Even before his name showed up in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 17, 2004, Bruce Bartlett knew he might be screwed. A few weeks earlier, the former Washington insider--he was a policy analyst for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush's administrations--appeared in The New Republic saying aloud what few conservatives would say in private: Maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if John Kerry got elected. This is what he told writer Franklin Foer: "People are careful about how they say it and to who they say it, but, if you're together with more than a couple of conservatives, the issue of would we be better or worse off with Kerry comes up--and it's seriously discussed." Bartlett's words had the stink of heresy; how dare one of the party's own turn on the president, especially so close to the election.
Bartlett knew he was taking a big risk. He also meant every word, having come to believe during Bush's first term that this conservative president was no such thing at all. No real Republican would have grown the government the way Bush had, by some 23 percent since Bill Clinton left office. No real Republican would have signed into legislation the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003. And no real Republican would allow the national deficit and government spending to increase to record levels. Bartlett saw his party's leader not as the revolutionary or reformist he's portrayed as by loyalists but as a traitor to the cause of fiscal conservatism.
Still, saying what he did in The New Republic was nothing. At least in that lefty mag he didn't compare Bush to Al Qaeda like he did in the Times in October 2004.
Some 16 months later, Bartlett claims he was misquoted by writer Ron Suskind but doesn't dispute the meat of what he was quoted saying, which was this:
"Just in the past few months, I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do. This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them...This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God."
Keep in mind it wasn't Ted Kennedy who said this. It was a Republican who'd been on Bush's daddy's payroll. A Republican who wrote two very sober-minded books on economic policy, 1981's Reaganomics: Supply Side Economics in Action and 1983's The Supply-Side Solution. A Republican who has pushed for tax reform and small government in his syndicated column and in op-eds that have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and other more right-leaning publications. And a Republican who, since 1995, had been on the payroll of the conservative Dallas-based think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis, which counts among its board members and contributors Dallas' Fred Meyers, the Aladdin Industries executive who raised more than $200,000 for Bush's 2004 campaign and chairs the Republican National Committee's Presidential Victory Team.
As it turned out, Bartlett's boss at the National Center for Policy Analysis wasn't too thrilled with the Suskind piece. Bartlett says now he thought his conversation with Suskind was an off-the-record chitchat among friends, but like a kid caught hurling spitballs at the teacher, he was called into the principal's office and reprimanded by John C. Goodman, the NCPA's founder and president, and former governor of Delaware Pete Du Pont, chairman of the NCPA's board of directors.
"John called me the day after the article appeared and told me that Karl Rove had called him to complain about it," Bartlett says from his home in Great Falls, Virginia, where, from all accounts, most rooms are filled with ancient bookshelves and file cabinets filled with reams of tax-related documents. At 54, he boasts of having no wife or children to interfere with his self-proclaimed Spartan lifestyle.
"And that was really when they started to really pressure me to tone down my criticism," Bartlett recalls of that meeting at the NCPA's Washington, D.C., offices. "I know that there was contact [with the White House], and I know that Rove knows John Goodman, because the one time I met Rove and talked to him, he asked me what John was doing, and they know each other from Texas politics."
Goodman, sitting in his North Dallas offices on Coit Road, confirms that he and Du Pont demanded a meeting with Bartlett after the Times story appeared--though Goodman says he forgot precisely why they had the meeting, till reminded of the story and the Al Qaeda quote. He laughs when it's mentioned, as though he can't believe he could let such an egregious misstep by one of his own escape his memory. And though he disputes Bartlett's contention that Rove or any member of Bush's inner circle called to complain or force the NCPA to punish the economist-columnist, he says, yeah, absolutely Bartlett was told to stop pickin' on the president with attacks they considered personal at best and mean-spirited at worst.
"I said, 'Here's the deal. You can disagree with any Bush policy you want to,'" Goodman says, sitting in the NCPA's conference room overlooking North Central Expressway. Behind him, through the glass wall, an enormous American flag is perched on the wall; it comes from the American cemetery in Normandy and is encased in Plexiglas. It makes Goodman, a friendly man prone to punctuating his sentences with small chuckles, look a bit like George C. Scott in Patton--if Scott had been clad in a tan suit, looked like a former professor of economics at Dartmouth and Southern Methodist University and was best known as one of the thinkers behind revolutionary, controversial and influential health-care reform proposals.
"I almost always agree with the factual substance of the stuff Bruce writes," Goodman says. "But we don't want in our organization to attack people's motivations or their character or their managerial ability. That is something we want to stay away from. Let's not make it personal. Disagree with the president as much as you want to, but don't make it personal. I understood him to agree with that, and Pete Du Pont understood him to agree with that, and that is where we left it."
