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Claremont Institute’s Mission: Conservative

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a monotonous beige office block, two floors up from Escape hair salon in Claremont, the really big questions never stop coming. What would Aristotle think about gun control? How might Jefferson cope with campaign finance reform? Could Abraham Lincoln straighten out California’s energy mess? Can anybody?

These and other vital matters of statecraft press heavily on the staff of the Claremont Institute, a scrappy cadre of a few dozen men and women with a singular, uncompromising mission: to remake American politics in the sacrosanct image set down by our Founding Fathers--not in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence--while steering the nation away from its present, perilous path of political and moral “degradation.”

“We want to overthrow the reigning orthodoxy . . . and we want to, somewhere along the line, train a Franklin Roosevelt who will then overthrow the New Deal,” says the institute’s president, Thomas B. Silver. “So apart from the fact that we have to overthrow modern liberalism and modern conservatism, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he says with a chuckle.

Self-effacing humor bubbles up now and then at this conservative hothouse, which has no formal connection, but plenty of old-boy school ties, to the neighboring cluster of colleges a block away bearing the Claremont name. An island of passionate scholarship and aggressive op-ed penmanship, the institute, founded in 1979, lies somewhere to the right of George W. Bush politically, and thousands of miles leeward of the Beltway policy-industrial complex.

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By publishing policy papers, writing editorials and hosting conferences and educational seminars for legislators who may need to brush up on their Lockean theory or get a blow-by-blow analysis of Proposition 209, the institute has made itself a valued resource for conservative lawmakers, especially in Sacramento. Five years ago, its former president, Larry Arnn, served on California’s Constitution Revision Commission at the request of then-Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle. The following year, the institute issued its “Contract With California,” a Golden State version of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” in which it warned against the perils of continued state budget growth.

“We weren’t shy about criticizing Republicans,” says Brian Kennedy, 39, director of the Golden State Center, a branch of the institute across the street from the Capitol. “We’re conservatives, and conservatives tend to be Republicans, but we talk about issues and let the chips fall where they may.”

Past and present Claremont allies include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has said the institute “played a significant role in my own education”; novelist-journalist Mark Helprin; syndicated columnist William Rusher; British historian Sir Martin Gilbert; “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak; Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., the wealthy banking scion known for his conservative, Christian-based views; and the late Sonny Bono, pop star and Republican representative for Palm Springs.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a USC instructor and political analyst, says that on a national level, Claremont’s profile is still far below that of its ideological cousins at the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. “The Claremont Institute is nowhere near that plateau in terms of its clout, in terms of its gravitas, in terms of its influence in policy or politics,” she says.

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But Phillip Truluck, the Heritage’s chief operating officer, says Claremont has “helped change the intellectual climate and the acceptability of free-market, right-of-center ideas,” both in and outside the Beltway.

A Link Between Theory and Practice

State Sen. Tom McClintock, a Thousand Oaks Republican who spent two years on the Claremont payroll as a policy analyst in the mid-1990s before returning to public office, says the country “needs a Claremont Institute. What institutes like Claremont do, in the broad sense, is act as a linkage between the theoretical work of academics and the practical work of legislators.”

What the institute also has done is recruit talent from politics, academia, law and the media for salaries comparable to those of college professors. They hash out positions on issues and train their arguments on those they deem to be overzealous bureaucrats, reckless judicial activists or simply misguided fellow conservatives.

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Among its better-known names is longtime L.A. TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who narrowly lost a ’92 U.S. Senate bid to Barbara Boxer and is active writing and speaking as a Claremont Institute Distinguished Fellow.

Eloise Anderson, who recently joined the institute, is director of its Program for the American Family. Previously, she was Gov. Pete Wilson’s social services director and was widely rumored to be President Bush’s top choice to replace the ill-fated Linda Chavez as labor secretary. Anderson didn’t get the job but is still regarded as a rising conservative star. An African American woman, she also lends a new look to Claremont’s predominantly middle-aged white-guy profile.

“I have no interest in Washington, D.C. I’m loving what I’m doing,” Anderson says. “We have wonderful, heated discussions internally about our viewpoints. It’s the first time that I’ve been in public work that I’ve been able to sit and think about something that I didn’t have to implement.”

What the institute wants to see happen is for others to implement its ideas. Editorial essays by Claremont fellows run frequently in major newspapers, including The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Claremont fellows--they are mostly fellows--frequently turn up as talking heads on news programs and political chat shows. Though it maintains a satellite Washington office as well as its center in Sacramento, the institute seems anchored in Southern California.

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“One thing I’m delighted about is television, media--think tanks, for that matter--have lost their Washington-New York axis,” Herschensohn said over lunch recently near his Hollywood home. “I find a lot of arrogance in a sort of East Coast superiority.”

By keeping their distance from Georgetown and the Virginia suburbs, Claremont associates believe it’s easier to maintain their philosophical purity--a combination of Enlightenment ideals and tall-in-the-saddle, free-market individualism of the Barry Goldwater-Ronald Reagan persuasion. They say they’ll be watching the new Republican White House to make sure it doesn’t overstep its constitutional boundaries.

“We will be weighing in if George Bush tries to use the executive order as broadly as Clinton did,” says John C. Eastman, a professor of constitutional law at Chapman University in Orange County who runs Claremont’s Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. “Even on the questions that we agree with we will take the view that the ends don’t justify the means.”

