Jim Martin, President of the 60 Plus Association of Arlington, Virginia, expressed pride over an in-depth, front-page story about Hugh Newton from the October 11th edition of the Washington Times. Martin stated, “People who knew Hugh from 30 years as a PR ‘flack’ with the Heritage Foundation, as well as those he continues to work with today on behalf of the 60 Plus Association, will no doubt find as much pleasure as I did when they read the fine piece by Times Reporter Scott Galupo. Hugh and his PR teammate from Heritage, Heb Berkowitz, embody the finest public relations team that Washington, DC has ever had. It pleases me to no end that Hugh Newton continues his winning ways, even on a part-time basis, with the 60 Plus Association.”
Heritage Duo had right stuff
by Scott Galupo
Hugh Newton and Herb Berkowitz still don’t mind being called “flacks,” something else that set them apart in a town that often takes itself too seriously. The two gregarious mainstays of the Heritage Foundation are departing the conservative think tank, breaking up a 30-year public relations team that helped ensure that conservatism was taken seriously.
They mastered the art of PR, with a Washington twist: They pushed policy ideas with a personal touch to a group — journalists — that isn’t famous for congenially rubbing elbows with conservatives. “If we could sum up our operating philosophy,” Mr. Berkowitz says in a vaguely Bostonian brogue, “it’s that we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Mr. Berkowitz, 57, who ran Heritage’s PR and communications shop for 25 years, is moving at the end of the month to Wilmington, N.C., where he will contribute in a scaled-back capacity while he and wife Jean escape the Washington political whirl.
Mr. Newton, who turns 72 next week, has cut back to managing a few accounts as Heritage’s public relations counsel through his Alexandria firm, Hugh C. Newton & Associates. He and wife Joanne intend to remain in the area. “It’s the essence of a good PR guy to be able to trust him as a man,” says Richard Aregood, editorial page editor of the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger and self-described Humphrey Democrat. “They were able to have a conversation that’s beyond the usual swapping of ideological folklore. There’s nobody better than those guys.”
“It was a pleasure to deal with them,” says syndicated columnist Phillip Terzian of the Providence (R.I.) Journal, who looked to Heritage’s stable of writers and analysts when he commissioned columns for the Los Angeles Times op-ed page in the mid-1980s. “They weren’t the standard whining, griping conservatives.”
But what Mr. Terzian recalls most fondly are those “summer cruises” on the Chesapeake Bay that Mr. Newton skippered beginning in the early ’80s on his 32-foot powerboat, Esprit Noir (Black Ghost), which he sold last spring. “I grew up on the Hudson and always wanted to have my own boat,” says Mr. Newton, who bought the craft in 1978. “In terms of entertaining the media, I have found it’s one of the great techniques of PR.”
These were long weekend jaunts for the boys only, not policy powwows, and they left Mr. Terzian glad to “return to civilization.”
“Many world problems were solved,” jokes Phil Kent, president of Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta-based public-interest law firm, who first met the Heritage duo while an editorial writer at the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle.
“I would call them pioneers,” Mr. Kent says. “They have an incredible network of not just conservatives but of hundreds of leading journalists and writers.” A brainy band of “movement conservatives” was busy in the trenches, plotting, well before an insurgent Ronald Reagan nearly defeated incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976.
Conservative activist Paul Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation in 1973 to promote and pursue goals such as limited government, free enterprise and traditional American values. Conservatism then came off as something of a dissident movement; the Republican Party establishment seemed reconciled to the existence of the Soviet Union and activist government at home.
The job of Mr. Berkowitz and Mr. Newton was to spread the conservative gospel to editors and reporters across the country while homing in on Washington with a barrage of reports, news releases and policy seminars. With a conservative in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate after the 1980 elections, the duo had to recalibrate their pitch.
“It changed the dynamic from that of a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market,” Mr. Berkowitz says of the Reagan Revolution. “We no longer had to sell as hard. They were coming to us.”
The attraction was an annual Heritage report, “Mandate for Leadership,” the basis for many of Mr. Reagan’s reform proposals, including cutting taxes and revitalizing national defense. The team selectively leaked it to editors, now a common strategy. As more conservatives won office through the ’80s and into the ’90s, the pair kept networking and forging relationships — as often as not, at pubs and parties. “Everyone is so serious now,” Mr. Berkowitz laments, recalling many a beery evening.
