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Raging Moderates

America's fourth-biggest foundation--the Pew Charitable Trusts-- is no longer a sleepy family charity. Instead, it's boldly plunging into the Washington policy fray, striking more than a few sparks in the process.

By Paul Starobin
National Journal, May 10, 1997

PHILADELPHIA--Rebecca W. Rimel may be in the do-gooder business, a province of the soft of heart, but make no mistake: She's got a hard head. Philanthropy is ``a strategic investment,'' Rimel, head of the Pew Charitable Trusts, America's fourth-biggest foundation, said in an interview at the group's headquarters here. Her credo: ``Think about leverage. Think about bang for the buck.''

With this mind-set, a once-sleepy family foundation, fabled for its suspicion of big government and its passion for privacy, is bidding to become a heavyweight player in Washington. Under the spirited stewardship of Rimel, president since 1994, Pew has tackled large problems boldly and visibly. Combine size with aggression, and you've got a formidable force--capable of achieving results, guaranteed to attract controversy.

``We want to win,'' said Paul C. Light, director of Pew's public policy program.

And the agenda is ambitious. Rimel, a former nurse with a degree in business management and a gift for diplomacy, hopes to restore vigor to an American body politic that she worries has become sick in spirit. She said the overarching aim of Pew initiatives, which run the gamut from protection of the environment to reform of the press, is to bolster ``civic engagement'' at a time of widespread public cynicism and distrust of large institutions--and in a conservative era ``when there's a real question about what is going to replace services that have traditionally been performed by government.''

Pew's wager is that well-timed grants, steered to savvy folks in the nation's capital, can help to ``break some gridlock, get some things done,'' Rimel said.

Whether the bet pays off remains to be seen. But Pew, which has assets worth $4.5 billion and awards $178 million in grants annually, has created a buzz and is spawning imitators in the fashion-conscious world of philanthropy. ``I think they are a trendsetter,'' said Joel L. Fleischman, a consultant to nationally prominent foundations.

A facet of the Pew approach was demonstrated at the recent ``Summit for America's Future''--the foundation-supported confab here at which President Clinton and predecessors George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to become civic volunteers.

Just like the Pew-backed congressional civility conference in Hershey, Pa., in March, the volunteers' summit intimately involved Pew in a splashy event that brought it to the attention of powerful Washington political players. Pew followed up by presenting a $1 million support grant to Colin L. Powell, the general chairman of the nonprofit group that organized the summit--and maybe a presidential contender in 2000.

Playing to win means saying no to long shots. Although Pew says it would welcome campaign finance reform, it sees little prospect of public support, now or five years from now, for a new scheme of taxpayer financing. So it turned down Ellen S. Miller's recent request for money to help launch Public Campaign, her new group organized to build grass-roots support for public financing. ``Right now we want to see whether or not Congress can act on any reform,'' Light said.

``That's one way to do philanthropy,'' said a Pew critic, John D. Moyers, executive director of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation in Montclair, N.J., which gave Miller's group a $5 million grant. ``There's an old saying in fund raising: You never get what you don't ask for.''

But Pew doesn't hesitate to step into the ring when it senses it can score a knockout. After Republicans captured Congress in 1994 and unveiled industry-supported plans to rewrite environmental laws, the Washington-based Environmental Information Center, which Pew helped create, responded with a bare-knuckles paid-media campaign. The $1 million-plus media drive helped ignite the public backlash that stopped the deregulators in their tracks.

``The new Congress,'' said the narrator of a 30-second television ad, ``is about to break our promise [of environmental protection] and roll back 25 years of clean air and clean water protections so that corporate polluters can make more money. Don't let them turn back the clock.''

As tax-exempt public charities, foundations are barred by law from underwriting partisan activities, and Pew says the ads were not an attack on Republicans but rather a defense of core environmental values. ``We chose sides on the issue,'' Joshua S. Reichert, director of Pew's environment program, said. The assertive Reichert, who has a doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University and an activist background that includes a stint with Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, is a controversial kingpin in the global environmental movement. His grant-making budget for 1997 is $22.5 million, tops among philanthropies in America.