Until one year later, when, in October 2005, John Goodman told Bruce Bartlett he wanted him gone immediately.
Until October 18, 2005, many readers of The New York Times had probably never heard of Bruce Bartlett or the National Center for Policy Analysis. They likely had no idea that there was a conservative think tank based in Dallas, especially one that possesses clout inside the Beltway. And they probably thought little of the story announcing his firing, buried on page 24.
If anything, they might have been struck by the headline--"In Sign of Conservative Split, A Commentator Is Dismissed"--which proved that the great divide in the Republican Party had grown an inch wider. As Richard Stevenson pointed out in that story, Bartlett's firing from the NCPA was just "the latest sign of the deepening split among conservatives over how far to go in challenging President Bush."
Indeed, just last week Salon ran a story bearing the headline, "Right-wingers turn against Bush." It offered testimony from former loyalists George Will, Robert Novak, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Family Research Council's Web site and the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly claiming "Bush is alienating his political base" by becoming "just another free-spending, big-government politician." Bush-bashing from the right has almost become a trend.
By month's end, Bruce Bartlett will be the trend's poster boy. On February 28, Bartlett's book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy will arrive in bookstores, adding its author to the growing list of conservatives who are lashing out at the president for his being what Bartlett calls "a pretend conservative [who] has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right."
The book's publication will officially brand him as the kind of conservative Al Franken and Jon Stewart could love: a true believer who has lost the faith, a conservative out to melt the party's Big Cheese. He will probably be invited on The Daily Show, on Air America, on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, where he will be portrayed as one more right-winger who took a left turn into Liberal Country.
They will make him look as though he martyred himself for his belief that President Bush is doing a lousy job and hurting the country through his tax cuts. They will make him out to be the righteous soldier who threw himself on his sword when his leader allowed the passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, which will cost some $700 billion in coming years. They will celebrate his turning on Bush for nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, which Bartlett damned as an act of cronyism.
Bartlett insists he never set out to write the book that became Impostor. Originally, his was supposed to be a book about the history of the Bush administration's economic policies. Problem was, he discovered Bush and his inner circle had no economic policy, as far as Bartlett could figure. So he went after the president and his administration with a vehemence usually found in Bush's harshest critics. Its chapter headings alone read like New Republic article summaries: "Is Enron a Metaphor for Bush's Economic Policy?," "The Worst Legislation in History?," "The Inevitable Tax Increase" and "Is Bush Another Nixon?"
And for his criticism, Bartlett wound up paying the price: Last October, he was canned from his $172,000-a-year job as the NCPA's senior fellow.
"I knew as I started writing the book that I was going to have a problem with my employers," Bartlett says.
"[The NCPA] had warned me prior to my starting the book that the things that I was writing in my columns and newspaper interviews and things like that were too critical of George Bush and that it was hurting their fund raising," Bartlett says. "I was more or less warned that if I didn't stop, I was going to be fired. So I knew I was going to have trouble once I started writing the book, and I even toyed around with the idea of writing it anonymously for a while, except that it just didn't work. For one thing you just can't do any publicity."
And, worse, no one would have taken the book seriously, because Bartlett would have been forced to hide his estimable credentials, which are still touted on the NCPA's Web site. Without his résumé, Impostor would have been dismissed by the right and ignored by the left.
Bartlett does have very serious credentials, the kind that make him dangerous to the right. When he was fired in October, lefty and centrist bloggers came to his defense, celebrating him as a man of "integrity" who "[followed] his conscience and has paid a price." Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan wrote last October that Bartlett "has principles...his loyalty is to his ideas, not to the conservative intelligentsia's think-tank welfare-state."
Until now, Bartlett's credentials have done most of the speaking for him; he's always referred to as a former Reagan and Bush I insider, a policy advisor on economic issues. But he will tell you up front that he did very little during his tenures in those administrations, especially when George H.W. Bush was president. He, like his son after him, also was not a man open to policy discussion, debate or dissent. Bartlett's major victories came earlier in his political life, when he worked for Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, who Bartlett helped advise during the creation of the Kemp-Roth tax bill, which called for the largest tax cut since the Kennedy era and helped stimulate economic growth during a particularly nasty recession.
"I remember clearly one day I was just sitting at my desk, and Kemp came in," Bartlett recalls. "He said, 'You know, we keep talking all about this Kennedy stuff all the time, so why don't we just duplicate the Kennedy tax cut and get rid of all this other horse shit?' OK, he didn't say 'horse shit,' but basically it was, let's just redo the Kennedy tax cut, and I said, 'OK, fine.' My job was to figure out, well, what the hell does it mean to redo the Kennedy tax cut in today's tax law and today's economy?"
