Powerful people love to do favors for Ted Halstead, the 33-year-old founder and president of the New America Foundation.
Former Harvard president Derek Bok helped Halstead cultivate the concept of a think tank devoted to nurturing the next generation of public intellectuals. Television producer Norman Lear and members of the Rockefeller family were among its earliest financial patrons. Media brahmin Bill Moyers helped name the tank -- and awarded New America its first major grant.
Tom Brokaw and Sen. John McCain blurbed Halstead's newly published book "The Radical Center," written with Michael Lind, the extraordinary polymath and New America co-founder.
Internet pioneer Eric Schmidt introduced Halstead to his billionaire buddies in Silicon Valley.
Nationally syndicated columnist and A-list party girl Arianna Huffington has scoured the country for beautiful, intelligent women suitable for the unmarried Halstead.
"So are you looking for someone casual or someone serious?" Halstead recalls Huffington asking him when they met in Los Angeles three years ago. "Because, you know, I can arrange either."
With friends like these, the New America Foundation and Halstead have in less than three years become major players in Washington policy circles -- no small accomplishment in a town where ideas and thinkers tend to be well aged.
Since Halstead founded the tank in 1999, its budget has tripled to more than $3 million. The number of fellows has increased from eight to 20. New America's stable of relatively young, ideologically diverse and intellectually iconoclastic fellows have become fixtures on the nation's op-ed pages.
At the same time, the handsome, articulate and driven Halstead has emerged as someone to be watched, envied and gossiped about in the idea industry, where he is viewed as a bit of an exotic: a gifted fundraiser who also can think.
"Ted is in some ways a rare person, in that you find very brilliant fundraisers who really aren't good thinkers -- they are sort of lightweights intellectually -- or you have more serious thinkers or program builders who are mediocre or poor fundraisers," says Sherle Schwenninger, another New America founder, a former director of the World Policy Institute and one of Halstead's intellectual mentors.
Richard Thau, who heads Third Millennium, a Gen-X think tank, says: "There are plenty of people who start think tanks -- they have the best intentions but absolutely no capacity to raise money. No clue how to do it, how to ask for it, what to ask for. Ted is not a shrinking violet."
It's a mix of talents that has allowed Halstead to break into the inner circles of wealth and power in Washington and New York, as well as in Silicon Valley. "Essentially he has the personality of a dot-com founder, but he has the interests and sensibilities of a public policy person," says Schmidt, chairman of Novell and CEO of the Internet search engine company Google, who serves on New America's board.
"In an alternate universe he's a billionaire," Lind says. "A twenty-something or thirty-something billionaire."
A New Paradigm
"My starting premise was that the old ideologies don't make sense anymore. The old think-tank models don't make sense anymore," says Halstead, seated comfortably in his windowed corner office above Dupont Circle. "There's a new generation of aspiring public intellectuals who don't have easy entry into the world of ideas."
It was not always so. "You look at people like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol and so on . . . you could make a living writing for magazines, really an upper-middle-class living, writing for purely intellectual magazines in the '40s and '50s," Lind says.
Today, the going rate for a story in the Nation is $350. The Wall Street Journal pays about $150 for an op-ed piece, The Washington Post $200.
At the same time, academe has become increasingly inhospitable to those who aspire to be public intellectuals. "A generation ago universities were a good platform," says Walter Russell Mead, another New America founder and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the pressures of tenure, and the pressure to specialize and write abstract things for the discipline rather than addressing broad public issues, mean that the academy isn't working as well as a perch."
And most local think tanks are either hopelessly ideological or are larded with older scholars and policymakers who needed a place to flop between White House jobs.
According to Halstead, this leaves a crop of promising young thinkers "intellectually homeless." Or they were before New America.
Some, like senior fellow Margaret Talbot, arrive at New America as established stars. Talbot, a former editor at Lingua Franca and the New Republic, is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Other fellows come from academia or government never having written an opinion piece for a major publication. Karen Kornbluh joined the foundation after serving as deputy chief of staff to then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
They come for the money. And for the free office space. And for the health insurance. New America fellowships are awarded on a yearly basis and are potentially renewable. They typically pay between $25,000 and $60,000.
"I thought they were just offering me this incredible deal, you just couldn't refuse something like that," says Jonathan Chait, a New Republic staffer who at 26 became one of the foundation's first fellows. "They give you money, you write articles. . . . How can it be bad?"
