Q&A: Power Alignment

Mitch Pearlstein interviews John Hinderaker as he becomes the new president of Center of the American Experiment.

Several months ago, Ron Eibensteiner, a venture capitalist and long-time board member (now chairman) at Center of the American Experiment, took John Hinderaker to lunch and asked whether he was interested in a role with the Center.

Hinderaker had announced that at the end of 2015 he would end his award-heavy 41-year career at Faegre Baker Daniels, Minnesota’s largest law firm. But he had not yet revealed other plans.

“I didn’t really have an agenda,” Eibensteiner says. “I knew that John was leaving his legal practice and that he wouldn’t be playing golf. And I knew that the Center would be much better with him than without him.”

He sensed, too, that CAE founder and President Mitch Pearlstein would fervently agree. Hinderaker had been an early contributor to the Center’s policy work, and he had once served as chair.

He had also become a national force in the world of conservative commentary. In 1990, he began writing op-eds for newspapers and magazines with his friend and law partner Scott Johnson, a fellow Dartmouth alum. In 2002, they founded the website Power Line along with Paul Mirengoff, another Dartmouth grad, later to be joined by Steve Hayward.

In 2004, their site attracted national acclaim in part for its successful defense of President George W. Bush against false attacks by CBS’s 60 Minutes during the presidential campaign. For their work, Time named the Power Line partners among the most influential people of 2004In 2005, Yahoo named Hinderaker one of the 50 most influential people on the Internet, and Forbes listed him as one of the 25 top celebrities on the Internet. Power Line remains a premier website for political commentary.

After discussing various possible roles at CAE, Eibensteiner and Hinderaker settled on executive director, a position that would enable Hinderaker to guide the Center’s policy priorities, to manage its business operations, and to use his hands-on experience in “new media” to influence the effectiveness of its communications.

Pearlstein took their proposal a step further.

“He should be president,” he said.

Pearlstein thought it was essential that Hinderaker be seen as the Center’s leader. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be the clear-cut case if I retained the title of president. So, after about 15 or 20 seconds of accelerated contemplation, I told Ron that John should become President and that I would suggest a new title for myself.”

After discounting “Founder and President Emeritus,” (which, he says, “sounded as if I wouldn’t be doing much beyond watching ESPN”), they settled on Founder and American Experiment Senior Fellow, which Pearlstein says better reflects his intention to exploit the new arrangement to write more and take on additional speaking engagements.

“I actually started thinking about an eventual successor years ago, not that I had any intention of changing anything back then,” Pearlstein says. “But now, in fact, it’s time for me to change roles, as it’s in the Center’s best interests. And as an added bonus, in mine too.

“As for my longtime friend and colleague John Hinderaker, Home Run was perhaps the most frequently heard response among directors and staff members once they heard he was geared up to take the reins. There might have been a few Grand Slams, too. I can’t think of anyone better equipped to serve as American Experiment’s new president than John. I’m honored to be so successfully succeeded.”

In December, Pearlstein and Hinderaker met in Eibensteiner’s office to discuss the transition.

PEARLSTEIN: You weren’t always on the right. How did you wind up there?

HINDERAKER: People who read Power Line are probably aware that Paul Mirengoff and I were once very far over on the left. Scott was never as radical as Paul and I were, but he was a liberal.

All of us have made the journey from left to right. For me it was partly the experience I got when I started practicing law and learned how the world really works. The second factor was Ronald Reagan. I’m one of many people who became a conservative because of Reagan. It wasn’t so much Reagan’s persuasiveness as a spokesman for conservatism as the experience of observing the success of his administration, both in domestic and foreign policy — especially in contrast to the Carter administration. I realized I needed to reevaluate assumptions about how things work, what’s effective, and what isn’t effective.

PEARLSTEIN: The Center has worked very hard to respect many diverse schools of conservative thought. Our board of directors represents different points of view, as do the speakers we have brought in. What kind of conservative are you?

HINDERAKER: I describe myself as a mainstream American conservative. People often confuse vigorous advocacy with taking an extreme position. Over the years, Scott and I and the others on Power Line have certainly been vigorous advocates. But the views we advocate are mainstream, in most cases quite moderate.

I agree that it’s important to be respectful. I think it helps that I’ve
been doing litigation for 41 years. In litigation you’re always butting heads with somebody. You’re always sharply in opposition to someone who represents a contrary interest — and you go at it hard. Often a great deal of money is at stake. You go at it aggressively, but it’s not personal.

I try to carry that attitude over into politics. I have all kinds of friends on the left. I debate with them but I don’t hate them.

PEARLSTEIN: Tone and civility are very important to me. The late John Brandl once said I was something like the “most amiable partisan in the state.” I appreciated that, as I very much appreciate what you just said. Talk a bit more, if you would, about your law practice. Why leave?

HINDERAKER: I was 22 years old when I drew my first Faegre paycheck as a summer clerk; I was twenty-three when I was hired full-time after graduation from law school.

PEARLSTEIN: You graduated from Harvard Law School at 23? That’s scary.

HINDERAKER: I went straight through high school at 16, college at 20, and law school at 23. I’ve spent my whole career at Faegre. It’s a big transition to say goodbye to the law practice. It’s been my life. But the day comes when you feel like you’re ready to do some different things, and to try to have a different impact on the world.

It was a wonderful coincidence when Ron Eibensteiner asked if I was interested in taking on a role with the Center. When my wife Loree and I talked about things to do after retirement from the law business, we both said a number of times that the greatest thing would be to find a role at Center of the American Experiment.

PEARLSTEIN: Let’s talk about Power Line. My first question is, how do you find the time? You and Scott have churned out terrific copy while holding down demanding full-time jobs.

