There’s a new sheriff named Trump in Washington, but that doesn’t much faze Arthur C. Brooks, the music man leading the parade at one of the most prominent think tanks on the planet, the American Enterprise Institute.
The 52-year-old former concert musician dropped the French horn for the social sciences two decades ago, earned a mail-order bachelor’s degree and since has been bringing an approach to running a think tank that is as unorthodox as his background.
The Big C conservative has spent two years keeping his capitalist fiefdom out of the presidential race as he takes the long view, promoting a business model that is part Steve Jobs, part music man — and infused with Wall Street’s eat-what-you-kill culture.
My scrambled eggs and sausage are rapidly cooling as we sit in his fifth-floor conference room, once the room where Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon dressed when he lived here in the 1920s. It was the McCormick Apartments, one of the most prestigious residences in Washington.
The building is coming off a budget-busting, $100 million renovation that has transformed it into a glittering new headquarters astride Massachusetts Avenue NW. There are 220 AEI employees in the building who make a living from the nearly $50 million a year in donations that Brooks & Co.’s scrappy fundraisers bring in. About $1 million of that money covers his annual compensation, according to federal tax records.
AEI’s scholars write books, perform studies, and report on and research a wide array of topics, including economics, education, health care and culture.
To meet expenses, AEI relies on a core of about 1,600 donors who contribute an average of about $35,000 each a year. A staff of 20 keeps close tabs on the 1,600, making sure they are happy, healthy and generous.
“Nobody is treated like an ATM machine,” Brooks said. “We don’t say, ‘What can we get from that donor?’ We say, ‘What does that donor need?’ ”
Instead, they are selling AEI as a catalyst for gratification. “We are a human-welfare-enhancing machine. You can put your money in the machine and out the other end is going to come something that is incalculably more valuable than the money you put in,” he said. “If you own a chain of hardware stores in Iowa, God bless you for your work. But you can’t affect human welfare very much.”
He captures this counterintuitive philosophy in his manifesto, “The Conservative Heart,” where he makes the moral case for free enterprise, which is not the typical conservative refrain.
Why not rally a fat endowment to take the pressure off?
“There should be pressure on me,” says Brooks, tie-less and attired in what looks like a European accent (he played the French horn there) in a print shirt with a sprawling collar and cuffs wrapped over his sport coat. “I don’t believe in permanent endowments, because I believe in markets. You should eat what you kill, and I want us to stay hungry.”
Brooks is part showman. But he is all wonk. Ideas are what he cares about because they last. Politics and presidents are changing weather, almost entertainment.
“Weather is sexier and more relevant from a moment to moment,” he said. “But you’re never going to understand the weather unless you have people who really do work on the climate.”
Whoever is president, “my work stays the same,” Brooks said. “I like it when certain people get elected more than others. But that’s really not the point.”
He has a doctorate in policy but his master’s could be in schmoozing. His circle includes House Speaker Paul Ryan, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, the Dalai Lama, Google billionaire Eric Schmidt and even the brain trust at the New York Times’ liberal-leaning editorial page, to which Brooks periodically contributes.
“We all have the same heart,” he says of liberals. “We are in the human welfare business. I’m a total bleeding heart, but with a conservative brain. Free enterprise is the best way to get more people a better life. If you’re a warrior for human welfare, you must be a warrior for free enterprise.”
Entrepreneurism runs in the family. His paternal grandfather started a Navajo mission school and was a dean at Wheaton College in Illinois.
“My grandfather was a true social entrepreneur,” he said.
Young Arthur was born in the Pacific Northwest and became proficient in the French horn by 9. Music was “all I wanted to do,” he recalled. He dropped out of college and became a professional musician, landing in Europe. He met his future wife while on tour in France playing chamber music.
The couple moved to Florida, where his wife took hourly jobs and Brooks earned a mail-order bachelor’s degree from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. He earned a master’s from Florida Atlantic University and worked at the Rand Corp. in California before joining academia. “It’s a beautiful system,” he said of the academic life. “It’s fun and it’s easy to dominate if you work hard on the right things.”
Somewhere in the scrum, he had an epiphany. He put down the French horn and took up social science. His favorite musician is German Baroque-era composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
“Bach said the aim and final end of all music is nothing less than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the soul,” said Brooks, a devout Catholic. “When I heard that, it was like a knife to the heart because that wasn’t the ‘why’ of my making music. I wasn’t refreshing anybody.”
He brought the Apple business model with him when he became AEI president on Jan. 1, 2009, from Syracuse University, where as a full professor he taught business and government policy.
AEI and Apple are both hit-driven enterprises that need constant, attention-getting innovations. In Apple’s case, it’s the iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch.
AEI’s hits are of a more cerebral nature. Most of the money at AEI goes to unsexy but important day-to-day stuff. Every once in a while, Brooks becomes Harold Hill the Music Man and promotes a topic sexy enough to launch what he calls “the parade.”
“If you want to influence leaders, sometimes you have to start a parade.”
The banner across his recent parade is “Dignity and Potential.”
“We’re going to talk about not trying to send everybody to college, but actually to serve the vocational needs of the country,” he says, “ to get people to move more for their work, because people have stopped moving in America.”
It gets to a core belief, which is that jobs give people dignity and a route to happiness. Giving people money doesn’t work.
To export more than 2,000 radio and TV interviews a year, the nonprofit has a state-of-the-art radio and television studio in its headquarters.
The big donors behind AEI are feted each year at Georgia’s Sea Island Resort. It’s a Woodstock of the contemporary conservative movement. Attendees mingle with journalists, politicians, fellow business bigwigs, musicians and authors — all off the record.
“It’s a relationship-builder,” Brooks said.
Does the music man ever pick up the French horn or jump on the piano to entertain?
“I made my living doing it until I was 31. But right now, I can answer Bach’s question in the affirmative. I actually feel like I’m glorifying God and serving my fellow men and women. I couldn’t say that when I was in music.”