Edward Allen Halstead -- his mother called him Ted -- was born in Chicago but grew up in Brussels, where his father was a food industry consultant. At age 18, he moved back to the United States to attend Dartmouth, graduating with a degree in philosophy and a Phi Beta Kappa key. He spent a year on the staff of Green Corps -- long enough to convince him that the environmental movement was out of new ideas.
So he decided to think for himself. With a $15,000 grant from the Echoing Green foundation, he opened Redefining Progress, an environmental think tank, in the offices of Pesticide Watch in San Francisco. He was 25 years old.
With two others, he wrote an article on a concept he called the Genuine Progress Indicator, an environmentally friendly economic yardstick that he touted as a replacement for gross domestic product. The Atlantic Monthly made it the cover story of its October 1995 issue. Instantly, Halstead and his fledgling foundation were policy players.
"That took me and the little team I had built from a hole in the wall . . . to the national stage. I ended up on 'Nightline' and all of that," he says. "Then all the big foundations discovered us."
But Halstead's tenure at the top was troubled and brief. "I grew the organization very fast, in fact too fast. I was a lousy manager," he says. His board of directors revolted, and he quit as executive director.
The split was painful. "There was a sense of 'Jeez, I'm 27 or 28, this could be it,' " Halstead says. "That could have been my peak in life."
He applied to a mid-career master's program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, intending to spend the academic year crafting a new kind of think tank. He already had the name: the Vision Trust. "Women in particular liked that," he says.
Halstead made an instant impression in Cambridge. "He makes it a point to be memorable," says Christine Letts, one of his Harvard professors. "He was one of the few students who came in to the Kennedy School with a whole portfolio of his work," which he showed to faculty members. "I didn't pay much attention to it," she adds.
Halstead persuaded Derek Bok to serve as his graduate adviser. Together, they began fleshing out the idea for a think tank devoted to developing young people and new ideas. Between classes, he pitched potential donors. (He may have been the only Harvard grad student with his own intern, who did "research for me on funders . . . and for some pieces I was writing," Halstead says. Interns, he notes, "are the greatest things.")
Through his Redefining Progress connections, he wangled a meeting with Bill Moyers, the president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, and outlined his idea for the Vision Trust.
Moyers was intrigued, but bluntly advised: "Hate the name. Lose the name." Halstead did, and Moyers arranged for a $200,000 grant to the newly christened New America Foundation.
"It made all the difference," Halstead says.
He is always on-message. And the message is: Ted Halstead is "beyond left and right" -- a phrase he utters with astonishing regularity over the course of a 90-minute interview.
And what exactly lies "beyond left and right"? Halstead's answer is just out in the pages of "The Radical Center," the book he and Lind wrote to define what they boldly if extravagantly describe as "the future of American politics."
The old order is on the ropes. The paternalistic, centralized policies that worked five decades ago are hopelessly out of step with the mobile and increasingly sophisticated America of the information age. Policies must be linked to individuals rather than institutions. Among the institutions ripest for reform: health care and education. Even the way Americans elect their leaders must be destroyed in order to save it, they argue.
A short list of their big ideas includes ending the current employer-based health insurance system and replacing it with a program of mandatory self-insurance, "just like when we drive a car, we have to get car insurance," Halstead says.
To breathe new life into politics by encouraging third-party and independent candidates, they propose instant-runoff voting. Instead of casting a ballot for a single candidate, voters would note their first choice, then their second choice, on through the list of candidates.
The authors feared that the ideologically eclectic mix of ideas they offered would infuriate both the left and the right. Exactly the opposite has happened. It's been favorably reviewed in the lefty New York Observer as well as in Commentary, a conservative policy magazine.
"The Radical Center" is generating buzz on Capitol Hill. Last month, the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of 60 GOP congressional moderates, invited Halstead to discuss the book. And Democratic Sen. John Breaux has asked him to address the Centrist Coalition, a bipartisan alliance of about 30 senators.
"These ideas might have legs a lot sooner than I thought," Halstead says.
Keeping the New America Foundation positioned beyond left and right has been a greater challenge.
"At first, people were saying 'beyond left and right -- come on, what are you, closet leftists or closet rightists?' " says Steven Clemons, New America's executive vice president and the first executive director of the Nixon Center.
The answer: both, and neither. Big money has come from Lear, founder of the famously liberal People for the American Way. But large donations also have come from the middle-of-the-road Pew Charitable Trusts and from the conservative Smith Richardson Foundation. (As for Halstead's personal politics, he says he voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and wrote in Republican McCain last year.)
