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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Lawrence J. Mone

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-25

The reporter's lunch yesterday with Lawrence J. Mone had been meant to informally mark his 10th year as president of the conservative Manhattan Institute. Surely, the reporter thought, a man who headed one of America's most influential public policy think tanks -- one that has skillfully advocated free-market solutions to urban problems, and has sponsored seminal research on topics such as crime, welfare reform and education -- surely such a man must have memorized Adam Smith in kindergarten.

Far from it. The reporter found out that Mr. Mone was educated at two hotbeds of radicalism, Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, and the University of California at Berkeley, where he obtained a master's degree in public policy in 1982. In between attending those two institutions, he taught history at high school in -- heaven forefend -- Cambridge, Mass., perhaps the global capital of academic liberalism.

Mr. Mone retains an educator's quiet intensity, and he sports a carefully tended beard that would be prized as an accouterment among eggheads. But Mr. Mone has never been a radical -- not at college, not in grad school, not even while he was growing up in the maelstrom of the antiwar, counter-culture years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"In fact, I reacted rather strongly to the New Left during those years," he said. "Its impulse was to end debate on issues where someone else had another point of view. My impulse was to start debate, to let ideas flower, to let enterprise flourish. I have always believed in the value of civil discourse. Progress isn't achieved by shouting down people."

His tenure at the Manhattan Institute, which Mr. Mone joined in 1982 as a public policy specialist, has coincided with its development from a struggling incubator of bold ideas on urban reform into a $10-million-a-year institution whose fans include President Bush; whom Mr. Mone met last week at the White House; politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington; business doyens; and national leaders in Europe and Latin America, where the institute has initiated private-public partnerships to solve urban problems and also promote better educational standards.

The reputational development -- and, indeed, the steady growth in influence -- of the institution can be attributed in large part to Mr. Mone's involvement, although he's quick to credit his board of trustees as well as his predecessor, the mercurial William Hammett.

"I feel something like the manager of an opera house," Mr. Mone said. "There are all these intellectual stars and divas around me. It's my job to give them the room to be creative. It's all about the music."

Mr. Mone's music-making starts with identifying people with ideas that can be deeply researched, then marshaled into persuasive intellectual arguments in books, magazine articles and op-ed contributions.

"Books are like aircraft carriers of intellectual discourse," Mr. Mone said. "But in the idea business, one has to be very selective in order to make an impact."

That selection process means that Mr. Mone and his staff of 60 -- who include writer-researchers -- must winnow down to seven or eight the number of themes on which the Manhattan Institute can focus at any given time. In years gone by, of course, its work on welfare reform -- famously carried out by Charles Murray -- and urban crime was celebrated widely in the media; it resonated in corrective legislation in the state; it found prominence in policies formulated in Washington.

Now the focus is on homeland security, education, health care, legal reform, race, immigration, and on rethinking urban development, Mr. Mone said. Important books by its authors are published by major publishing houses. The institute brings out the prestigious City Journal, a quarterly that's become a must-read for policy-makers. The institute's conferences and seminars attract the city's key decision-makers, prompting the late Walter Wriston -- who was a board member -- to once ask Mr. Mone, "How big do you want to be?"

Mr. Mone doesn't think that bigger is better. He relishes the quiet consistency of the Manhattan Institute's impact.

"There's so much noise out there in public policy discourse," he said, "and we don't want to be noise-makers. The Manhattan Institute seeks to persuade people that ideas matter; we make the case that good ideas, presented carefully, can ultimately change the world."

Change the world? The reporter's occupational skepticism was stirred by Mr. Mone's words.

"Well, then," he asked, "would you consider yourself an ideologue?"

Before Mr. Mone could respond, the reporter squeezed in a related query: "Isn't it hard being a conservative in this heavily liberal city?"

The questions weren't meant to be confrontational, and Mr. Mone seemed to be expecting them. (He is, after all, a veteran of media sessions, and one of the few right-of-center figures on the national scene who are genuinely respected by journalists of virtually every persuasion.)

"I trade in ideas, not propaganda," Mr. Mone said. "Our research is innovative, and we're honest and transparent about our research. We don't mouth pre-canned, predictable conclusions. My colleagues and I really don't have a top-down vision for the world. My obligation is always to find the next new thing, to push ideas and research toward practical problem-solving."

He paused for just a moment, then continued: "The reason neither the institute nor I are viewed as ideologues is that we're engaged with the everyday issues of urban cultures. Those issues -- crime, poverty, health, education -- affect everybody, whether from the Left or the Right. Of course the Manhattan Institute is a conservative institution, but it's a conservative institution that likes cities. I was forced to develop a way of dealing with people in a civil way but also not backing down from my core beliefs. At the Manhattan Institute, we see ourselves as a bridge between the intellectual and the practical. We also see ourselves as reaching out to people who disagree with us. If you attack people gratuitously, then you're shutting doors."

It seemed to the reporter that Mr. Mone's institutional modus operandi was also a practical modus vivendi in this city.

"Of course," Mr. Mone said. "We lead not with ideology but by problem-solving. In New York, which I characterize as a very sophisticated city, you can't keep knocking the other side. If you get into confrontational mode all the time, they'll cut you to pieces. So I'm very conscious of our strategic, which is conservative but nonpartisan. When we hold our forums, for example, I always caution our visiting speakers, "Please, no Hillary Clinton jokes.' And New York has been very accepting of our approach. And why not? We may be conservatives, but we're New Yorkers, too. Our ideas and efforts are taken seriously, and that matters."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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