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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
The Center of the American Experiment
Wednesday 06 July @ 00:57:19
A Republican Think Tank?
by DAVID RUBENSTEIN
The Center of the American Experiment is a Republican propaganda machine and an incubator for Republican candidates and operatives in Minnesota. For more than a decade, it has championed and helped to define virtually every item on the Republican agenda, from regressive tax cuts, privatization and the crippling of the public sector to the denial of global warming and the invasion of Iraq.
CAE’s conventional political message is leavened from time to time with
more ostensibly apolitical ranting of the sort that became popular during the
Clinton-bashing era, and whose best-known practitioners appeared so often on
Sunday morning television they became known as the Sabbath gas-bags. Katherine
Kersten was our Sabbath gas-bag. Her homilies about good citizenship, family
rearing and the rightful primacy of a virile Anglo-American history in the state
curriculum—always used as an occasion to tar a “left” that
is the creation of her own imagination —have appeared for years with depressing
regularity on the op-ed page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
New York native Mitch Pearlstein— that’s Dr. Pearlstein—founded
the CAE in 1990 and remains the president. He’s a former director of public
information at the State University of New York at Binghamton, former speech
writer for Minnesota Governor Al Quie, former functionary in the U.S. Department
of Education in Washington, D.C. (where, an official bio tells us, he held no
less than three positions), and former editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer
Pearlstein is still the heavy hitter for the CAE and he used to be its chief
spokesperson in the Star Tribune, a job that in the 1990s increasingly fell
to Kersten. This may have been a calculated PR move. It’s largely forbidden
in media circles to enter this realm of discourse and it would be well nigh
impossible to confirm, but the CAE, perhaps including Pearlstein himself, may
have concluded that Pearlstein with his pugnacious and condescending style,
came off as a bit too smartie, East-Coast and arch for local consumption. Kersten,
although pugnacious enough herself and wielding a sharper blade, has more of
a Catholic school-girl persona.
CAE describes itself as a non-partisan conservative think tank, and its legal
status is 501(c)(3) non-profit, meaning that people who give it money can book
their contribution as a tax deduction. The group’s most relentless critic
has been Rob Levine, who, on his website
MediaTransparency.org, has made the case that the CAE crosses the line,
legally speaking, from a tax-exempt nonprofit to a partisan, i.e. “Republican”
outfit, and that if it doesn’t cross that line then it’s hard to
imagine an organization that would.
That argument gets quite a rise out of the CAE, because it threatens to smack
them in the seat of the pants. Without tax-deductible contributions, the CAE
could not continue to dominate political discourse in this state or bring in
speakers like Ken Starr, George H. W. Bush, Henry Kissinger or David Horowitz.
Memorably, a Levine broadside that appeared in City Pages a couple of years
ago was answered by letters to the editor from two pros, Pearlstein and Republican
operative Kent Kaiser. Pearlstein insisted that “despite Levine’s
claims and aspersions, all this is perfectly legal.” Then, not unlike
a radio preacher, he gave a phone number for those who would like to receive
literature promising further enlightenment. Pearlstein at the time had a pre-packed
Levine rebuttal at the ready, no doubt tweakable through the miracle of modern
word processing. (It caused him a bit of trouble on one occasion, when a version
he rushed into print included a resounding rebuttal to a point that Levine had
Kaiser, who wrote the second letter, did much of the work on the CAE’s
1998 “Minnesota Blueprint” that became the Republican party blueprint
and formed the ideological framework of Norm Coleman’s governor campaign.
Kaiser is the former communications director for the Minnesota Family Council
and the current communications director for Republican Secretary of State Mary
Levine’s piece was “hogwash,” said Kaiser. “I know that
the organization’s president, Dr. Mitch Pearlstein, does not allow even
casual partisan conversation in the workplace.”
Think Pearlstein, stalking the hallways. Pearlstein, with his ear to the wall.
Pearlstein everywhere, cracking the whip. It could be a Monty Python routine,
but two things should be understood about this statement. One is that it’s
utter nonsense. Even if it were true, the “partisanship” alleged
or real of the CAE is not a function of what’s said in the workplace.