So far New America has avoided being stereotyped. In one recent month, for example, its scholars had cover stories in the left-leaning New Republic and the right-thinking Weekly Standard.
This political switch-hitting has been useful in attracting big-name talent to the tank.
"My hesitation was I didn't want my name associated with a tag that shuts people down before they've even read what I've written," says Jedediah Purdy, the preternaturally learned twenty-something whose book "For Common Things" was embraced by the thinking class two years ago, and who is a fellow at New America this year. "The fact that New America doesn't carry that stigma was decisive to me."
Critics say Halstead has not been above occasionally tailoring his pitch to the ideological leanings of a funder -- particularly in the early days of New America, when some say he held it out to prominent liberals as an antidote to the conservative tanks that dominate Washington.
"What they were saying back then is they wanted to be the sensible left," says Eric Alterman, a columnist for the Nation and senior fellow at the World Policy Institute who was briefly affiliated with New America.
Today New America is anything but liberal, Alterman says. "I don't know what it is, but it's not a progressive think tank," he says. It "has read the tea leaves. . . . They are welcome to do that. I think the crime is they took very rare liberal dollars to do it. Had I known this was possible, I would have been a lot more careful."
Halstead dismisses Alterman's criticism. "We haven't had any major funders say, 'We disagree with your politics,' " he says.
Some who have watched Halstead closely say he's less an original thinker and more a synthesizer and a shrewd student of the intellectual zeitgeist -- a man with an eye for the big new idea and the best way to sell it.
Halstead acknowledges that he hates to do research. "I'm a conceptualizer, a storyteller. And I like sort of looking at things and finding novel ways to put them back together," he says.
Besides, says Mead, "you don't expect the university president to get the Nobel Prize for research."
And even his close friends acknowledge that Halstead is a relentless promoter, though people differ on whether he's relentlessly promoting New America or himself.
Halstead doesn't deny the criticism; if anything, he embraces it. "I actually believe that to operate in this world, you need to be very opportunistic," he says. He also knows that he impresses some people as a shameless self-promoter. "Anytime you're starting something, it's all about you're selling you as the messenger for your ideas."
And what's so wrong with that, wonders Thau, who started Third Millennium at age 28.
"If you spoke candidly to all the think-tank leaders in Washington, on some level they would admit there's a P.T. Barnum aspect to all their jobs, including mine," Thau says. "It's endless promotion, combined with a little tease: 'Hey, I've got something interesting I want to show you. Come into my tent and take a look, and let me charge you $10 to do so.' "
The Thinker's Lair
Halstead is eating Vermont maple applesauce out of the jar in the living room of his comfortable two-story brownstone on a tree-lined street off Dupont Circle. He wears jeans and a crisp blue shirt, his sleeves rolled up to just below the elbows, a study in studied casualness. His wavy brown hair is just starting to gray at the temples.
Sunlight streams down from the skylight two stories above. A vaguely industrial stairway winds up to his airy bedroom; a copy of Foreign Affairs rests on the nightstand. A giant set of conga drums -- a college infatuation -- rests in a corner of a spare bedroom.
Downstairs, the simply furnished living room opens onto a wooden deck. Wind chimes tinkle above a hot tub; candles rest on the wooden railing nearby. "You want me to get some towels?" he playfully asks his visitors.
Parties here sometimes end with a dip. One rule: No female staffers allowed in the tub. Too complicated, he says.
Halstead isn't a player on the Washington singles scene, though he could be. A 2 1/2-year relationship ended painfully but peacefully last spring, a casualty of the hours he spent on the book. Now there is a new woman in his life. He declines to talk about her "in order not to jinx it."
"But yes," he adds, "Arianna made the introduction."
(Huffington recently figured prominently in his life in another way. She invited Halstead to her house last year for a celebrity-heavy dinner party. While making table talk, Halstead lightheartedly suggested to Warren Beatty that the actor run for president -- a suggestion that Beatty took seriously. It was not one of his better ideas, Halstead acknowledges.)
Today, New America is flourishing. The book is opening doors. "I've been getting a lot more meetings." He's teaching an evening class at a D.C. school for at-risk teens. And he's working on his squash game.
Life is good, he acknowledges.
But nobody is forever young. Won't he outgrow New America?
Of course he will. "I've said from the beginning I want to make a 10-year commitment to New America," Halstead says. "I figured when I reach 40, somebody else should be running the organization . . . so I've got another seven years to go."
And what then? Perhaps a senior position in a philanthropic organization, he says. Or business. Or maybe politics.
"What comes after New America, who knows? That seems like a long way off."