Know Your Right Wingers
SOURCE: August Pollak
Tucker Carlson calls him "a mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest little creep." Newt Gingrich says he’s "the single most effective conservative activist in the country.” Meet Grover Norquist: the most influential conservative activist you’ve barely heard of.
The head of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), a vociferously anti-tax and anti-government Washington, D.C. organization, Norquist also presides over Wednesday morning meetings so influential that Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund calls him the “Grand Central Station of Conservatives.” These weekly 10 a.m. meetings are a Who’s Who of the modern conservative movement, where conservatives plot the demise of the welfare state.
ATR was initially an advocacy group set up by the Reagan administration to lobby for an extreme makeover of the tax code. Norquist was installed as its leader by Reagan’s chief of staff and has been there ever since. Before that, he spent time in Angola, supporting the UNITA rebel army and its leader, Jonas Savimbi, one of the driving forces behind the continuation of the Angolan Civil War, which went on through the Reagan years. When not in the field, Norquist “sometimes came to work dressed in battle fatigues and carrying a briefcase with a bumper sticker proclaiming, ‘I’d rather be killing commies.’” Near the end of the conflict, between 1996 and 1997, Norquist received $45,000 from UNITA. Lobbying records from 1997 show that he met with then-House Speaker Gingrich and majority leader as a lobbyist for UNITA. The Angolan Civil War was one of Africa’s bloodiest and most destructive wars, lasting 27 years and costing over 500,000 lives. Hostilities finally ceased in 2002 with the death of Jonas Savimbi.
Since controlling the White House, Senate and Congress isn’t enough for conservatives to push their agenda, ATR also plays a leading role in the K Street Project, the Tom DeLay-directed effort to get uber-loyal Republicans into high-prestige lobbying positions, and shells out tons of cash to Republican causes. Essentially a web of corruption and sleaze, the K Street Project further connects Norquist to his long-standing (until criminal indictments got in the way) group of conservative playmates: DeLay, Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff.
In addition to the K Street Project, ATR works hard to get stuff named after President Reagan. That’s right—the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, a division of ATR, is devoted solely to “fulfill its mission by naming significant public landmarks after President Reagan in the 50 states and over 3,000 counties of the United States.” Look for the Gipper Memorial highway rest stop coming to your county soon—anything to make you and your fellow citizens remember Reagan as the best president ever.
Norquist is currently on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union, “the nation’s oldest and largest conservative lobbying organization,” as well as serving on the National Rifle Association’s board (which doesn’t need much of an introduction).
Grover’s allergy to government started in his youth. His father would steal bites of young Grover’s ice cream cone, likening each bite to another kind of federal tax: “Dad would take a bite of your ice cream cone and say, ‘sales tax.’ When he wanted a little more, he’d say, ‘income tax, estate tax.’” Norquist went to Harvard and graduated in 1978 with a major in economics, returning in 1979 for an MBA. During his Harvard years, Norquist became friends with two important people: Karl Rove, who had been executive director and then chair of the College Republicans, and Jack Abramoff, who’s been in the news quite a bit lately.
Although the investigation is still ongoing, many political figures who received money from Abramoff are returning his checks, driven by fear of guilt by association. And as John McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter, told The New Yorker, “Grover couldn’t be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachusetts and got married.” As the Abramoff investigation unfolds, the fallout for Norquist remains to be seen.
Norquist’s long and complicated relationship with Abramoff is just one of many such symbiotic partnerships from which Norquist profits. Norquist met Ralph Reed, another beacon of moral clarity in right-wing politics, when they worked on the College Republicans together Reed earned the nickname “Grover’s clone” from a mutual friend.
Anti-government rhetoric notwithstanding, Norquist’s actual support for personal freedom has been mixed. He’s no crusader for reproductive freedom, but he has joined a diverse coalition to challenge certain provisions of the PATRIOT ACT, saying: "For too long, conservatives assumed it was someone else’s job’’ to protect civil liberties. We couldn’t agree more with that.
Norquist also specializes in turning any conversation into one about the evils of large government and taxation. When asked in an interview how evolution should be taught in public schools, Norquist replied, “The real problem here is that you shouldn’t have government-run schools.” “Government-run schools” is just one example of Norquist-speak, a language in which affirmative action is known as “apartheid.” In a charming anecdote shared by Norquist’s friend Stephen Moore of the Free Enterprise Fund, Moore remembers telling Norquist about a woman he’d met recently: “Most guys would say, ‘Oh, is she really good-looking?’ or something like that. Grover said, ‘Is she good on guns?’ He was being totally serious.” While this one-track mind probably hasn’t done much for Norquist’s social life (even his recent wedding featured a blessing by the shady right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin), his 24/7 devotion translates into a lot of power and influence in Washington.
Norquist on the federal government:
“If I were president for a day: Fire everybody in government and quit. Then lock the doors to the White House and Congress so no one could get back in.” (Campaigns & Elections, 4/1995)
“My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years…to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (The Nation, 4/26/2001)
Norquist on bipartisanship:
“Bipartisanship is another name for date rape.” (Mother Jones, 2/2004)
“Once the minority [Democrats] of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don’t go around peeing on the furniture and such.” (Washington Post, 11/4/2004)
“We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals—and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship.” (Christian Science Monitor, 11/23/2005)
Illustration: August J. Pollak