It was during his time with Kemp that Bartlett was introduced to some of the intellectuals who would come to define economics during the Reagan era, among them the late Jude Wanniski (who coined the phrase "supply-side economics") and Arthur Laffer (creator of the Laffer curve, which suggested that it was possible to boost tax revenue by cutting tax rates). To be in such heady company was a kick for Bartlett, who was born in Michigan but didn't stay there long. His old man was always moving the family around in search of jobs he never kept too long, Bartlett recalls. Finally, they landed in New Jersey.
"Unfortunately, each new job he got was worse than the one he had before, so we had sort of a downward standard of living," he says. "The only reason I went to Rutgers is because it was the state university, and it was the cheapest school I could get into, and I still had to work my way through. I put myself through college and graduate school by stocking shelves in the supermarket."
He's not sure when he got interested in economics and politics--he recalls supporting Richard Nixon in 1960, but not why, because he was 9.
He went to Georgetown University to get a master's degree in history. During his tenure there, Bartlett wrote the thesis that became his first book: Cover-Up: The Politics of Pearl Harbor, 1941-1946, which was published in 1978 and suggests that Franklin Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to enter World War II in order to obliterate the country's policy of isolationism. For a while, Bartlett pursued his doctorate at Georgetown, thinking he might want to teach.
"But as time went by, I gradually realized that I was just wasting my time," he recalls. "There was just no chance I was ever going to get a teaching job at a decent university. I was in a field by that point that was in decline. They weren't hiring very many people, and I was the wrong race and the wrong sex and the wrong philosophy--everything. I just had no chance whatsoever, so I remember clearly sitting in class one day, and I said, 'I'm just wasting my fucking time.' I just got up and walked out of the class and took incompletes in all of my courses and never went back, never finished the Ph.D."
But he'd read that down in Texas, Democratic Congressman Robert Casey had been appointed head of the Federal Maritime Commission by President Gerald Ford and that a Republican named Ron Paul had won the special election to fill Casey's seat. In a short story that appeared in The Washington Post, Paul said he was to the right of Barry Goldwater, which tickled Bartlett. So he sent Paul a letter asking for a job, got the interview and was working for his first congressman as a legislative assistant by 1976, at the age of 25.
His résumé for the next decade included stints working with Kemp and as the chief legislative assistant for Iowa Republican Senator Roger Jepsen, who put Bartlett on the Joint Economic Committee of Congress; a gig at the Heritage Foundation think tank, where he wrote about tax reform; and a period working at Jude Wanniski's firm called Polyconomics, which advised Wall Street firms about economic and political developments on Capitol Hill. Then, in 1987, Gary Bauer, who was then the president's chief domestic policy advisor, invited him into the Reagan White House.
"Since I thought this would be the last opportunity I would have to work for Ronald Reagan, I took it," Bartlett says. But the gig in the Office of Policy Development wasn't much of one: Bauer had been hired by Reagan's chief of staff Don Regan, who was ousted in 1987 after the Iran-Contra scandal and replaced with Howard Baker.
"And Baker really had no use for Gary and pretty much completely ignored him, which meant there was nothing for our whole office essentially to do," Bartlett says. "I had a really nice office over in the Executive Office building, and I just had absolutely nothing to do. I would just watch TV and drink beer and just mark time until the end of the administration."
When George H.W. Bush took office, Bartlett moved over to the Treasury Department, where he served as deputy assistant secretary for economic policy--or, as he describes it, another job that involved sitting on his ass and doing nothing.
"What I was interested in, obviously, was economic policy, but Bush didn't have one," he says. Bartlett became especially aware of this after the president who promised "no new taxes" promptly raised taxes. "It was very depressing. I used to joke to myself that the only reason that they kept me around was because they didn't know any other conservatives."
George H.W. Bush got dumped after one term, and Bartlett moved back into the world of think tanks, taking his position with the NCPA in 1995. And, he thought, it was a good fit, working with a guy like Goodman, who was equally obsessed with the minutiae of economics. Then Bartlett did something he shouldn't have.
He went after his old boss' son.
John Goodman will forever insist he does not care that Bruce Bartlett disagrees with the president. He proves this point by agreeing with Bartlett about the Medicare bill; after all, to conservatives the word "entitlement" is perhaps the most vulgar of curse words, just behind "Clinton." What he says he takes issue with is how Bartlett went after President Bush "so personally," by which he likely means Bartlett's description in Impostor of Bush as being "simply a partisan Republican, anxious to improve the fortunes of his party [but] perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment's notice to achieve that goal." It may sound rather benign--certainly, Bush has been called much worse--but to Goodman, it has the ring of name-calling.