On the Left, some activists regard Pew as ``a bully'' that jerks around grant recipients; on the Right, some conservatives regard Pew as the foundation world's new Liberal Demon, replacing yesterday's devil, the Ford Foundation, America's biggest philanthropy. ``Bolsheviks'' have assumed command at Pew, fumed conservative Grover G. Norquist.

Meanwhile, Pew's foray into what's known as ``civic journalism'' has met with sharp criticism from professional journalists, who bridle at practices such as the awarding of grants to news organizations by the Washington-based Pew Center for Civic Journalism. Pew established the center in 1993 with a $4.3 million three-year grant, and it now sponsors projects in 47 cities around the country.

Some journalists are skeptical of the type of coverage the grants have tended to foster (solution-oriented stories, as opposed to political ``horse race'' reports), and some say news organizations should not accept such grants from outsiders. ``Newspaper credibility is eroded,'' Richard A. Oppel, editor of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, declared in a recent piece in The American Editor, the journal of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In a response, Ed Fouhy, the former CBS producer who's the executive director of Pew's Civic Journalism Center, said, ``No Pew money may be used for either reporters or news [space]''--the grants pay for such things as focus groups and polls of the target community and newsroom visits by consultants familiar with the community ``to increase reporters' listening skills.''

Pew renewed Fouhy's grant last September, for another three years at $4.3 million and is now set to open a second front to spur press reform. In June, the board is expected to approve a $4.8 million grant to Tom Rosensteil, a former Los Angeles Times media critic based in Washington, for a three-year project aimed at crafting standards for journalistic ``excellence.''

Rosensteil will work with TV journalists to develop a ``content-analysis'' scoring system by which the quality of local television news programs can be graded. Also, in a joint effort with Harvard University's Neiman Foundation, he will convene a panel of journalists and news media experts to examine such trends as the tabloidization of the mainstream press. A possibility: a public hearing in Boulder, Colo., to look at how the whirlwind coverage of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, the child beauty queen, affected the town.

And he has recruited New York Times managing editor Gene Roberts, who's leaving the paper this fall, to supervise a study of the state of American newspapers, including an assessment of how well major publishing chains serve readers. The results will be published as a 16-part series in the monthly American Journalism Review.

Operating as it does at the nexus where the public and private sectors encounter the attitudes of ordinary Americans, the press is a pet focus of Rimel's and a crucial linchpin in Pew's strategy.

``The press is the most powerful institution in our society to motivate and inform people,'' said Rimel, who makes $318,000 a year. (Full disclosure: Government Executive, a National Journal Inc. publication, is participating with Governing magazine in a joint project to rate the management abilities of federal, state and local government agencies. The entire project is financed by a $2.5 million, 42-month grant from Pew to Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.)

Pew also provides a grant to National Public Radio for coverage of arts, religion and the environment. But journalism is only one piece of its strategy. The paid-media campaigns of the Environmental Information Center--it is currently running a new television advertisement urging Congress not to block tougher clean air standards--are another. Pew's Reichert was a leader in the center's establishment in 1994 as a kind of umbrella group for the Washington environmental community. As Reichert saw it, the environmental movement was top-heavy with expert lawyers and scientists, but lacking in savvy media-meisters, a fatal deficiency in an age when public policy wars are increasingly won and lost over the airwaves. Pew is the largest contributor to the center's core budget.

On another media front, Pew is funding former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor's effort to persuade the television networks to give free airtime to presidential candidates.

And Pew is the sole grant maker to the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press. Pew rescued the center in 1995 after its then-owner, the Times Mirror Co., targeted it for elimination to cut costs. There's a natural synergy between Pew's interests and the work of the center, a leading authority on public attitudes toward the press. Andrew Kohut, the center's director, estimated that Pew is currently commissioning some 20 per cent of its research, including a recently completed study on ``trust and citizen engagement.'' Kohut briefed the board on the findings six weeks before the study's public release. The center is backed by a $4.5 million Pew grant awarded for three years.

