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Claremont Institute's Mission: Conservative

Guided by the Founding Fathers, think tank members hope to nudge U.S. public policy back to the right.

March 06, 2001|REED JOHNSON | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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