The two honed their craft at the National Right to Work Committee (NRWC), formed in 1955 to lobby the federal government and state legislatures to eradicate compulsory union membership. Mr. Newton arrived at the NRWC in 1964, after writing speeches for corporate executives. “I wanted to work for something I believed in,” he says.
Mr. Berkowitz came aboard in 1972 after a colleague at the American Trucking Associations turned down a job offer from the NRWC. Itching for new thrills, he called Mr. Newton, and they’ve worked in tandem ever since. Both had useful experience in journalism, Mr. Newton as a reporter for the Danville (Va.) Bee in the mid-1950s and Mr. Berkowitz as a writer for magazines and trade journals.
A brush with communism drew Mr. Newton to politics. Born in Westchester County, N.Y., and a graduate of Washington and Lee University, he served as an Air Force clerk during the Korean War. The direct experience of totalitarianism abroad and apparent infiltration of the government at home by communists were powerful influences on his political temperament.
“I remember vividly those debates, thinking: ‘These people are communists. They’re bad people,'” Mr. Newton says.
Mr. Berkowitz’s political ideas formed more gradually. The Boston native attended leftist rallies while a student at George Washington University — they were “great places to meet girls,” he acknowledges — but came away thinking that the “progressive” worldview was impractical. “We’re all created equal,” Mr. Berkowitz says, “but we’re all different. My father was an engineer, and I have trouble turning a screw.”
Mr. Berkowitz’s office decor helps differentiate him from what he calls “single-minded” activist conservatives. The walls and shelves are jammed with concert posters, record albums, a phonograph and other rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia from the ’50s and ’60s.
“I spend so much time in the office that I wanted it to be fun,” Mr. Berkowitz says. “This is a passion of mine.”
He is a particular fan of Buddy Holly and doo-wop and has a collection of 35,000 vinyl records in temperature-controlled storage. Mr. Newton, meanwhile, prefers Chet Baker and other jazz musicians.
The two routinely made sure that Heritage’s “beloved bookworms didn’t take themselves too seriously,” says Jennifer. In the early ’80s, Mr. Newton recalls, consumer activist Ralph Nader organized a “Big Business Day” of rallies and conferences slamming corporate America.
“We sat and talked about it: ‘How are we going to counter this thing?’ And rather than attack Nader, we said, ‘OK, we’ll create Growth Day.'” “Growth Day,” touted to reporters at the National Press Club, celebrated businesses for creating jobs and strengthening the economy. The standard response of branding Mr. Nader a “lefty” wouldn’t have worked, Mr. Newton says.
Says Heritage President Edwin J. Feulner: “They knew how to work with the media, not fight it.”
They traveled four or five days a month, meeting with hundreds of editors and reporters. There wasn’t much choice but to be straight shooters, Mr. Berkowitz says, with so many in the press being Democrats. More importantly, Mr. Newton adds, they wanted their hallmark to be “working with everybody and not drawing distinctions.”
“I didn’t always agree with the Heritage Foundation,” says Ed Grimsley, former editorial page editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but its two messengers were “absolutely forthright.”
Heritage started off with fewer than 20 employees and a budget of less than $1 million, squeezing into a small townhouse for 10 years. Today, it boasts 185 employees and a $35 million budget funded by membership donations and publication sales. Renovation of an adjacent eight-story building will nearly double the size of the headquarters at 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE.
The think tank became a player in major policy debates, among them welfare reform, missile defense, school choice, tax-code simplification and Social Security reform.
“September 11 changed the agenda dramatically,” Mr. Berkowitz says. “It’s almost impossible to get anyone to focus on anything else except homeland security-related topics.”
In the months ahead, he says, Heritage will focus domestically on a “short list” of important items, including reforming health care, expanding global free trade and overhauling Social Security.
But when 2003 rolls around and these issues come to the fore, someone else will be at the helm of Heritage’s PR operation, effectively bringing the Newton-Berkowitz era to a close.
“Copyright 2002 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. “Visit our web site at http://www.washingtontimes.com”