Then there's Hollywood. Pew has engaged a big-shot consultant, Gary Lieberthal, the former head of the television division of Columbia Pictures, to try to get producers and directors to slip what Rimel called a ``social-trust'' message into popular TV sitcoms, such as Seinfeld. ``The notion that [Jerry] Seinfeld will say, `Hey, can't go to the bar, registering voters tonight,' or `Going to the hospice,' that is enormous,'' Rimel said.

Whoa. ``That will be the last show on which that will happen,'' said Pew's Don Kimmelman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, editor and editorial writer. ``The created characters in Seinfeld are nothing if not selfish to the core,'' said Kimmelman, clearly a frequent viewer, who was recently hired to oversee Pew's interdisciplinary Venture Fund, which includes the media initiatives. ``Having worked in the Soviet Union, I'm very aware that people can smell out propaganda a mile away.''

OK, Rimel's Civics Mom exuberance occasionally runs amok. But give credit where it's due. She is largely responsible for Pew's breathtaking makeover--one of the most remarkable sea changes in the annals of American philanthropy.

The Pew Charitable Trusts were created in 1948 with stock shares from the Pew family's Sun Oil Co. fortune, extracted from the oil fields of western Pennsylvania and related ventures. For its first three decades, the foundation was run by a handful of clerks who worked out of the back office of a Philadelphia bank. Grant applications came in through the mail; there were no site visits; grants were awarded anonymously; Pew didn't even publish an annual report.

The approach wasn't as odd as it sounds. The Pews were devout Protestants, and they were guided, according to an official history of the trusts, by the admonition of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew: ``Thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.''

The foundation pursued a conventional strategy of awarding funds to hospitals, colleges and the like. Political giving was in staunch support of the cause of free markets--in keeping with the stern dictum of J. Howard Pew, Sun Oil's president in the early 20th century, that ``the hand of government on business is the cold, clammy hand of death, and it must eventually destroy everything it touches.'' Pew money helped to establish the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

Such was the place that opened its doors to Rimel in 1983, when she was retained, at the age of 32, to run Pew's health program. She was Pew's first-ever staff member with professional expertise in a particular program area. But not much in her experience, except for her business degree, could have prepared her for Pew, particularly the board, then as now dominated by family members and friends. By generation as well as by social and regional background, Rimel and the Main Line Philadelphians on the board occupied separate cultural orbits.

A baby boomer, Rimel was born in Charlottesville, Va., in 1951, the daughter of a Coca-Cola delivery man who later managed the city's parks system. Her mom was a homemaker. In first grade, her all-white public school closed in a refusal to accept black students, and for a while, she studied in church basements. ``It seemed so unnecessary,'' she says--``all of the anger and resentment that a child sees, when all you really wanted was to get an education, and normalcy.''

In the late 1960s, Rimel's entry into the University of Virginia was delayed for a year by a court battle over opening the all-male institution to women. She intended to major in history, but she switched to nursing and, after graduation, went to work in the emergency room of the university's hospital. She was an assistant professor, doing research on head injuries, in the university's neurosurgery department immediately before joining Pew in 1983.

Rimel's sponsor at Pew was a reform-minded trustee, Dr. Thomas W. Langfitt, a Pennsylvania neurosurgeon, 24 years her senior, whom she had met in the course of her research. Prodded by the reformers, the Pew board was reappraising its traditional funding strategy with an eye toward shifting its support from hospitals and similar beneficiaries to projects that the foundation itself would initiate.

Langfitt became president of the trust in 1987 and made Rimel his executive director, in charge of daily operations. Soon followed an earthquake: departures of virtually all of Pew's top staff and the recruitment of an entirely new team of nationally known program experts.

