Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Too Good to Be True

Too Good to Be True
Certain organizations--Pew is one--are routinely treated as benign and neutral, beyond partisan politics. They're not.
Friday, April 1, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

It was one of those "gaffe" moments when a truth long hidden--but long suspected--is finally spoken out loud. At a recent conference in California, Sean Treglia, a former program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, stated that the "mass movement" demanding campaign-finance reform, culminating in 2002's McCain-Feingold bill, was orchestrated by Pew and other like-minded foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Open Society Institute.

In a tape obtained by Ryan Sager of the New York Post--who broke the story--Mr. Treglia was heard to admit that his foundation's lavish support of such groups as Common Cause and the Center for Public Integrity was designed to convince Congress that there was widespread public demand for campaign-finance reform when, in fact, there wasn't. Campaign-finance partisans, according to Mr. Treglia, had lost legitimacy in Washington, lacking "a constituency that would punish Congress if they didn't vote for reform." So, "to convey the impression that this was something coming naturally from outside the Beltway, I felt it best that Pew stay in the background."

What is striking about this confession has less to do with campaign-finance reform--a bust anyway--than with the stealth politics of Pew and foundations like it. There are certain do-good entities, and Pew is one of them, that enjoy a charmed life: On NPR and in David Broder columns, to take a couple of leading indicators, they are treated as benign truth-tellers, so high-minded as to be beyond politics. But they are, naturally, as partisan as any "special interest" could be.

Campaign-finance reform hasn't been Pew's only grasp at political influence. In 2004, the charity poured $9 million into the New Voters Project to register 18- to 24-year-old voters in six "battleground states." Though the drive was allegedly nonpartisan, the project was a joint venture of George Washington University and the Nader-created State Public Interest Research Groups, a nonprofit openly hostile to the GOP. It is safe to say that few of the project's boosters expected those new young voters to favor Mr. Bush.

Which leads to a deeper question: What, exactly, is Pew's agenda? Its founders derived their wealth from Sun Oil and were all Republicans. "When I speak of the free enterprise system," J. Howard Pew said in 1938, "I mean when it is entirely free--free from monopoly, private or governmental." (It is easy to imagine how he would feel about restricting speech in electoral campaigns.) Howard's brother Joseph in 1940 called the New Deal "a gigantic scheme to raze U.S businesses to a dead level and debase the citizenry into a mass of ballot-casting serfs."

The Pews' philanthropy increased in the 1940s and '50s when they created several new charities. The J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, founded in 1957, had the most decisive charter. J. Howard instructed that it be used to acquaint the American people with "the evils of bureaucracy" and "the values of a free market" and "to inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice and death by which freedom of the individual was won."

But by 1980 all the founders of the Pew trusts were dead, and Pew philanthropy drifted away from its donors' intent. The drift became a purposeful rush when Rebecca Rimel became Pew's executive director in 1988.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 1992 that Pew grants going to local organizations--a tradition of the Philadelphia-based family--fell to 23% of all giving in 1991 from 56% in 1980, with organizations long favored by the family cut off. More important, Pew moved left. The "political ghosts" of the Pews "were gone," Ms. Rimel told Foundation News in 1991. That year she told Town & Country: "If we could reinfuse the idealism of the Sixties into our work, it could get the country out of this morass that problems are insoluble."

It has been the Summer of Love at Pew headquarters ever since. Ms. Rimel put it more nobly in a statement last year, declaring that Pew does "independent, nonpartisan research on key topics and trends. On issues where the facts are clear, we are a forceful advocate for policy solutions and positive change." But Pew's politics are about as nonpartisan as Hillary Clinton's. Its assumption is that if voters only understood how much "positive change" government can bring about, they would want more of it. And if the right and the left got together and talked about America's problems, compromises would be reached and the country would move forward, as the cliché goes.

Pew expresses this woolly faith in many ways. Between 1991 and 2001, it pumped $12 million into the "civic journalism" movement, which argued that newspapers need to run many series about the inner workings of city and state bureaucracies, the better for us to care about what they do and could, supposedly, do better. (J. Howard Pew's resistance to the "evils of bureaucracy" had nothing to do with it.) Pew eventually dropped the project--there were too many complaints about a private foundation setting the agenda of for-profit publishers. But it still tries to influence the press through publishing polls and hectoring newspapers to send more reporters to state capitols.

Pew also loves to create commissions. One such thinks that we ought to save more for retirement. Another wants more government funding of preschool education. National conferences are a favorite, too. About a pointless 1997 Pew conference on "voluntarism," Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell remarked that Pew might as well have thrown its $1.4 million "out on Market Street." Pew has held conferences in Hershey, Pa., to teach members of Congress to be nice to each other--to overcome "partisanship." So far, no luck.

For more than a decade, Pew has tried to bring America's environmentalists into a centralized hierarchy under the command of longtime Pew environmental czar Joshua Richert. Not that environmentalists have always cheered. "I don't think you make social change happen on the basis of paid staff in Washington and paid ads anywhere," Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told the New York Times in 2001. Beth Daley, of the liberal National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, had earlier told National Journal: "Some of us were joking that we should have a Pew liberation front committed to getting environmental organizations off the Pew dole."

Pew's most recent evolution makes explicit what was long implicit: In 2004, it transformed itself from a foundation into a giant nonprofit. It can now use 20% of its budget for lobbying. Last fall, Pew combined seven of its public-policy shops into the Pew Research Center--Washington's third-largest liberal think tank, after Brookings and the Center for American Progress. Clearly Pew intends to be a major player in Washington political debates, even as it pretends to nonpartisanship.

There is no reason that Pew should not do all it can to encourage the castor-oil liberalism that it so loves. But it might help if the rest of us took note of Mr. Treglia's belated honesty and treated Pew as something other than neutrality incarnate. And it might help if, out of simple fairness, the trust dropped the name Pew in the same way it has dropped the principles that guided its founders.

Mr. Wooster, a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, is the author of "The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent."

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