The Manhattan Institute was a speck on the margins of the city's political landscape when it opened in 1978, promoting the un-New Yorkerish notions of free-market economics, conservative values and the dismantling of the welfare state.
Now, 20 years later, it dominates political discussions and helps set the agenda. Like the city's Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, the institute rose on the crushed hopes of the 1980s, when rising crime, spiraling taxes, deep recession, and sprawling disorder—all unfolding under a City Hall that seemed to many a caricature of Democratic liberalism—sparked a backlash.
When Giuliani was preparing his State of the City message last month, he asked the editors of the institute's quarterly magazine, City Journal, for the galleys of their forthcoming issue, and clearly borrowed some of its themes.
"The mayor has a very close working relationship with the Manhattan Institute," Giuliani's communications director, Crystine Lategano, said.
Daniel Biederman, head of the city's three largest business improvement districts, said he hears City Journal quoted in various meetings at least twice a week.
Harvey Robins, deputy to the city's two last Democratic mayors, Edward Koch and David Dinkins, lamented, "The Manhattan Institute clearly has become the force, and there is no progressive force to counter it. There isn't even a debate."
City Journal's circulation is only 10,000, and most copies are given away. But the readers are carefully chosen: policymakers, journalists, the movers and shakers of the business community.
"We're aiming at influential people," noted its editor, Myron Magnet, sitting in the institute's offices, across from Grand Central Station.
Magnet, 53, was a graduate student at Columbia University during the 1960s protests. "I marched against the Vietnam War, which I don't regret," he recalled. "I helped barricade a building at Columbia, which I do." He noticed his friends getting more and more "paranoid . . . talking about America with three K's." He drifted rightward while teaching Columbia's freshman course on contemporary civilization, immersing himself in Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes.
"We have big arguments on the magazine staff," Magnet said. "But we all believe in the primacy of values in culture. We believe in the free market. We believe that protecting citizens from crime is the first duty of government. We believe it is not 'the system' that causes crime. We believe the best way to help the poor is to promote economic growth and job creation, and that the welfare state has been a horrible, terrible mistake that ended up" making miserable "the people we all hoped it would help."
One of its top writers, Sol Stern, took a still wider ideological turn. A Bronx native, Stern went to radical summer camps, joined radical groups at City College, attended Berkeley in the 1960s, then became editor of Ramparts, the leading New Left magazine. He first broke with the Left over its attacks on Israel, and drifted further during the 10 years he worked in New York government.
"But the issue that pushed me maybe most dramatically," he said, "was having my kids in public school."
An article he wrote praising the city's Catholic schools had particular impact. Giuliani soon after set up a program to send 1,000 pupils a year from the worst schools into Catholic schools. Several financiers on the Manhattan Institute's board helped fund the program.
The institute took life in the mid-1970s, when Antony Fisher, a British economist, persuaded a group of American businessmen to set up a think tank to apply free-market philosophy to public policy. A similar group that Fisher founded in England molded the platform that Thatcher put in place as prime minister. The US group's first chairman was William Casey, a friend of Fisher's who later became director of the CIA in the Reagan administration.
From $500,000 in seed money, it has grown into a $6.3 million institution, with most of its money coming from individuals and mainstream foundations. Initially, it put out monographs. Then in the 1980s, it started commissioning books, selling them to major publishing houses.
Thomas Main, a former institute researcher who now teaches at Bernard Baruch University, said, "Even early on, there was this idea: We're going to engage in a mainstream conversation. We don't just want to preach to the converted."
In 1991, it held a conference on "quality of life," where speakers argued that the sanctity of public spaces was essential to city life and that disorder boosts crime.
"I remember Rudy Giuliani sitting at that seminar all day, furiously taking notes on a legal pad," Magnet said. This was after Giuliani lost a mayoral election in 1989 before he ran again and won in 1993. The policies he would pursue as mayor resembled the prescriptions laid out at that conference.
"Giuliani is a thinker in his own right," Lawrence Mone, 44, president of the institute, emphasized. "But he is a very avid reader of our materials, and there can be a powerful confluence when our two rivers meet."
©1998 The Boston Globe