s scandals (Cincinatti Enquirer, 8/30/98), for example, featured the insights of “Washington analyst Stephen Hess, who served three previous presidents” (“He has basically blown his sixth year, in large part because of the scandal”), as well as the analysis of “government scholar Thomas Mann” (who was convinced that “his ability to be influential in Congress is greatly diminished”). Despite the fact that both commentators are Brookings staffers, the think tank itself was never mentioned in the story. (The Richmond Times Dispatch–1/12/97–got the same two Brookings analysts into a story on Gingrich’s ethical troubles.)

Ironically, Hess made his mark at Brookings in the early ’80s by interviewing hundreds of journalists, finding that they were surprisingly conservative or apolitical. In the resulting book, The Washington Reporters, Hess concluded that reporters had a symbiotic relationship with the political establishment that tended to maintain the status quo.

This kind of centrism is so pervasive that it is frequently not recognized as ideology–indeed, it’s not even a word, according to the spellchecker I’m using. So it follows that the Washington Post does not bother identifying its columnist E.J. Dionne as a senior fellow at Brookings, although they ID James Glassman as “a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute,” a conservative think tank. (Of course, no one from any left-of-center think tank has a column at the Post.) Dionne has even quoted a colleague at Brookings without disclosing that they work at the same institute (Washington Post Magazine, 3/15/98).

It’s Your Money

Senior fellow Dionne places himself in the tradition of the turn-of-the-century progressive movement, “involving the careful but active use of government to temper markets and enhance individual opportunities.” Those are basically the roots of the think tank he works at, as well. Robert Brookings, a high school dropout who got his start as a clothespin salesman, came to be a very successful businessman, and promoted progressivism as a form of enlightened self-interest for the business class.

“You see how the government is spending the money it takes from you in taxes. What are you going to do about it?” he asked his fellow moguls (The Brookings Institution, Charles Saunders). “Do you want an intelligent treatment of the matters which lie closest to your personal interest? Or do you want things to go on in the haphazard fashion of the past? Do you want a log-rolling or a scientific tariff? Do you want pork-barrel bills or a budget?”

Robert Brookings helped establish three groups to promote such principles, which merged into the Brookings Institution in 1928. After Brookings’ death in 1932, his namesake veered right, opposing the New Deal. Coming out of World War II, these conservative leanings helped foster Republican support for the Marshall Plan, which the institute helped develop. By the 1960s, Brookings was linked to the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, backing Johnson’s Great Society and Keynesian economics.

The Brookings Institution’s influence on the operations of the federal government has been substantial. In the 1920s, Brookings was largely responsible for the creation of the federal budget. Prior to that, Congress had doled out money as requests came in. In the 1970s, Brookings pushed for the creation of the Congressional Budget Office, and then provided its first head, former senior fellow Alice Rivlin, now at the Fed (National Journal, 10/18/97).

This summer, Brookings teamed up with AEI to form the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies. Robert Hahn, the center’s director, said it aims to be a source of information all sides “can really trust.” Said Hahn, “the real purpose is to keep the regulators–and the legislators who regulate the regulators–on their toes.” (New York Times, 7/30/98) Don’t look for this center/right co-production to call for tighter scrutiny of big business.

“We Need a Strong Private Sector”

Meanwhile, Michael Malbin, a former associate director of the House Republican Conference now at Brookings, is a diehard foe of public campaign financing. He seems to identify with those who give large sums of money to politicians: He is deeply concerned about “unseemly pressures running from officeholders to citizens” (Roll Call, 9/6/97), but he seems less concerned about the pressures funders can exert on officeholders.

Senior fellow Henry Aaron has opposed the advocates of Social Security privatization at Heritage and Cato, while Thomas Mann, Brookings’ director of governmental studies, has steered a centrist course on campaign finance reform, occasionally teaming up with AEI’s Norman Ornstein on the Washington Post op-ed page. The duo recently defended the notion of campaign finance reform from the current ACLU “money equals free speech” position (Washington Post, 7/14/98)–but have called for an increase in the maximum legal political donation (“Reforming Campaign Finance,” paper, 5/7/97).

Mann–like Brookings in general–has an anti-democratic streak. He has bemoaned elections as “blunt instruments of democratic control,” sniffing that “relatively few citizens meet the highest standards of informed participation in the electoral process.” (National Journal, 7/22/95) After several anti-corporate ballot initiatives were defeated in 1996 under an avalanche of big money, Mann remarked (New York Times, 11/7/96) that “the public is less angry and less willing to identify with populism. There’s a certain sobriety out there–a new understanding that we need a strong private sector.”

Brookings has certainly benefited from a strong private sector; the corporate money behind Brookings reads like a who’s who of blue chip companies. A brief sampling of some 138 corporate supporters: Bell Atlantic, Citibank, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, NationsBank, Exxon, Chevron, Microsoft, HP, Toyota, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Dupont, Mobil and Lockheed Martin, and the foundations of companies like American Express, Travelers, AT&T, GM, ADM and McDonnell Douglas. A few media conglomerates, like Time Warner and the Washington Post Co., are among the donors. Corporations accounted for $3.3 million of Brookings $21 million budget in 1997, but this figure is misleadingly low: Brookings is blessed with a sizable endowment that takes care of almost one-third of its budget, and it receives hefty fees for conducting seminars for executives on how to maneuver in Washington.