Insiders say Rimel was the driving force. ``It was Rebecca's show,'' said an ex-Pew employee. ``She became executive director with a mandate to shake up the place and implement a new vision.''

The new crew included activists with liberal pedigrees such as Reichert and Robert B. Schwartz, who had advised then- Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis on education policy. ``I would bet that 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the staff she hired were Democrats, if not by affiliation then certainly by attitude. Many of them were liberal Democrats,'' the ex-Pew employee said. Schwartz said Dukakis, familiar with Pew's reputation for conservatism, ``burst into nearly hysterical laughter'' when told of his former adviser's new employer.

Rimel told Foundation News in 1991 that she hoped to ``infuse the spirit of the Sixties'' into Pew's work. Recently asked about that quote, she said it was ``not an ideological statement. . . . There was a sense of heightened involvement [during the 1960s] in the public sector, volunteerism. I'm very much a pragmatist.'' She said there was ``no litmus test'' for working at Pew and noted that a former staff member, Kevin F.F. Quigley, had been an aide to a Republican Senator, John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

But as conservative critics of Pew saw it, a cash cow that had grazed in their pastures had been rustled by the Left.

But what about the board, for so long dominated by laissez-faire, old-money, Republican types? Many of the current trustees joined the board in the 1970s, and the tenure of one of them, J.N. Pew III, dates to Pew's founding. What was their role in the transition, and what is their perspective on the new Pew versus the old Pew?

``The board has been enthusiastic about this direction, to a person,'' declared Langfitt, who remained a trustee after leaving the Pew presidency in 1994. ``There is no ideological bias in that board today. Yes, it was there, there is very little doubt about that.''

But other board members, including Pew family trustees, who occupy five of the 10 seats, were unavailable for interviews. Asked for help in arranging such interviews, Rimel (also a trustee) said, ``They are not public figures in their own right,'' and she had an aide fax a prepared written statement, previously adopted by the board. ``We believe it is most effective to speak with one voice. We have asked Rebecca Rimel . . . to speak with that voice. When she speaks, Rebecca speaks for the board as a whole.''

A source outside of Pew who has met with the board described Langfitt, ``a very sophisticated man,'' as ``the obvious heavyweight,'' whereas ``a couple of the other board members struck me as less engaged. . . . My instinctive judgment is that while Rebecca is a civic do-gooder, the board is not a civic do-gooder in the same way. There are some very wealthy people, somewhat protected by their wealth, who have a somewhat stereotypical view of the flaws of both government and journalism.

``I think Rebecca has to be careful,'' the source speculated. ``There is a little bit of institutional schizophrenia about how much public profile they want. . . . If one of these projects out there blows up in her face, the board might pull the plug.''

But others point to kindred ties, however odd the bedfellows, between the Rimel team and members of the Pew family. Ex-Chavez activist Reichert has an improbable soul mate in J. Howard Pew II, grandnephew of J. Howard Pew and chairman of the grants committee. Known as ``Howdy,'' the 50-something Pew is an avid outdoorsman who lives in Canada's Maritime Provinces. He loves to hunt and fish--he doesn't have to work for a living--and has a Theodore Roosevelt-like conservationist perspective on the environment. He has journeyed to Madagascar and the Amazon with Rimel and Reichert, and ``if there is a No. 1 supporter on the board for the direction of the environmental programs under Reichert,'' Langfitt said, ``it is Howdy Pew.''

Consultant Fleischman, a fan of the new Pew, said: ``I am absolutely certain that the evolution at Pew is a natural one and happened under the stimulus of the trustees and with the support of the trustees and continues to be that way.''

Rimel is ``a maestro,'' said an admirer who used to work for her. ``She's smart as a whip. She's energetic, gracious and thoughtful. She knows how to listen. She's decisive. And she knows her own limitations.'' Schwartz, who left Pew last year, said, ``Becky's strategy increasingly was to get the board engaged in the substance of our work. . . . Her great strength was really knowing these board members, reading them, bringing them along, making them feel a sense of ownership over the changing direction.''