"The problem is, what he's doing with that book is something I object to as a matter of style, but also it's something the board of directors also objects to," Goodman says. "I've done a lot of debates--used to do a lot of stuff with Bill Buckley, and going all the way back to high school I did them--and I think it's important how you debate with someone. I am the opposite of [New York Times columnist] Paul Krugman. I do not immediately assume that if someone disagrees with me, there is something wrong with their motivation--that they're evil." He laughs.
Even now, Goodman says he likes Bartlett and reads his columns whenever he has the chance. He even claims to have recommended him for a job at conservative think tank the Cato Institute. He says he didn't want to fire Bartlett but that he had no choice. He simply didn't deliver what he promised, which is a book on tax policy--the kind of book that wouldn't receive much attention in a newspaper like this.
But on the matter of publicity, this much is also true: Had Bartlett not been fired and had it not been announced in the Times, then perhaps the National Center for Policy Analysis, founded in 1983 in a leaky room at the University of Dallas, would have continued to operate under the radar, unnoticed by most, save for those who read the fine print at the bottom of op-eds or read newspaper stories about health-care issues and Social Security reform or tax cuts.
"They're more of a second- or third-tier think tank in the conservative movement," says Michael Dolny, who has been researching think tanks for a decade for media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). "They don't get quite as much attention. They are part of the right-wing echo chamber...The right has been very good in spreading the wealth around to a diversity of voices, making sure you have many saying the same thing. The NCPA has been effective in repeating that message, but I am not sure how innovative they've been."
Dolny notes that until recently the NCPA "was invisible" when it came to think-tank references in the media. But in 2004 it leaped into the top 25 of the most-cited think tanks in the country. The topics ranged all over the place, from studies that ranked teachers' salaries to reports that concluded global warming wasn't man-made to editorials pushing the privatization of Social Security.
The NCPA may be a relative unknown, but it's a think tank taken seriously. Indeed, Goodman's known primarily for one issue--health savings accounts, or HSAs--but it's one issue that's gone from think-tank proposal to policy during the NCPA's relatively brief lifetime.
President Bush touted HSAs in his State of the Union address two weeks ago. According to the Treasury Department's Web site, an HSA is essentially a savings account into which you can deposit tax-free money you then use to cover medical expenses. To use the account, you have to buy what's called a High-Deductible Health Plan, which the government defines as "an inexpensive health insurance plan that generally doesn't pay for the first several thousand dollars of health care expenses."
In other words, your plan has to come with a fairly high deductible--at least $1,050 for single coverage and $2,100 for families, for those who sign up in 2006--which you deposit into that account each year. The annual contribution can't exceed that deductible, but if you don't spend the money one year, it carries over to the next (and the next and the next...), and, according to Goodman, those balances will earn interest that can be invested in stocks or mutual funds. According to a February 6 story in USA Today, supporters of the HSAs insist the accounts will "slow health care inflation by getting people to spend more of their own money on care."
But the story also notes that critics, including some conservative think tanks, loathe the proposal because the accounts "benefit mainly the wealthy," who could use the HSAs as tax shelters "and could drive up costs for others." Non-believers in the plan say it's likely that people will not go to their doctors for preventive care, since they'll have to pay for it out of their own pockets. Rather, they'll just wait till something's seriously wrong--by which point the cost of treatment will be exorbitant.
And on the larger scale, HSAs will lead to a substantial loss of tax revenue--$59 billion over five years, $156 billion over 10, according to most estimates. USA Today noted that that alone "will offset the savings Bush wants by limiting the growth of Medicare." Goodman, though, dismisses the criticism as coming from people "who don't know what they're talking about." He insists that in the long run, HSAs will reshape health insurance till it looks more like car insurance--that is, you have to pay out of your own pocket for regular maintenance, but insurance will take care of it when the car gets totaled. And as far as he's concerned, HSAs will lead to competition where it has never existed before: in the doctor's office.
"When it comes to HSAs, it appears the NCPA's fingerprints are solidly on that one," says David Callahan, who was writing about think tanks in The Nation in 1999 before founding his own, the New York City-based Demos, that very year. "Ultimately, though, this is a team sport. Ideological-change efforts are team sports, so it's hard to identify any single one player as being decisive." Even Goodman would admit that; ideas are like air, waiting to be inhaled.
