Amid the powerful conformist currents of midtown Manhattan, there is something unexpected about Myron Magnet's sideburns -- bushy white whiskers that billow out from his bespectacled face like something out of Dickens.
The Manhattan Institute is a conservative force come into some power in a liberal town... priding itself on pragmatism, fraternizing with the occasional Democrat and dismissing the labels invariably prefixed to its name.
They began as an accident, he insists. He was studying at Cambridge University, living in a Tudor cottage with an unlighted wash basin in his room. One day, he noticed the overgrowth on his jowls. He says he figured, ''What the hell?''
But that was 30 years ago, a visitor points out, puzzled.
Mr. Magnet shifts in his high-backed leather chair. Then he answers, slowly: ''I value the past very much. I think it has an awful lot to teach the present. So I suppose it is a homage to the past.''
Mr. Magnet is a member of the heterogeneous group of conservatives who make up the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that has pulled off the improbable feat of helping change the course of the country's most liberal big city. The institute has done as much as any group in recent years to challenge the rules by which New York was governed, and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has done as much as any politician to move its ideas from the margin to the mainstream.
It was an early proponent of shrinking city government; it enabled Charles Murray to publish the 1984 book that many people believe begat welfare reform, and it promoted theories about crime and public disorder that later underlay the work of the former Police Commissioner, William J. Bratton.
It took up the question of the quality of life in New York City in 1990, well before Mr. Giuliani made that a cornerstone of his successful election campaign in 1993. The institute has savaged open admissions at the City University of New York, pushed hospital privatization and aggressively promoted school choice.
Now, its critique of rent control is helping to inform State Senator Joseph L. Bruno's move to phase out rent regulations, and its proposal for charter schools is circulating through legislative offices in Albany.
''It has been fabulously successful as a source of ideas and as a networking structure for conservatives and moderates in some cases,'' said Mitchell Moss, director of the Urban Research Center at New York University. ''And it has had a terrific impact in putting some issues, which were long overdue, on the public agenda.''
In a city in which most people strive to make their ideas matter (or, if not, to have their ideas appear as if they do), the 19-year-old public-policy organization has made itself a player in the public debate (and mastered the appearance of influence, too).
The phenomenon has few precedents in living New York memory: a group of eggheads and other lofty, think-tank denizens (of the conservative kind, no less) actually accumulating enough heft to enable politicians and much of the public to agree on a profound shift in direction.
A short-lived New York offshoot of the Rand Corporation worked closely with the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay in the late 1960's and early 70's on issues from rent control to Fire Department efficiency. But the role being played by the Manhattan Institute is something else.
''In New York, it has created a respectable place for people who disagree with the liberal establishment,'' said William J. Stern, who headed the state's Urban Development Corporation under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and is now a contributing editor of the institute's quarterly magazine, City Journal. ''What that does is make it easier for politicians to advance those ideas. I think everybody in New York City politics now, in one way or another, has adopted some of the views of the Manhattan Institute.''
Not unlike its ally, Mr. Giuliani, the institute is a conservative force come into some power in a liberal town, somewhat unorthodox, priding itself on pragmatism, fraternizing with the occasional Democrat and dismissing the labels invariably prefixed to its name.
It has become home to a range of species on the right-hand side of the political spectrum: market conservatives, social conservatives, old-style aristocratic conservatives, libertarians, as well as a few registered Democrats and a self-described liberal or two.
City Journal, edited by Mr. Magnet, who wrote a book on the legacy of the 1960's that Newt Gingrich professed to admire, was edited in the early 1990's by Fred Siegel, now a fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, who was known to be supporting President Clinton at the time.
Many of the institute's board members, as well as its magazine, have backed the idea of school vouchers. But the institute's 8-year-old Center for Educational Innovation, which consumes one quarter of the $5 million institute budget, is officially opposed to vouchers.
''The institute is more ecumenical than it is often given credit for,'' said Walter Olson, an author and senior fellow. ''There is a range of opinion, all of it dissenting in one way or another from what had been the New York establishment point of view.''
The current list of 20 fellows includes Peter D. Salins, interim provost of the State University of New York; David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist injured in a Unabom attack, and Richard J. Schwartz, a former senior adviser to Mr. Giuliani and the architect of the city's workfare program.