In what Schwartz called ``the most amazing field trip of all,'' given Pew's history, Rimel last year organized a journey to Washington during which trustees heard from bigwigs including Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and Robert D. Reischauer of the Brookings Institution.

She's certainly not bound and gagged by red tape. In late 1995, when Taylor decided to leave The Post to pursue his idea of gaining free airtime for political candidates, he had no sponsor for the crusade--he was flying blind. Over lunch, he talked things over with David S. Broder, an elder Post colleague. Broder mentioned the chat to Rimel at a meeting she had previously asked for to chew over journalism issues, and she called Taylor to ask him to come to Philadelphia.

Within days of his lunch with Broder, Taylor walked into Rimel's office with a hastily prepared 10-page proposal, having no notion what to expect. ``And to my utter amazement,'' he recalled in a recent interview, ``she said, `My job this afternoon is to make you an offer you cannot refuse.' My head was literally spinning.'' Taylor was signed up as a consultant, with a paycheck and benefits at the level he had received at The Post.

Although Pew is hardly the first foundation to raise hackles in Washington--a crew of avowedly conservative outfits has long been known for energetic political activities--it is hard to think of a foundation that has a more diverse array of critics.

One issue sparking fire is the trust's accountability for programs it supports. Many play-it-safe foundations prefer to make grants to established organizations that already receive money from a diverse funding base. With its central role in establishing and funding such projects as the Environmental Information Center and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, Pew's ``signature-grant'' approach doesn't put enough distance between grant maker and grant recipient, say critics inside the foundation world, who also point to tight personnel connections between Pew and grant recipients. The Environmental Information Center's chief operating officer, Thomas A. Wathen, formerly worked at Pew as a top aide to Reichert.

``As someone who has been in the business for a long time, I worry about accountability issues,'' said Margaret C. Ayers, executive director for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in New York City, who said she has voiced her concerns to Reichert. ``In the case where the endowed foundation really is functioning as the operating entity, the opportunity for checks and balances really isn't there.''

Some of this criticism may be fed by Pew's size, a source of envy in the foundation community. But Pew also has a reputation, especially in the ever-contentious environmental arena, for trying to dictate the agenda. These critics, who tend to be on the Left, say Pew uses its clout to bring potential or actual recipients of its grants to heel. Local environmental activists in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have accused Pew of this tactic in efforts to engineer a compromise on the cutting of old-growth forests.

``They're a bully,'' said Beth Daley, vice president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a left-of- center watcher of the foundation community, which would like Pew to pour more money into traditional liberal causes such as battling income inequities. ``Some of us were joking around that we should have a Pew liberation front--committed to getting environmental organizations off of the Pew dole.''

But one person's ``bully'' is another's strong-willed mover and shaker. Reichert? ``He's a very creative thinker, and I think he's very assertive,'' said Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental lobbying group. ``I don't jump on the Pew-bashing bandwagon.''

Where's the bandwagon headed? With the criticism coming from both the Left and Right--and with Congress gearing up for a broad investigation of the role of tax-exempt entities in politics--the advertising campaigns financed by Pew could come under scrutiny.

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, headed by Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., is examining ``independent expenditures'' by tax-exempt nonprofits as part of its probe of campaign finance practices. At this point, the panel has agreed to an investigation of six nonprofits suggested by Democrats, and the Republicans are expected to come up with their own list of targets.

Although some of Pew's leftist critics speculate that it may be included on the GOP list, ``to my knowledge, Pew Trust has not come up,'' Paul Clarke, a spokesman for Thompson, said.

As for the Pew-supported Environmental Information Center's 1995-96 ads targeting ``the new Congress'' as bedding down with ``corporate polluters,'' the key questions are whether the ads were partisan and whether they were campaign-related. The center's executive director, Phil Clap, an ex-aide to Democrat Timothy E. Wirth, a former Colorado Senator and House Member who now oversees global environmental issues in the Clinton State Department, said the ads didn't say ``Republican'' Congress and the group made no media buys after February 1996--well before the elections.