Not All Conservatives Support Their Philosophy

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The institute’s sparring partners know how to jab back--including those who come from the same end of the political spectrum. Among the foremost critics of its philosophy is Robert Bork, the conservative judge who has brawled in print with Harry V. Jaffa, 82, professor emeritus of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and the institute’s unofficial swami-in-residence. In a previous role as a speech writer, Jaffa authored the phrase that galvanized Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy--and may have helped him lose the election to LBJ: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

If some regard the Claremont fellows as a bunch of pointy-headed contrarians who have badly misread the doctrine of constitutional “original intent,” they remain unfazed. “We make common cause where we can make common cause,” says Silver, “but we don’t pull our punches.”

Indeed, Claremont has carved out a particular niche in contemporary conservatism. Grounding its public policy positions in the so-called “first principles” of the Declaration of Independence and the underlying doctrine known as “natural law,” the institute addresses 21st century social problems from an 18th century philosophical perspective.

It contends that the transcendent idea of human equality, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and reaffirmed by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is the beacon of American law, the light by which all subsequent public policy decisions must be read and measured. Unlike the Constitution, which they view in some ways as a morally flawed, politically compromised document that sanctioned Southern slavery, they revere the Declaration as a sacred text, a pipeline to the almighty author of “natural rights.”

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It is the concept of “natural law” that divides Jaffa and Bork. Jaffa holds it to be sacrosant; Bork has argued that natual law is too vague and general a foundation on which to construct a government or a legal system.

“The text of the Declaration of Independence is our Torah. It is a revelation from Mt. Sinai,” says Jaffa, one of several Claremont college faculty members whose teachings inspired a group of graduate students, including Silver and Arnn, to set up the institute 22 years ago. His 1959 study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, “Crisis of the House Divided,” and a recently published companion volume, “A New Birth of Freedom,” are considered classic analyses of how Lincoln countered and ultimately demolished the secessionist arguments of the Confederate South. “Every student of Lincoln needs to read and ponder this book,” Civil War historian James McPherson of Princeton wrote of “New Birth.”

Jaffa, Silver and their brethren hold this truth to be self-evident: that America really started screwing up sometime around the Progressive Era and has been paying the price ever since. That, they argue, is when Woodrow Wilson, Walter Lippmann and others of their ilk started replacing time-tested ethical absolutes with “maybe” and “perhaps” and “on the other hand.”

“The modern world is inundated today by postmodernism,” Jaffa fumes in disgust. “Certainly political correctness is a part of it. The essence of it is nihilism.”

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Conceived somewhat impulsively and dedicated to the proposition that the New York Review of Books was a Marxist rag, the nonprofit institute began as an op-ed syndication service. Operating out of rented offices over a Claremont grocery store, its grad-student staff batted out their ideas on Underwood typewriters, then fired them off to small newspapers in Oregon, Idaho--anywhere they might get published.

The institute was energized by Reagan’s election in 1980. Eventually, it added a bimonthly book review and a foreign policy journal (since discontinued), boosting its profile and helping win academic and political contacts.

“Here we are, young guys feeling our oats, and then this guy gets elected who we really admired,” recalls Peter Schramm, a Jaffa protege and the institute’s president for its first seven years. “We’d been in the Jimmy Carter period with this ‘national malaise,’ and we thought it was kind of pathetic, really, everybody so dispirited, and Reagan really was a shot in the arm.”

After devoting its formative years to more abstract questions, the institute gradually shifted its resources toward more concrete public-policy matters: ending the New Deal-vintage welfare system, urging California to adopt school vouchers, opposing the so-called “one China policy” and other issues. Styling themselves “Lincoln conservatives,” the Claremont thinkers generally oppose expanding the federal government, but don’t consider themselves Libertarians.

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Conference Draws Widespread Criticism

The institute’s positions seldom draw much fire outside the looking-glass world of public policy debate--with some glaring exceptions. In 1998, it was widely condemned by civil rights advocates for co-sponsoring “Making Sense of Homosexuality,” a conference at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The co-presenter, the National Assn. for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, claims that homosexuality is a “curable” developmental disorder.

The event precipitated a tongue-lashing from the Los Angeles City Council and others, but the conference went on. Says Jaffa: “To treat a member of the same sex as if it were a member of the opposite sex is as much a violation of nature as slavery or genocide.”

If statements such as these make some view the Claremont as extremist, maybe even a little kooky, they haven’t eroded its base of heavyweight supporters. The institute claims thousands of active donors nationwide and has annual revenues of $4 million. One of its earliest backers was the late Henry Salvatori, the Bel-Air oil magnate and Republican king-maker who formed part of Reagan’s California “kitchen cabinet.”

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While it continues to evolve, the institute’s core is solidified.

“In my judgment, [Claremont] hasn’t changed very much,” says Schramm, its former president, who now teaches at Ashland University in Ohio. “The staff is still the same sort of people [as] when we started, sort of scrappy, tough guys, smart, real hard-working and properly driven. They’re not crazy but they’re sort of devoted to the mission of the thing.”

But that mission may be getting tougher. “The problem is the academic establishment is so firmly in the hands of our enemies now,” Jaffa moans. “At any liberal arts college, people with views of our persuasion are about as welcome as a Jew in Nazi Germany.”

What’s a true conservative to do, reasons current president Silver, but keep reframing the issues and fighting the good fight? “You do the right thing and hope that good things will follow,” he says. “But they don’t always.”

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