Book Review

Undue Influence by Ron Arnold

Modern Day Muckraker
Reviewer: Robert Huberty,
Capital Research Center  
from Washington, DC      April 13, 2000

Ron Arnold is a muckraker. Like the journalists of the Progressive era in the early 1900s, he aims to show how the rich and powerful selfishly promote their interests. Like them, he is a reporter whose stories express moral outrage: he wants to describe the tactics of modern-day “malefactors of great wealth” who succeed through manipulation and trickery.

But the early Progressives and Arnold appear to have different enemies. The Progressives attacked the producers of oil, steel and beef. Arnold attacks the patrons of environmentalism. Progressives wanted to destroy industrial trusts. He wants to expose those who put legal limits on natural resource production. They targeted John D. Rockefeller. His sights are on the Rockefeller Family Fund.

Arnold has scoured web-sites and tracked down IRS Form 990s to identify green grantmakers. More importantly, he explains that many of them do much more than just write checks: these “prescriptive foundations” use the power of the purse to dictate to their grantees. They set up nonprofits and push them into coalitions; they select their tactics, venues and personnel. Foundations of this type are not shy about getting what they want, and if something doesn’t exist they use their philanthropic dollars to create it.

Arnold reminds us that the Ford Foundation provided the start-up money to establish the litigious National Resources Defense Council. The Rockefeller Family Fund organized the Environmental Grantmakers Association and put Donald Ross, a Fund retainer, at the head of it. With some 180 members, the EGA helps funders combine their dollars to advance common strategies that they then push, take-it-or-leave-it, onto green groups. The Pew Charitable Trusts and other foundations put up $10 million to create a new public relations group, now called the National Environmental Trust, to mobilize activists and shape public opinion. Lately it’s been promoting global warming. Teresa Heinz, widow of one U.S. senator and wife of another, has used the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Foundation to endow several new environmental think-tanks and research centers. And then there’s the Tides Foundation, which itself takes money from Pew and the Alton Jones Foundation. It provides financial oversight and management training for 260 (!) green projects that it funds. It also gives many of them office space in a former military base, San Francisco’s lush and historic Presidio. Come again? Arnold recalls that Congress had declared the beautiful park-like base, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean’s entrance into San Francisco Bay, to be surplus military property. It was then turned over to the National Park Service, and subsequently set up as a public-private trust whose board members are appointed by President Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Fortunately for Tides, the trust was pleased to lease them the Presidio’s historic buildings.

One of the strengths of Undue Influence is that Arnold is a good detective and story-teller. He appreciates tales of outrageous political manuevering -- even when he condemns their outcome. Besides the Tides story, he traces how out-of-state foundations decided to fund a Montana ballot initiative that would have prohibited corporations from making comparable contributions to ballot issue campaigns. He recounts the comeuppance of Vice President Gore who unsuccessfully tried to plant a story with ABC News correspondent Ted Koppel that smeared a respected climate scientist, Fred Singer, who did not accept the vice president’s opinions on global warming. And he describes how an ambitious presidential advisor, Kathleen McGinty, talked the Interior Department into having President Clinton invoke the Antiquities Act of 1906 to justify declaring 1.7 million acres of southern Utah as a “national monument” without Congress’ approval. (Earlier presidents used the act’s grant of executive authority to preserve Indian cliff-dwellings and other precious sites of natural importance.) McGinty then made the land grab legally exempt from a lengthy environmental review by creating a phony paper trail so that it looked like this was the President’s initiative, not something she and Interior cooked up. (Arnold’s endnotes cite White House e-mails disclosing McGinty’s underhanded tactics, but he doesn’t reveal how he got them.)

One weakness of Undue Influence is Arnold’s style of heavy-handed sarcasm. Particularly toward the book’s end, Arnold tends to fall back on snorts of derision as he describes yet another foundation or government scheme. But the anger masks a greater sadness. Arnold is reporting what he calls “a silent scandal” affecting rural America. He is outraged that “no one sees, no one cares” about the ranchers and miners, the lumbermen and saw mill operators who are falling victim to the politics of environmentalism. They are living in a suburban leisure-loving, dot.com country that forgets that people like them still earn their living working the land. They are paying a heavy price for their countrymen’s indifference to their plight.

NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, copyright material on this site is displayed solely for non-profit research and educational purposes