HINDERAKER: My wife’s answer is that I work all the time. That’s not quite true, but it’s close. There was a picture of me in a magazine some years ago in which I’m standing at the sink in my bathroom with a tee shirt on. I’m shaving and I’ve got my laptop up on the counter next to the sink — and that’s true.

It also helps that you can work on the Internet whenever you’ve got time. If you have fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes in the afternoon, an hour and a half in the evening, it doesn’t matter. 

PEARLSTEIN: After you led the way in showing how Dan Rather’s 60 Minutes critique of George W. Bush’s war record was a lie, Power Line was named Blog of the Year by Time magazine.

HINDERAKER: That’s right. The presidential campaign was heating up. The Swift Boat Vets ads were hurting John Kerry and his campaign was looking for a way to respond. Mary Mapes, who produced this segment for 60 Minutes, had been chasing this story for years, longer than Ahab chased the white whale. She was poking around Texas, trying in vain to find evidence that George W. Bush had somehow not performed his National Guard duties during the Vietnam War.

The truth is, he performed them very well. His evaluations, which have been made public, were glowing. He put in about three times the number of required hours over the course of his service in the Texas Air National Guard. But she wasn’t satisfied with that. She kept looking for evidence against him. She finally found it in the form of four documents that were handed to her by a political activist in Texas named Bill Burkett, who was out to get the Bush family. These documents appeared to support the theory that President Bush had not performed well as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard.

She ran with them even though she had no idea of their provenance. They supposedly came from the personal files of a colonel in the Texas Air National Guard who at that point had been dead for 20 years — and who, in fact, didn’t have any personal files. She had no reason to think there was anything remotely genuine about these documents, but she didn’t care. She ran with it.

PEARLSTEIN: How did Power Line get involved? If I recall, somebody discovered that the documents were produced on a word-processing device or program that didn’t exist at the time.

HINDERAKER: That’s right. We asked readers for input. Emails started pouring in from readers who knew something about typewriters and word-processors, and fonts and these kinds of things — and also about the Texas Air National Guard. Scott put up the original post, called The Sixty First Minute. It included an observation made by a lawyer in Atlanta who said the documents looked like they were produced last week on Microsoft Word.

Scott and I wound up taking most of the day off and manning our battle stations. We updated our post repeatedly, putting up information we were getting from readers. Websites all over the world linked to us, including at one point The Drudge Report. People from all over who had expertise in the relevant areas were sending us emails. Sometimes they disagreed; when that happened we would put up both and said, “There’s disagreement about this point.”

Within 12 hours after Scott hit the save button on his original post, CBS News announced that it was launching an investigation into what had happened. One reason the incident became so famous is that it was one of the first and most dramatic demonstrations of the power of the Internet. People knew about this controversy in a matter of hours, and if somebody knew something relevant, he could instantaneously feed it into the hopper. Scott and I didn’t have expertise in these areas but we were getting information from people who did. We were playing the role of editors.

The idea that you could communicate with that many people, that you could get information from people all over the world, publish it instantaneously and dramatically affect the course of events was a revelation about the power of the medium.

PEARLSTEIN: I’ve read that Power Line has had 700 million page views since you founded it. Can that be true?

HINDERAKER: It is true. I’m hopeful we can use that experience to benefit the Center. I want to introduce more Minnesotans to the ideas, the information, and the arguments that the Center has been generating for 25 years. Only a limited number of people are willing to read a 40-page research paper. We’ve got to try to put out information from the Center’s major products in digestible bits — whether that’s newspaper op/eds, short Internet videos, or radio ads that cause people to say, “I didn’t know that, I just learned something.”

We want to communicate the Center’s ideas to many Minnesotans because, ultimately, to move the political discourse in Minnesota in a better direction we have to talk to more people. At the end of the day, we’re a democracy. Politicians go where the people lead them, so we need to be talking to the grassroots.

PEARLSTEIN: Ron Eibensteiner likes to say, “We give legs to ideas.”

HINDERAKER: The Center has been remarkably influential over its history. In terms of bang for the buck, the Center has been tremendously effective in influencing the overall discourse about politics and cultural issues in Minnesota. At a more nuts and bolts level, the Center has had a lot of influence on legislation. We can point to the Minnesota Policy Blueprint as something that’s been particularly effective. I want to keep doing all those things, I want to keep being influential behind the scenes and continue to maintain dialogue with the thought leaders of Minnesota.

One of our early 2016 initiatives illustrates the way I hope the Center will operate, given enough support from our donors. We’ve contracted with a prominent economist to examine the current state of Minnesota’s economy as it relates to the national economy and to comparable states. We think his study will show that while we inherited a strong, diverse economy, there are some real trouble signs – despite the fact that a lot of Minnesotans believe our economy is doing wonderfully.

We’ve seen President Obama compare Minnesota to Wisconsin as evidence of the success of blue state economics. But in reality, Minnesota’s recent economic performance has not been great. During the last decade, Minnesota ranks 30th among the states in rate of job growth, 32nd in income growth, and 35th in growth in disposable income. That’s not very good.

We will use the economist’s paper as a springboard to spur debate and discussion on economic policy. We’ll host public meetings across the state to talk about economic issues. We’ll use the data for op/eds. I hope we’ll be able to finance an information campaign on the Internet and radio.

We will use the tagline, “Minnesota can do better.” We’re not going to say, “Minnesota’s lousy, Minnesota’s doing terrible,” because Minnesotans will never believe that — and it’s not true. What is true is that Minnesota can do better if it adopts more free market solutions, if we take ourselves out of the ranks of the highest taxed states, and if we stop punishing ourselves with an estate tax that drives productive citizens away. Minnesota can and will do better, and the Center will lead the way.