Slaughter, 54, was at Dartmouth College, giving a speech on work and family, when her appointment was announced. She traveled to Washington later in the week to address the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, of which she is a former president. And over the weekend she was in Boston, where she was the toastmaster at the Harvard Law Review banquet. She spoke to Style’s Frances Stead Sellers while en route back to Princeton for Sunday dinner with her husband and two sons.
An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
The New America Foundation was founded in 1999 with an ambition to invest in “new thinkers and new ideas” and tackle the next generation of challenges facing the United States. Which new ideas will you be focusing on?
I’m not taking the job because I want to pursue specific ideas of my own. I am going to be spending six months figuring out what we should be doing.
We already have lots of programs, on fiscal policy, foreign policy, education and technology — including the Open Technology Institute, which has the best group of technologists in Washington. They actually write code, working on developing products that help dissident or opposition groups in very repressive states communicate with each other and with the outside world. In national security, we have drafted a grand strategy of leading a transition to a sustainable world. We also have a program on work and family, and I plan to build it up.
But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s lead from the center, not from the front.
There’s been a huge increase in the number of think tanks over the past 50 years, and many are becoming more active as advocacy organizations. How do you plan to distinguish New America from, say, Heritage on the right and Brookings on the left?
This is one of the things that attracted me to this job. We really are nonpartisan. We look for big ideas that meet big challenges, and we don’t care which side of the political aisle they come from. We are not a think tank that has a whole lot of institutes and centers and legacy programs that you have to fund. We aim to be much more nimble, on the Silicon Valley model. We are an incubator of ideas; we nurture them and then spin off a program or more direct policy work.
Take the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget run by Maya MacGuineas. It grew in size and influence while housed at the foundation for the past 10 years and was recently spun off as an independent organization. Or the ideas fostered through our 20 senior fellows, like Gregory Rodriguez. He went on to found Zocalo in L.A., a public space for civic community that explores what it means to be a citizen. It’s a separate organization. We’ve come back to partner with it, but it’s no longer ours.