Grover Norquist, Emperor of No: How anti-tax crusader Norquist rose from Weston to Washington
March 24, 2012
THE TRAINING BEGAN when the boy was just 9. His father, a Polaroid executive who prized precision, would tell the boy: Go to the encyclopedia, choose a topic, and then give me a one-minute speech about it. The boy would do as he was told. When he was ready, he would stand in the living room, planting himself between the fireplace and his father’s wing chair, and deliver his speech for an audience of one. When the boy was finished, his father’s response would always be the same. Do it again.
So young Grover Norquist would do as he was told. Again. Again. Again.
Fifteen times the boy would repeat this exercise, honing his message a bit more and referring to his index card of notes a bit less with each run-through. Only after the 15th attempt would the father begin to offer his firstborn son detailed critiques.
As the night wore on, the boy’s mother would charge into the living room, complaining: “Enough! This is child abuse! It’s time for him to go to bed.”
Her husband would wave her off, and she wouldn’t protest too much. Although she wanted Grover to get his sleep, like her husband she tended to view her children as budding adults who should be challenged, not delicate creatures who should be coddled.
With that, the training regimen would resume. Again. And this time make eye contact. And use your hands to emphasize the point.
In time, the boy could claim a supreme confidence in public speaking that matched the confidence he felt in his own intellect and his emerging view of the world. Compared with his grade school classmates, who sweated and stammered and fumbled through their class presentations, young Grover was an outlier of Gladwellian proportions. After he delivered one flawless talk, his teacher approached him to inspect the index card he was clutching, perhaps expecting to find the full text of the speech somehow crammed onto the card. She was stunned to find it was blank. He had held it just for show. After all that practice in front of his father, notes were no longer necessary.
Still, elementary school offers only so many opportunities for public speaking. So Grover remained on the hunt for others.
He loved nothing better than to leave his home in the affluent west-of-Boston community of Weston and start walking, along the hilly block of handsome houses, through the woods dense with vines and thick with pines, and finally up a rocky ledge. There, the precocious boy who had so much to say would find a receptive audience, and one that couldn’t fit into a single wing chair. The ledge led to a cliff overlooking a pig farm, which sat just over the town line in Waltham. Grover learned that simply by standing on the cliff and speaking clearly and confidently, he would attract the notice of the pigs that were fenced in on a muddy, rooted-up plateau 30 feet below him. So he would give speeches of all types. As the words left his lips, 40 or so of the swine would give him their rapt attention. “They’d come listen to you,” he recalls. “I liked that.”
This desire to be listened to would remain undiminished as that boy grew into a Harvard student and then into a sharp-elbowed Washington activist and lobbyist. Over the years, he has refined his speeches and toughened his attacks, but the substance of his message has not changed across more than three decades. It’s the same message that first gestated in his mind when his parents would take him and his younger siblings for ice cream after church on Sundays and his dad would confiscate large bites out of each of their cones, explaining, “This is income tax” or “This is property tax.” And it’s the same message that came into clearer focus when Grover was at Weston High School in the early 1970s and read with admiration about a colorful New Hampshire politician named Meldrim Thomson, who rode an “Ax the Tax” campaign of bumper sticker simplicity straight into the governor’s office.
Through the decades, as president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Grover Norquist made his case against taxes to anybody who would listen. With his willingness to spend liberally to support politicians who backed his views, and even more liberally to punish those who didn’t, he became a player in Washington, admired by some and loathed by others. Yet outside the Beltway, he remained largely unknown. Until last year.
As bipartisan attempts to confront the government’s yawning deficit broke down, one after the other, from the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission’s recommendations to the “grand bargain” negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, to the debt-ceiling brinksmanship, to the congressional supercommittee charged with making the excruciating decisions the full Congress had dodged, 55-year-old Grover Norquist somehow became the face of the crisis. That’s because whenever someone floated a compromise involving any tax increases, even in exchange for far deeper spending cuts, Norquist was there to remind Republican lawmakers that their answer had to be no.
The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, complained publicly that Republicans were being “led like puppets by Grover Norquist.” Senator John Kerry blasted his Republican counterparts on the supercommittee for allowing the unelected, unappointed Norquist to function like their leader, and he told me that he repeatedly heard Republicans on the panel talking about how they needed to “check with Grover” for his Solomonic ruling on whether he would sanction or reject various proposed tax code changes. But criticism came from Republicans as well. Boehner, trying to beat back the suggestion that Norquist’s power had eclipsed his own, referred to him as “some random person in America,” a curious phrase that seemed only to suggest the House speaker viewed him as anything but that. And Alan Simpson, a Republican former senator who cochaired the bipartisan debt commission that bore his name, called Norquist a “zealot” who had somehow become “the most powerful man in America.”
NORQUIST’S MEANS OF ASCENT was something he calls the Taxpayer Protection Pledge but which everyone else in Washington calls simply “the pledge.” By signing it, politicians commit to: “ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and, TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”
Norquist devised the pledge in the summer of 1986, the year after aides to President Reagan tapped him to start Americans for Tax Reform. The nonprofit advocacy group was formed to seed support for Reagan’s massive overhaul of the federal tax code, which closed loopholes and lowered the top individual tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent. Once the overhaul passed, Norquist saw the pledge as a way to prevent congressional backsliding on taxes. Signing it would be particularly valuable to little-known candidates looking to advertise their fiscal conservatism. And if they won, their signed pledges would be extremely useful for Norquist in reminding them of their commitments, should they ever entertain second thoughts.
Norquist was just 29 at the time, though he had already run a similar group called the National Taxpayers Union before returning to Harvard for business school and working in the trenches for Reagan’s election. Like many prominent Republicans these days, Norquist plays up his personal connections to Reagan and downplays those areas where Reagan departed from the contemporary GOP’s Rushmore-ready biography of him. Norquist keeps a large bust of the Gipper in his office, and ATR literature stresses how he started the organization at the personal request of Reagan. But when pressed, Norquist concedes his dealings with Reagan were limited, and he doesn’t talk much about the 11 tax hikes the Gipper signed into law during his occupancy of the Oval Office.
In 1986, after the dust had settled on that first midterm election of the pledge’s existence, Norquist could count 100 congressmen and 20 senators who had signed. The pledge faced its biggest test six years later when President George H.W. Bush, who had signed it during the 1988 presidential campaign, ran for reelection after having broken his ATR pledge and, more memorably, his “read my lips” vow. Norquist, the definition of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, was pleased when Bill Clinton ousted the elder Bush. It proved there were consequences for breaking the pledge.
But as long as politicians fall into line and sign the pledge, Norquist holds no grudges. After Bush’s son signed it in the 2000 campaign, Norquist threw his support behind George W. Following Bush’s win, Norquist enjoyed the most robust access to power of his life, conferring regularly with the president’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, and becoming a frequent behind-the-scenes visitor to the White House and a public defender for administration policies. From the younger Bush, Norquist got what he was looking for: huge, sweeping tax cuts, including an end to the estate tax…