Brookings also gets sizable contributions from individuals. The Brookings Council was founded in 1983 to spruce up funding; its “members are substantially engaged in the Institution’s research and programs through discussion groups which meet regularly in five chapter cities, one-on-one meetings with Brookings scholars, and research advisory committees.” Executives from Visa, Procter and Gamble, BankAmerica and U.S. Airways thus have multiple opportunities to share their concerns with Brookings’ detached scholars. Among the other luminaries giving money are insiders such as Vernon Jordan and Washington Post owner Katharine Graham.

“Objective and Dispassionate”

One of the biggest donors is Brookings chair James Johnson, who also heads up the Fannie Mae mortgage authority. He has worked for five failed Democratic presidential campaigns, but is still on top of political life in Washington. In addition to his generous bequests to Brookings, he has donated to Democrats and Republicans on the congressional banking committees, which doesn’t hurt the prospects of Fannie Mae’s continued federal subsidies (Washington Post, 3/27/98).

In the 1997 annual report Johnson writes that Brookings provides “objective and dispassionate research by respected scholars who are assured academic freedom and intellectual independence.” William Quandt, a noted scholar formerly at Brookings, told Extra! that “it was a remarkably supportive place, at least for senior scholars,” while he was there in the ’80s and ’90s but that “the new president and the director of foreign policy seem to be interested in a new agenda with the end of the Cold War…. Support for independent scholarship by big foundations has waned, so there’s a stress on narrow, short think pieces.”

Of course, scholars who peruse an overly independent course may simply be ignored by the major media. An in-depth study, “The World Bank: Its First Half Century,” produced jointly by the Bank and Brookings, which The Nation (3/23/98) found to be a “remarkably candid and balanced institutional history,” produced a hardly a whimper in the media earlier this year.

And while MSNBC and other networks might as well have a camera crew following Richard Haass around when things heat up somewhere, be it India or the Middle East, actual experts in those areas at Brookings have been mostly ignored by major media.

Brookings president Michael Armacost wants to cater to the gliterati culture and get someone like Haass, who is more ‘soundbite savvy’ and might be better able to get his face–and the Brookings name–on Nightline and such,” the Washington Post (6/21/96) noted just before Haass came on board. The day after the U.S. bombed Afghanistan and the Sudan, Haass was on Nightline (8/21/98), warning of “grand terrorism”–not a reference to the U.S.’s actions, but to the idea of a small group acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Haass not only took the place of some other guest who might have pointed out the illegality of the U.S. strike, he bemoaned that “we’ve yet to set up the institutions to maintain any semblance of international order,” and urged Americans to “think about our whole concept of civil liberties.”

When Jack Ford of NBC’s Today (8/22/98) show asked, “Richard, what is it that these terrorists want from the United States?” Haass echoed the subtle Islam-bashing (popularized by Bernard Lewis of Princeton) that has permeated official U.S. thinking: “Well, the answer is it’s not anything we’re simply doing. It is who we are, Jack. It’s the fact that we’re the most powerful country in the world. It’s the fact that we’re a secular country…. It is simply who we are and it is our existence that really bothers them, and it is a fact of life now.” (See Extra!, 7-8/95.)

Thinking Global

Brookings’ ultimate philosophy is pragmatic to the point of being amoral, putting out tracts on military spending called How to Be a Cheap Hawk and opposing international sanctions because they might hurt U.S. companies–not because people might starve.

Robert Litan, Brookings’ director of economic studies, doesn’t think the U.S. should take serious action against a country that allows harsh child labor conditions–but should intervene if a country allows unauthorized duplication of Windows 95. His main fear is creeping “globalphobia.” In a recent book by that title, he and several centrist colleagues protest that “protection invites foreign exporters to leap trade barriers by building plants in this country”–as if U.S. corporations, not U.S. workers, are the ones who need protection. “There is some irony in the claim that it is in America’s self-interest to insist that other nations meet tough environmental and labor standards,” Globalphobia argues. “Any harms alleged to flow from lax standards are suffered by foreign residents, not those of the United States.” (Washington Peace Letter, 5/98)

Litan, Haass and others at Brookings, seeing themselves as sort of interdisciplinary philosopher-king technocrats, eye the task of building global structures. Brookings’ leaders seek desperately to be “relevant,” but they are so often parroting the conventional wisdom, fearing that they are outmatched in the media by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, that they are sidetracked from doing the strategic planning for elites that has made Brookings so influential.

James Ridgeway (The Nation, 12/22/97), describing the Heritage public relations machine, wrote: “[PR giant] Hill & Knowlton, not Brookings, provides a more fitting comparison.” But increasingly, Brookings is not even its own model anymore–Heritage is.

Think Tank Monitor is a joint project of FAIR and the Institute for Public Accuracy. Research assistance: Nihar Bhatt, Jenifer Dixon and Omar Nashashibi.

Original Author: Sam Husseini