Those who believe think tanks are invaluable to policy debates point to the success of NCPA's pushing of health savings accounts as proof the system works. Then there are others who believe think tanks like the NCPA are little more than "public relations fronts...generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors," according to the Center for Media & Democracy's Web site.
There is no doubt at all that think tanks have become a tributary of political contributions: You donate to the candidate, to the party or the political action committee and then the think tank--with the latter option often being preferable because, hey, it's a charitable donation that gets you the tax write-off.
"I wish people thought that way," Goodman says. "We'd get a third of the money. But we don't."
Not that the NCPA has too much trouble raising dough.
In 2004, the think tank received $5,025,242 in donations and grants, according to its Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Most of that money comes from right-leaning foundations; corporations and individuals round out the bank account.
Two years ago, the NCPA received $25,000 from the Scaife Foundations and, since 1985, more than $1.2 million from the pile of dough managed by Richard Mellon Scaife, referred to by The Washington Post in 1999 as "The Funding Father of the Right." The Scaife Foundations have spent hundreds of millions over the years financing conservative think tanks, law firms, university programs and publications, including The American Spectator, to which Scaife contributed $2.3 million "to dig up dirt on Clinton" while supporting "other conservative groups that harassed the president and his administration," according to the Post.
Of NCPA's revenue, some $200,000 was spent in 2004 on publishing a handful of books; another $500,000 went to traveling expenses (Goodman frequently travels the country and world, speaking and researching) and hosting conferences and lectures.
But half of its $5 million goes to paying its 22 staff members--including $320,000 in salary and bonuses to President John Goodman, who also received $30,000 in other employee benefits and $12,000 in expenses, and another $230,000 to his wife, Jeanette, who serves as NCPA's vice president. Also in 2004, John Goodman diverted some $170,000 to a trust fund holding money he will receive when he (or the NCPA) calls it quits; the fund is valued at more than $1 million.
Goodman's salary is "very high compensation for this world," says David Callahan. "When you look at what the director of comparably sized organizations made, you will find that's a lot."
To realize precisely how much Goodman's making, one need only look at think tanks on the right, on the left and in the middle to realize there's a fine line between a think tank and a piggy bank.
The 29-year-old Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, another unabashedly conservative outside-the-Beltway think tank, boasted last year of $12.5 million in revenue, from which President Lawrence Mone took home in 2003 some $250,000 in salary and another $40,000 in contributions to the employee benefit plan. The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C., reported in 2003 that it brought in some $5.9 million in donations, with $181,000 going to President Larry Mishel in annual compensation. And of the $4.6 million brought in during 2004 by the centrist, D.C.-based New America Foundation in 2004, which has Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Newsweek International writer Fareed Zakaria on its board of directors, no senior employee made more than $120,000.
"I'd do this for free," Goodman insists. "Just don't tell anybody."
If you ask Bruce Bartlett, he wasn't fired from the NCPA for picking on Bush but for potentially upsetting the NCPA's board of directors, which include some of the wealthiest folks in town: former Southland Corporation President Jere Thompson, oilman James Thompson, Medical Cities Inc. Chairman and CEO Robert Wright and Harlan Crow, the real-estate scion who's good pals with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Those board members have raised millions over the years for the Republican Party and both Bushes. Bartlett says it was in Goodman's interest to fire him.
Goodman says, yeah, absolutely, he was worried his board would get angry when it heard about the book, but he claims no one forced him to fire Bartlett, least of all anyone in the White House.
"No one asked me to do this, no one suggested it would be a good thing, nothing like that," Goodman says.
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When asked precisely whom he spoke with, Goodman smiles and chuckles.
"Well, I don't want to get into that," he says. "But some people in the Bush administration said, 'We think you just did something good.'"
In the end, Barlett sacrificed a good salary to write what he did, and he will be portrayed as a martyr for doing so. But maybe he was looking to get fired, he says at the end of several hours' worth of interviews. Maybe he'd just gotten tired of working at the NCPA, with whom he stopped agreeing a long time ago. Or maybe it was time for a change. He's pissed at the NCPA for firing him--and doing so without severance, he says--but figures that, well, maybe he had it coming.
"I don't want to dissuade you from the martyr thing, but I don't want to overstate the case," he says, laughing. "I've lost jobs before. It's the nature of my profession I've chosen. I mean, I lost my job when Bill Clinton got elected and lost jobs in Congress. It's not the kind of job where you put in your 20 and quit. I don't think of myself as a martyr for a cause. I knew at the beginning what I was getting myself into. The point was not to make a buck or just to get the ideas out there. I had plenty of opportunity to do that already. The idea was to do it in a way to make a meaningful impact."