Second, when financially powerful groups engage in this kind of public posturing,
whatever else they are doing they are instinctively preparing for litigation,
however remote the prospect. Kaiser’s image may tilt to the absurd, but
it’s on the record and would make a nice addendum to an IRS appeal.
of this stuff is of no interest to the people who stand in line every two years
and vote, although it does, unfortunately, affect them profoundly. Throughout
the 1990s, as the Republican party gathered strength in Minnesota, the CAE was
its major PR outlet. “We’ve had 39 op-eds printed in the Star Tribune
over the last 18 weeks,” Pearlstein crowed in a fund-raising letter several
years ago, when the group was still an up-and-comer.
If that weren’t enough, Pearlstein has also become the guy that reporters
call when deadline is approaching and they need a conservative “expert”
on everything from guns to the nuclear family. The phenomenon is a variation
on something Eugene McCarthy once pointed out: The mainstream press is like
blackbirds on a wire. Where one perches, the rest follow. Star Tribune reporter
Eric Black, himself one of the most intelligent and honest reporters on the
payroll these days, once wrote about the dynamic. “Reporters who fear
their story leans too far left can cover their rears by calling Pearlstein,”
Pearlstein, with a compensation package of $160,000 plus-per-year (as of 2002,
the last year for which records are publicly available), continues to be the
CAE’s spokesman at the headier level represented by its journal, the American
Experiment Quarterly. Although they make sure to enlist a few liberals and Democrats,
most articles and virtually every article that states a cogent and extensive
position is Republican gospel.
To get the uninhibited message, the best place to look is the informal prologue
Pearlstein writes for each issue. He gushes over the guest writers like Ken
Starr. He introduces one of the authors of “Dow 36,000,” a ridiculous
book from American Enterprise Institute, and he uses the occasion to get in
an early plug for privatized Social Security. He fawns over Lawrence Kudlow,
whom he identifies as an economist but whom TV news junkies know as the cheerleader
for war and servile interviewer of generals on CNBC’s “Kudlow &
Cramer.” Kudlow, it turns out, was a key member of President Reagan’s
economic team, and his CAE journal article is about Reaganomics. To read it
gives Pearlstein the “nostalgic joy of recalling a vibrant President Reagan,”
he tells us. And often, he plays the role of editorial master of ceremonies
while introducing Kersten herself. “More than anyone else,” he tells
us in one prologue, “Kathy Kersten has set the intellectual stage for
Governor Tim Pawlenty to make good on his campaign pledge to delete the Profile
[of Learning] ...”
a large extent, Minnesota is now reaping what the CAE has sown. Public education
is in extended crisis, with programs disappearing and those teachers who aren’t
fired being shuffled around like car parts. Tuition at the University of Minnesota
keeps going up, while citizen services from the “land-grant university”
go the way of the two-bit haircut. Affordable health care for working people
— “welfare medicine,” as the Republican governor calls it
— is teetering. Even the public safety programs that conservatives claim
to love are in trouble, with fire departments under-equipped, under-staffed
and barely able to handle a couple of simultaneous warehouse fires, much less
a terrorist attack.
This is what’s known as “improving the business climate,”
and Minnesota has done a lot of it in the last 15 years. You can’t lay
it all on a think tank, but the CAE has played a major part, relentlessly propagandizing
the Republican line, promoting its politicians and denigrating its opposition.
A few weeks ago, Kersten became a twice-a-week columnist for the Star Tribune.
What’s interesting is that they — Kersten, the CAE and the Star
Tribune — came to an agreement that puts some distance between her and
the CAE. Earlier this year, she was still the Center’s “distinguished
senior fellow,” and of course she has been the main print-media face for
the CAE for years. Now she is a free agent. It would be surprising if this did
not happen with the “advice of counsel,” and it’s likely the
advice went something like this: Put some distance between your organization
and Kersten or she’s bound to lay down some tracks that will do you no
good. This is part of the game of musical chairs that’s been played for
15 years now, and the IRS has bought it.
In her debut column a few weeks ago, Kersten went right to the Republican heart
of the matter: taxes, and how they just can’t be low enough. The column
was couched as a condescending lesson in economics for the benighted Archbishop
Harry Flynn, who had dared to suggest there are moral implications with sticking
to a no-tax-increase pledge when there are people on the bottom who are going
to suffer gravely on account of it.
suggests Flynn go chat with Rudolph Giuliani, whom she notes “was in the
Twin Cities recently.”
