Marshall Wittmann is the press corps's latest go-to guy on Congress.
A quick check in the Lexis-Nexis database turns up hundreds of articles or broadcast interviews that quote the Heritage Foundation's Congress-watcher in 1999 alone. The count easily puts him in quoting range of his touchstone competitor at the American Enterprise Institute, Norman J. Ornstein. In his own words, Wittmann now exists "where pop culture and wonkism intersect."
With its ambitious and savvy public relations operation, and the big bucks that back it up, Heritage is the conservative think tank to beat in Washington. Wittmann, who comes from a political rather than an academic background--including stints as a lobbyist and as an official in the Department of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration--signed on about four years ago to boost the organization's Capitol Hill clout.
Wittmann is in charge of Heritage's Senate relations operation, a job that doesn't exist at many think tanks, which either can't afford or are disinclined to push their ideas on the Hill. The core of his job is "to bring the propeller heads together with members of Congress," he said. But he has become something of a public analyst as well.
Wittmann "is shrewder than most, and wittier than most, and more honest than most, and together it's a rare package," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a friend ever since they worked together on Alan Keyes's 1988 Maryland Senate campaign. "And as a conservative, I think he's honest about the limitations of the conservative movement and the prospects of the Republican Congress."
One of Wittmann's proudest accomplishments at Heritage has been his role in the creation of the Renewal Alliance, a group of about 30 conservative members of Congress interested in nongovernmental answers to the problems of low-income communities. (Wittmann said they were "compassionate before compassionate was cool.")
Although he is pro-compassion, a Texan and a veteran of the elder Bush's administration, Wittmann is not lending his smarts to George W. Bush's presidential campaign. Instead, in his personal time, he serves as an informal adviser to John McCain's bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Wittmann's first bout of Beltway fame occurred in the early '90s, when he became the first Jew to work for the Christian Coalition.
Looking for a place to land after President George Bush's reelection defeat, Wittmann met with Ralph Reed, then executive director of the Christian Coalition, at Bullfeathers on the Hill, and they hit it off immediately. On New Year's Eve in 1992, Reed asked Wittmann to open and run the group's first D.C. office.
"I don't know if I would feel comfortable working with everyone in the social conservative movement, but I did feel comfortable working with Ralph," he said.
Wittmann expanded his contacts on the right and became a regular at Texas GOP Rep. Tom DeLay's informal weekly meetings. He resigned from the Coalition soon after the 1994 Republican revolution, not because he felt mistreated within the organization but because, as a Jew, "it was getting too difficult personally. . . . I was living in two different worlds."
If you picture the ideological spectrum as a highway running straight across the country, Wittmann's political life has been like a long road trip from the West Coast to the East. And it started early.
"I was sort of the Doogie Howser of politics," said Wittmann, comparing himself to television's precocious young doctor of several seasons ago.
He was all of 7 when he volunteered at John F. Kennedy's campaign headquarters. By high school, Wittmann was immersed in Democratic politics, working for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. As he was graduating from college, he was recruited by Caesar Chavez's son-in-law to work on the United Farm Workers union boycott. On the picket lines, he dated the woman who would become his wife. She remains a Democrat.
Wittmann said the seeds of his conservative rebirth were planted on a kibbutz in Israel, where he spent time in the mid-1970s. Aggressively anti-Nixon, Wittmann was surprised that his Israeli co-workers supported Nixon.
"The belief in a strong Israel entailed a belief in strong American power," a hallmark of Republican policy, he said.
And then came Ronald Reagan. "I took the trajectory a lot of neo-conservatives took," said Wittmann. "Reagan was making me a Republican." Result: In 1988 Wittmann left his job at a union to join the new Bush administration.
"I sometimes wonder what the old Marshall Wittmann would think if he met the new Marshall Wittmann," he said with a laugh.
"After denouncing my apostasy, I would hope the old Marshall would take solace in the fact that I remain consistent with my basic principles and I'm still a contrarian," he answered later. "Then he would likely observe that I look better with long hair."
Title: Director, Senate congressional relations, the Heritage Foundation.
Education: Bachelor's degree in elementary education, master's degree in social work, University of Michigan.
Family: Married, two children.
Previous jobs: Director of legislative affairs, Christian Coalition; deputy assistant secretary, Department of Health and Human Services; legislative representative, National Association of Retired Federal Employees; public affairs specialist, National Treasury Employees Union; social worker, Neighborhood Senior Services; boycott organizer, United Farm Workers.
A favorite quote: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
CAPTION: Marshall Wittmann traveled a good portion of the ideological spectrum before ending up at the Heritage Foundation, where he heads the conservative think tank's Senate relations operation.