It also includes Diane Ravitch, a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education; Edward N. Costikyan, a former Manhattan Democratic leader who has advised Mr. Giuliani, and a handful of former public school administrators famous for having set up alternative schools in East Harlem in the 1980's. Another person who was affiliated with the institute was Elizabeth McCaughey, who was plucked from obscurity there by George E. Pataki in an ill-fated political alliance.
Mr. Giuliani and his campaign staff began meeting with institute members in 1992, and since that time have absorbed many of its ideas...
Currently housed in an unprepossessing warren on the second floor of a building near Grand Central Terminal, the institute was founded as a free-market education and research organization by William Casey, who then went off to head the Central Intelligence Agency in the Reagan Administration.
For 15 years, until 1995, it was run by William M. H. Hammett, widely characterized as a kind of ''intellectual entrepreneur'' -- brilliant but difficult, with what Mr. Siegel calls ''a whim of iron'' and a gift for placing smart bets on relatively obscure scholars with seemingly far-fetched ideas.
Its earliest preoccupation was supply-side economics. Then, in 1982, it offered $30,000 to Charles Murray, a little-known social scientist without a job, to write ''Losing Ground,'' the book that contributed to welfare reform. It later sponsored two books, by Mr. Olson and Peter Huber, said by many to have stirred up the issue of liability reform.
The institute's mission is to develop ideas and get them into mainstream circulation -- with the help of ''the media food chain,'' as the current president, Lawrence J. Mone, puts it. It does that by publishing and relentlessly promoting books and articles, and by inviting influential people to lunch.
It is adamant about working only with commercial publishers, instead of publishing its own books, as other policy groups do. The aim is to maximize the books' credibility, make sure they get reviewed and discipline institute-sponsored authors not to speak only to the converted. The institute also pours $700,000 a year into City Journal, filling it with long articles with titles like ''Welfare's Next Vietnam'' as well as photo essays and articles on culture intended, one former editor said, to make it appeal not just to businessmen but to businessmen's wives.
Ten thousand copies go out, free of charge, to mayors, journalists, academics, libraries and others, Mr. Magnet said. Another 3,000 are sold to subscribers or on newsstands. Not infrequently, articles end up condensed and reprinted in places like The Wall Street Journal.
''We let people have this stuff for free,'' Mr. Magnet said. ''The only thing we want is credit.''
Several times a month, the institute holds discreetly lavish public-policy lunches, often at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan, to which it invites hundreds of journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, business people and foundation staff members to hear a speaker on a subject the institute likes.
Susan V. Berresford, the president of the Ford Foundation, recently went. Tom Wolfe has been known to go. Late last month, about 150 people turned out beneath a chandelier the size of a small swimming pool in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown to hear Mr. Giuliani speak.
There was Henry J. Stern, the City Parks Commissioner and an institute regular; Dan Biederman, president of the Grand Central Partnership, also a regular, and Joe Rose, chairman of the City Planning Commission.
''It became a problem on our editorial page,'' said David Frum, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and now an institute fellow who does commentary on National Public Radio. So many people were disappearing simultaneously for institute events that the op-ed page editor had to crack down.
Mr. Giuliani and his campaign staff began meeting with institute members in 1992, and since that time have absorbed many of its ideas, particularly on such issues as the city's tax structure, economic development, education policy, policing and quality of life.
In a brief interview recently, Mr. Giuliani said he had found City Journal, in particular, "enormously helpful. I've read it for years, since it first came out."
In mid-1992, the magazine published an issue on the quality of life -- full of articles on such subjects as ''reclaiming public spaces'' -- and Mr. Giuliani could be found seated in the audience at an institute-sponsored conference pegged to the issue, scribbling notes.
In a brief interview recently, Mr. Giuliani said he had found City Journal, in particular, ''enormously helpful. I've read it for years, since it first came out. It has sparked a lot of the reanalysis, reinvention, reinvigoration of government. It produces provocative and very good ideas.''
Alan G. Hevesi, the City Comptroller and a Democrat who has often differed sharply with Mr. Giuliani, recently found himself the speaker at an institute lunch. A former Queens College professor, Mr. Hevesi said later: ''I don't agree with a lot of what the Manhattan Institute is all about, but I respect them.''
''I think they're serious, they're students of government, they're not knee-jerk ideologues,'' he said. ''I think they're valuable to the debate on policy in New York. These folks are not the moral equivalent of the freshmen in the Gingrich class in Congress. But in New York, they're quite conservative.''
This piece originally appeared in The New York Times