Full stop. What she doesn’t say is that Giuliani was in the Twin Cities
recently because the CAE paid him to be the feature speaker at their annual
dinner. You could have gone yourself and sat at the $25,000 “Park Avenue
Committee” table, or taken your place at the more modest $10,000 “Manhattan
What does Kersten say about Giuliani? “He cut welfare rolls by 60 percent,
and moved about 640,000 people from dependency to self-respect and self-sufficiency.”
(No, it’s not true that Kersten has a book deal in the works: “How
to Be Self-Sufficient in America on $7.00 an hour.”)
The CAE’s 1998 “Blueprint” is a definitive Republican statement
on taxes, and the strategy of starving the public sector in the name of competition
and privatization. It repeats these principles as bullet points 19 times, as
the preface to each chapter of what is essentially a government operating manual
Meanwhile, the pillar of Republican foreign policy has become the Iraq War,
and the CAE has emerged exactly where you would expect it to be: dead center
on message with the party line and the neo-con delusions that got us into the
quagmire. “If Saddam is overthrown,” Kersten wrote as part of an
attack on the United Nations and pitch for war a few months before the invasion,
“Iraqi oil will start flowing freely and world oil prices will drop.”
But the CAE’s most ambitious statement on the Iraq disaster probably was
the op-ed piece by Cheri Pierson Yecke that appeared in the Star Tribune in
February of this year. Yecke is the former Minnesota education commissioner
who pushed for a right-leaning curriculum in Minnesota public schools and was
ousted by the DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate in May of 2004. A few weeks later,
she was safely harbored at the CAE as a “Distinguished Senior Fellow for
Education and Social Policy.”
give Yecke her due, laying out a rationale for the war hasn’t gotten any
easier, with weapons of mass destruction a dry hole and the connections between
Iraq and 9-11 a demonstrable fable. But in her op-ed she did her best to rise
to the occasion by venturing into the hallowed ground of World War II, and that
last refuge of the historical analogizer, the European Jewish Holocaust.
“We knew evil acts were taking place in Hitler’s Europe but we failed
to act,” she writes, “and 6 million Jews, and millions of others,
died as a result. Contrast this with our preemptive actions in Iraq and the
result: the amazing sight of people risking their lives to vote.”
To bolster her case, she said the remains of an “estimated” 400,000
people in mass graves had already been found in Iraq. That 400,000 figure was
first aired by Tony Blair late in 2003 and then repeated numerous times by both
Blair and George Bush. Downing Street later backed off, and The Observer newspaper
in the U.K. reported that the figure was bogus. “Of 270 suspected grave
sites identified in the last year, 55 have now been examined, revealing, according
to the best estimates that The Observer has been able to obtain, around 5,000
bodies. Forensic examination of grave sites has been hampered by lack of security
in Iraq, amid widespread complaints by human rights organizations that until
recently the graves have not been secured and protected.”
There is something creepy about arguing body counts, and, as The Observer notes,
more bodies are sure to be found. But the ease with which the Bush administration
and its allies manipulate these figures is symptomatic, and recalls the more
blatant lies that were used to dupe the American public into supporting the
war in the first place.
Few argue that Saddam was anything but a bad actor, a political sadist and a
thug who ran his country like a family business. We’re told his son once
had a soccer star executed for missing a tie-breaker. But however many Iraqis
Saddam put into mass graves, the crime pales in comparison to what he did to
Iranians, using poison gas as a military tactic with an abandon not seen since
World War I.
from stepping in to prevent that atrocity, like the super hero in the red, white
and blue cape that Yecke conjures up, we encouraged him and sold him the gas.
The Washington Post ran an article on the subject a few weeks before the current
war began, and with it reprinted a now famous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking
Saddam’s hand, around Christmas-time in 1983.
Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorized the sale to Iraq of chemical
and biological poisons, including anthrax and bubonic plague, the Post reported,
and at the time the picture was taken Rumsfeld was in Iraq as Reagan’s
To stick to Yecke’s analogy, not only did we fail to bomb the rail lines
to Auschwitz, we helped lay the track, just as we did in Central America and
parts of Africa around the same period.
