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How the Founder of the Heritage Foundation
Got His Start

Edwin Feulner is best known as a founder and the longtime president of the Heritage Foundation. During his thirty-six years at the helm of Heritage, he transformed the organization from a tiny policy shop to the nation’s most influential think tank. For his accomplishments, he has won the Presidential Citizens Medal, the Bradley Prize, and the Charles Hoeflich Lifetime Achievement Award from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

Feulner has never forgotten the pivotal role ISI played in his life and career. At Colorado’s Regis College in the early 1960s, he encountered an ISI-affiliated professor named Bernard Sheehan, who introduced him to Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Liberty or Equality. Another mentor, philosophy professor Lawrence Stepelevich, recommended Whittaker Chambers’s Witness.

Feulner was hooked, and soon his teachers pointed their bright young student to ISI. A lifelong relationship was born. He devoured the pamphlets and journals ISI sent him, signed up for the 1962 ISI summer school in Illinois, and founded an ISI student group at Regis.

The ISI conferences he attended were “game changers,” Feulner recalls. At the 1962 summer school, he met Phil Crane, a dynamic young professor (and future U.S. congressman). At an ISI seminar that December, Feulner was introduced to Richard V. Allen, who had helped establish the Center for Strategic and International Studies (and would later be Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser). Crane and Allen became his friends and mentors—and in a few years they would set him on his career path.

A "Game-Changing" Education

After graduating in 1963, Ed Feulner enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. While pursuing his MBA, he received an equally meaningful education at ISI headquarters, then located in Philadelphia. He started to “hang around” the ISI offices, “doing what I could to be helpful,” he says. Feulner helped ISI launch the Intercollegiate Review, serving as the journal’s first business manager. Through ISI, he met a fellow Penn graduate student, John F. Lehman Jr., who would become his roommate—and later serve as President Reagan’s secretary of the navy. And in October 1964 Feulner traveled to New York with ISI’s Don Lipsett to meet with economist Milton Friedman and National Review’s William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank Meyer. “It was the first time Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley had ever met,” Feulner notes. “The five of us started the Philadelphia Society,” which to this day remains the premier association for intellectuals devoted to the foundations of a free and ordered society.

In 1965 ISI awarded Feulner one of its first Richard M. Weaver Fellowships for graduate study. He set off for the London School of Economics for what he now calls “two of the most memorable terms of my life.” There he attended lectures by such towering figures as economists F. A. Hayek and Peter Bauer and political theorist Kenneth Minogue. It was the education of a lifetime.

Listen to Ed Feulner talk about his ISI experience at the 2016 Honors Conference

Turning Principles into Policy

While in London, Feulner received a visit from Dick Allen, who told him about the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ new two-year Public Affairs Fellowship. Feulner leapt at the opportunity and by the fellowship’s second year was working for Congressman Melvin Laird. (Laird assigned him a new intern, a bright young Wellesley College student and former “Goldwater Girl” named Hillary Rodham.) Within months Laird had been named secretary of defense, and Feulner, still in his twenties, became a special assistant to the secretary.

Another ISI connection paid off in 1970, when Phil Crane, now a U.S. congressman, chose Feulner as his chief of staff. As Crane established himself as a conservative leader on Capitol Hill, Feulner became executive director of the influential Republican Study Committee.

Turning principles into policy was Ed Feulner’s passion. In 1973 he became a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, which was formed to challenge the liberal consensus in Washington. Four years later, his fellow trustees called on him to lead the fledgling think tank.

The turnaround was swift and impressive. Heritage, Feulner determined, would not write academic studies that were far removed from the policy process; this think tank would get results. And it did. In 1981 Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership became the Reagan administration’s policy bible.

Feulner is proud of Heritage’s impact. “Forty years ago,” he says, “there was a closed system in Washington for getting ideas into the public policy process.” Under his leadership, Heritage made itself an integral part of the process. From the Reagan Revolution to the Contract with America to welfare reform, the great policy achievements of the past four decades would not have been possible without Feulner and the Heritage Foundation.

Edwin Feulner, founder of The Heritage Foundation, got his start at the Intercollegiate Studies InstituteFeulner adds a reminder: “None of it would have happened without ISI, either.” He cites the influence the Institute had on his own journey: “ISI changed my whole life trajectory. It taught me that ideas have a permanent role to play in America’s political course and in the whole life of the American citizenry.”

But he goes further. “ISI,” he observes, “is the keeper of the flame, the foundation upon which every other organization in the conservative movement rests. Those of us involved in the policy process are basically trying to hold our fingers in the dike. But if the dike is ever going to be rebuilt, it has to be done through ideas—through better thinking on the campuses. That’s where ISI comes in. The role ISI plays is absolutely critical to the future of the Republic.” 

A version of this article originally appeared in ISI’s magazine The Canon. Edwin Feulner was one of many prominent speakers at last year’s ISI Honors Program. Learn more and apply for this summer’s Honors Program here.


Complement with 5 books you need to read this summer, Russell Kirk on the purpose of a liberal arts education, and C.S. Lewis and the art of disagreement.

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