Q&A: American Experiment’s Mitch Pearlstein

The Center’s founder recalls the Center’s earliest days, its ongoing triumphs, its occasional challenges, then looks to the future.

When did you conceive the concept of Center of the American Experiment?

In early October of ’87, I had a chance to go to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education and for an assistant secretary by the name of Chester (“Checker”) E. Finn, Jr., who by my lights was the top education scholar in the United States at the time. But after a short period of time, I realized I just didn’t want to be in that bureaucracy. So I started thinking of ways of getting back to Minnesota.

About a half-year later I was talking with Sen. Dave Durenberger and he said, “You keep talking about this [the Minnesota-based think tank]. You have to write a prospectus.” I said he was right and I did. I wound up making 17 trips back to Minnesota, much of it on my own dime, raising money and organizing a board of directors. We finally had enough in the till—which is not to say very much—and opened up in March of ’90. Coming back to Minnesota was one of the wonderful moments of my life.

Were there any state-based or regional think tanks that served as a prototype for the Center?

There were more state-based conservative and free-market think tanks at the time than people might imagine. I learned something about think tanks when I was on the editorial page at the Pioneer Press in the mid-1980s. The Heritage Foundation used to send publications as well as people to visit me. And when I later lived in Washington I spent a fair amount of time there, which was just a 10-minute walk from my office. Heritage served as the secretariat back then for state-based think tanks, helping these organizations along. When American Experiment finally opened up, there were something like 15 or 16 across the country. Now every state has at least one free-market and conservative think tank.

But prototype? Not really. Most state-based think tanks were and remain overwhelmingly animated by economic matters, not that American Experiment wasn’t also involved with them, as we very much were and are more so all the time.

A year after we opened up, for example, we hosted the likes of Michael Novak and Pete du Pont in an all-day conference titled, “Freeing the Free Market: Making Minnesota the World’s Newest Capitalist State.” But it’s certainly true that I was particularly interested in questions of education, families, culture and the like right from the very start.

Did this focus on social issues hinder your ability to raise money?

If I had to guess, I’d say probably, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I wanted to deal with the most sensitive and elusive problems facing Minnesota and the nation, not just tax or fiscal issues. But very importantly, when you say social issues, that didn’t mean abortion. About a year before we opened up, I asked someone—a smart local political adviser—how we might deal with abortion. He said, “Don’t worry. It’s not going to come up.” I said, “You’re crazy,” or words to that effect. “It’s a profound issue here among conservatives. How could it not come up?” He said, “You’re not running for office. It’s not going to come up.” And he was absolutely right. I could go years without being asked about abortion and still can.

It became one of the great fascinations in the early days of the Center. Many people on the right clearly wanted a demilitarized zone when it came to abortion and we were it.

Among your early supporters, who stands out most?

Marv Schwann, overwhelmingly. Marv was Schwann Sales Enterprises, the home-delivery ice cream and pizza folks out in Marshall. Marv had many, many dollars, but he didn’t flaunt them in the smallest way. When I finally got to meet him in 1988 or early 1989, he asked the great question, for which I was prepared. He said, “I give to the Heritage Foundation and other organizations. Why should I give to you?” And I said, “Because we’re here. People will come to events here. They’re not going to go to events in D.C.” He made a $25,000 challenge pledge and when we finally matched it in early 1990, it was one of the great moments of my life. I knew I was coming home.

What are a couple of early successes that told you the Center was here to stay?

The very first thing we ever did, in 1990, was a day-long conference called “The New War on Poverty: Advancing Forward This Time.” It was Peter Bell’s idea. Peter was one of the original founders with me, along with Kathy Kersten, Mark Larson, Steve Young, and Ron Eibensteiner. We invited major players—Charles Murray, Linda Chavez, Bob Woodson, Larry Mead, and Sally Kilgore, with Checker Finn as the keynoter. More than generously, they all agreed to come out here just for expenses. I later found out (goes the story) that they all originally agreed because they didn’t think we’d be able to pull the conference off. We did. There were 300 people in the audience. Bill Raspberry wrote a wonderful, syndicated column about Checker’s great speech, leading to 2,000 requests for it. That was a very important moment,right out of the gate. We were legit.

The greatest all-time, single moment remains when Margaret Thatcher keynoted American Experiment’s 1997 Annual Dinner and the two of us were up on the dais (along with a few others, I vaguely recall) singing our two national anthems. “Dang,” I said to myself through the goose bumps, “We done good,” or something a tad crisper. Colin Powell keynoted the dinner the following year. And two years later it was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Pearlstein Calls the visit from Margaret Thatcher the Center’s “greatest all time single moment.”

What’s the backstory to Gorbachev?

Stan Hubbard made the recommendation. With all due respect, I thought he was out of his mind, and the Board of Directors said no the first time around. But then I got a letter one day from Stan, which said he was aboard Steve Forbes’ yacht with Lady Thatcher, and that Lady Thatcher herself said American Experiment should get Mikhail Gorbachev. Done deal.

What’s your proudest personal accomplishment here?

When I say it is hard to limit it to one, it is not to be boastful. There are different arenas. I started writing books too late in my life. But I was reasonably busy with other things earlier on. I am very proud of some of the books I’ve written. There is something weighty and important about a book as opposed to a handful of columns or reports. From the beginning, I said we would stay clear of all internecine and intramural battles between various strains of conservatism—between paleo-conservatives and neoconservatives, religious conservatives and main street conservatives, and so on. And I really meant it. But I figured that after some number of years, one side or another would prevail and I’d get purged. That hasn’t happened. I’m very proud that the Center always has been home to a variety of voices on the right, which has been very much on purpose.

More personally, beyond the persistence, grit, and refusal to give in, I had a concern I would have a particularly hard time moving quickly from one type of chore to another in the course
of a day: from writing, to fundraising, to managing, back to writing. I didn’t know if I had the concentration, but I guess I do.

What’s the next big priority for you?

I’ve been focusing on expanding educational freedom and strengthening families, more specifically on reducing family fragmentation, and that will continue. People have said I’ve made a contribution, especially when it comes to putting matters of fragmentation on the table, and I think I have. But that doesn’t mean actual numbers have changed much. I have no illusions that any one person or any one organization can cause big shifts in this area. But I’m compelled to continue focusing on questions of family breakdown, specifically in terms of taking greater ameliorative advantage of our religious traditions.

Are there days when you’d like to sit back and watch more football?

I’ve always wanted to just sit back and watch more football! I don’t have the same managerial responsibilities I used to have, for which I’m enormously thankful. My main focus these days is writing and advocating in assorted ways, very much including speaking, for which I’m likewise grateful. My health is good, and at 67, I suspect I may be more than halfway through my career. This is making me increasingly alert to the need of making good and concerted use of remaining decades.