Yecke’s war analogy makes an exhibit A for why education should not be
put in the hands of ideologues, Republican or otherwise. The result isn’t
education. It’s sentimentalized history at the service of an agenda. The
real history of what has gone down in the last three years will be far more
difficult to acknowledge and teach to kids: The war in Iraq is a misconceived
venture built on lies and delusions, and it’s is sending thousands of
Americans into a meat grinder, breaking the country financially, and strengthening
the hand of Islamic radicals everywhere.
Yecke makes the war argument, but for sheer partisanship, you can’t do
better than CAE stalwarts John H. Hinderaker and Scott W. Johnson.
Both men have classic neo-con profiles. Hinderaker is partner at the Twin Cities
law firm of Faegre & Benson. He graduated high school when the Vietnam War
was reaching its brutal peak and went directly to an Ivy League college, then
to Harvard law school, and then to the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre &
Benson, without missing a beat. He’s been at Faegre ever since, primarily
representing corporate clients.
Johnson, an attorney and senior vice president of TCF National Bank in Minneapolis,
is a hawk in the Norm Coleman mold. A contemporary and college pal of Hinderaker,
when the time came for him to serve he was vehemently “anti-war.”
Now he says he wishes he had joined up. Hinderaker and Johnson currently are
best known for the blog Powerline, which is prominently linked to the CAE website.
and Johnson were probably the two most effective de facto Bush operatives in
Minnesota during the 2004 presidential campaign. Here’s how it worked:
The Kerry campaign banked on two “narratives” to carry the election.
One was Kerry’s war record. The other was the war record of George Bush.
Republicans managed to blunt them both, and the point men in Minnesota were
Hinderaker and Johnson. They did a good job too, aided by Democrats who were,
as they are wont to be these days, tone-deaf, clumsy and unable to avoid overplaying
Powerline was named “Blog of the Year” by Time Magazine for the
part it played in exposing fraudulent documents used in a CBS 60 Minutes segment
with Dan Rather. The documents purported to show that George Bush had been AWOL
or performed poorly while in the National Guard.
Powerline did an admirable job, successfully deflecting attention from the essential
fact about George Bush and his war record. As Hinderaker and Johnson well know,
the National Guard in the early 70s was the accepted way for apolitical airheads
and pseudo-hawks to “get out of Vietnam.” That was the operative
term. That’s what George Bush did, and there is plenty of evidence that
he needed and got Daddy’s help to do it, because there were more pseudo-hawks
than Guard slots in Texas at the time.
The attack on Kerry’s account of his war record and what he made of it
was tactically brilliant, as well, and quite possibly sound. Hinderaker and
Johnson led the charge on that front too, in a scathing op-ed piece in the Star
Tribune and an on-going blog attack on Jim Boyd, Vietnam war veteran and Strib
The truth is, if you’re a Republican with money to launder, you couldn’t
do better than to write a check to the CAE. From Kersten’s attacks on
Clinton, to Pearlstein’s ringing endorsement of the President the CAE
has been almost as partisan as the Republican central committee, and at least
as effective. (“I cannot conceive of a sounder course than that pursued
by President Bush,” Perlstein told an audience in 2003, and the presentation
remains on the CAE website to this day.)
the IRS decides if a nonprofit should lose its designation, one key thing it
looks at is candidate advocacy: what is said, how it’s said, and when.
But the definitions are fluid, and the final determination is based on what
the IRS calls “all relevant facts and circumstances.” In the CAE’s
case, all relevant facts and circumstances point to partisanship, in a way that
no progressive or left group even approaches. The CAE is not a one-issue organization.
Point-by-point, the CAE has refined, articulated and promoted virtually the
entire Republican agenda, while simultaneously promoting Republican candidates
in ways that frequently push the envelope.
In 1998, Kersten apparently could restrain herself no longer and wrote a classic
unrestrained op-ed candidate endorsement for gubernatorial candidate Norm Coleman,
just weeks before the election. Smoking gun? No problem. The bio identifies
her as a director of the CAE, but then adds: “The column reflects her
opinion and not that of the center.”
This is why lawyers were invented. Actually, anyone who could spend 15 minutes
on the CAE website and conclude that Kersten’s opinion about Norm Coleman
was NOT the view of the CAE is a truly a child left behind. All you have to
do is read. The IRS should take another look. ||
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