The ad campaign was approved by Thomas A. Troyer, a senior partner at Caplin & Drysdale, who's counsel to both Pew and the Environmental Information Center. ``It could be looked at [by Congress], but I feel quite safe going up there and testifying that what they did was absolutely scrutinized to make sure that it wasn't having any effect on an election campaign,'' Troyer said.

Perhaps the main reason Pew attracts so much criticism is because it is trying to occupy center ground--a no-man's-land in polarized Washington. As Rimel sees it, this strategy makes sense because, notwithstanding the climate in Washington, ``80 per cent of Americans, I believe, are in the middle.''

This is a popular formulation of America's political landscape--Inside-the-Capital Beltway partisans, so consumed by the fight,are ignoring the broad majority's hunger for centrist compromise on the big issues. But it may be wrong. Many analysts who've pored over election results in the last two decades have come to an opposite conclusion. As they see it, the real battle in American politics is between ``clashing majorities,'' in the phrase of Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. The ideological polarization between Republicans and Democrats in Washington may be, in fact, a mirror of a profound and not easily bridged gulf in the electorate.

If the Black school of analysis is on target, Pew may be fighting some losing battles--including, perhaps, battles not worth waging. Civility in Congress, for example, may be a chimera in a political culture in which contending visions of the role of government are at stake. A mere month after the Pew-funded Hershey retreat, Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who had attended the conclave, got into a shoving and shouting match in the House chamber with veteran Democrat David R. Obey of Wisconsin. It wasn't an attractive spectacle, but Congress has seen worse, and an argument can be made that vigorous partisanship can serve a useful clarifying role in an age of economic and cultural transition.

Pew may be on more solid footing in its efforts ``to dispel the culture of disbelief'' among the citizenry, as Rimel put it, drawing on the phrase coined with respect to religion by Yale Law School's Stephen Carter. Although liberty-loving Americans have never been especially trusting of large institutions, survey data show that Vietnam, Watergate and related events of the late 1960s and early 1970s spurred a deeper-than-usual mistrust that has spilled over into corrosive cynicism.

For all the flak Pew has taken for its foray into civic journalism, few would deny that the news and entertainment media, including a press corps that thrives on scandal and sensation, are part of this problem. In exploratory talks about his excellence-in-journalism project, ex-reporter Rosensteil said he told Rimel, ``I didn't think it was the job of journalists to improve social trust or to cause citizens to want to engage in civic life,'' but ``if journalism becomes so laden with cynicism about the public or moves so far in the direction of entertainment or just opinion, . . . then that's bad journalism.''

Not that progress is easy to come by. ``We're a voice in a storm, saying, `Mend your ways, save your soul,' '' Fouhy of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism said. ``I think a lot of people are listening to us, but they tend to be buffeted by market forces, which are very, very strong. The invisible hand is our opponent.'' He said Rimel has told him that civic journalism is ``a 10-year commitment.''

As big as Pew is in the foundation world, it is tiny by comparison with a midsized corporation in America or any one of scores of federal agencies in Washington. Its pot of $178 million in annual grants is less than one-tenth of the price of a B-2 bomber. For that matter, the total assets of America's 39,000-odd foundations, $196 billion in 1995, would not cover the Pentagon's current $250 billion budget. Inflated expectations are being placed on foundations in post-Cold War, post-liberal Washington. For better or worse, the foundation community cannot even begin to fill the space left by government's retreat or withdrawal in a conservative era.

Of course, Pew has helped to raise expectations with its showy involvement in Washington. But why not think big and try to blaze a new trail? Civic engagement, civic journalism--sure, they're trendy buzzwords, but some trends are responses to deep needs. Give Pew credit for entering the fray--give Rimel credit for a remarkable feat of leadership. She says she has no political ambitions. Too bad. She's got the talent.

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