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What I Sold at the Revolution

Grover Norquist joins the club.

Grover Norquist in 2001
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Grover Norquist in 2001
Grover Norquist in 2001

It is a rainy spring afternoon in Washington, D.C., and Grover Norquist is recounting the time he restored democracy to the Seychelles, Norquist doesn’t look like your stereotypical freedom fighter, and indeed the paunchy 40-year-old has a dayjob running a conservative nonprofit organization called Americans for Tax Reform out of an office building near Dupont Circle. But don’t be fooled by the accountant-like appearance—as a freelance adviser to anticommunist resistance groups around the world, Norquist spent the 1980s traveling to war zones. To prove it, he has covered a wall of his office with pictures of himself cradling automatic weapons in the company of camouflage-clad guerrilla leaders. But anticommunist fieldwork began to peter out in the late ’80s, and by the beginning of this decade there weren’t many Marxist dictatorships left to topple. So, in 1992, Norquist went to the Seychelles, a tiny cluster of islands off the coast of East Africa.

Accompanying Norquist on his trip was Sir James Mancham, the deposed president of the country. Mancham had been booted out of the Seychelles in 1977, in a coup led by a local Marxist lawyer named France-Albert René. René quickly turned the islands into a repressive one-party state. Mancham spent the next fifteen years in exile in England, his plight all but unknown except to Africa specialists and those who ran into him at London cocktail parties. In the late 1980s, Norquist decided to turn Mancham—a legendary womanizer with a weakness for treacly poetry—into a cause on the right. If Sir James wasn’t exactly Solzhenitsyn, well, says Norquist, “nobody else was doing the Seychelles.”

The Free the Seychelles movement never really caught on in the States—most Americans probably don’t know where the islands are—but Norquist did get the attention of The Washington Times. Over the course of 1992, the paper ran no fewer than three editorials blasting René as a ruthless dictator, while extolling Mancham as the hope of his country. Norquist says he got Mancham a couple of speaking gigs at the Heritage Foundation and introduced him to potentially sympathetic members of Congress. According to Norquist, Norquist’s activities made him a marked man with the René government. When he arrived with Mancham in the Seychelles, he says, he found himself in a “very hot” situation. Mancham “had six bodyguards, I wore a vest. It was jumpy, edgy.”

In the end, of course, Norquist made it out of the island paradise alive. Moreover, he says, he helped to force René to hold free elections in 1993. Within months, the Seychelles had what it declared was its first democratic government in a decade and a half. Norquist returned to Washington a hero—a largely unrecognized hero, perhaps, but a hero just the same, a real-life democracy builder. A dream had been realized: “I had spent five or six years to move René out of power,” Norquist says proudly.

That’s how Grover Norquist tells the story, anyway. There are a number of problems with this account, the biggest being that, four years later, Albert René, the Marxist dictator, still runs the Seychelles. René won the free elections of 1993, buying his way to a lopsided victory over Mancham (among other inducements, he offered free refrigerators) in an election that, despite his claims, Norquist had very little to do with bringing about. According to the most recent State Department human rights report, René continues “to wield power virtually unchecked.

The René government today is every bit as sleazy and menacing as it has ever been, A couple of years ago, the Seychelles began offering citizenship and “immunity from prosecution for all criminal proceedings whatsoever” to anyone with $10 million to invest. Under a new plan, Seychelles passports will go for $25,000 apiece, no questions asked. In June 1994, in perhaps its shadiest bid for cash, the government of the Seychelles sold weapons to a Rwandan army colonel named Theoneste Bagasora, and helped Bagasora transport the arms to Hutu militias in Zaire and Rwanda. The Hutu militias promptly used the weapons to kill Tutsis, and Bagasora wound up awaiting trial before an international tribunal on charges of “genocide and crimes against humanity.”

No problem for President René. His public image had never been better, at least in the United States, Not even The Washington Times appears to have noticed his latest misdeeds. One possible reason is that René was smart enough to have hired a good publicist: in 1995, René put Grover Norquist on the government payroll at $10,000 a month.

This is the part of the Seychelles story Norquist doesn’t like to talk about, the part where the idealistic right-wing freedom fighter cashes in by becoming a flack for the left-wing strongman he once opposed. But there’s no way around it, for Norquist is now a registered lobbyist for the Office of the President of the Republic of the Seychelles. It seems a remarkably cynical reversal, even by Washington standards, but Norquist does his best to put a principled face on the whole thing.

René is not the morally corrupt ruler of a socialist state, Norquist says now. Indeed, according to Norquist, he never was, despite what Norquist himself may once have rashly claimed. Instead, René is merely “a guy who preferred not to have elections for a number of years.” As for René’s credibly alleged record of murdering political opponents, that’s no longer a big deal, either. “There were one or two people who people suspected were done in,” Norquist says nonchalantly, “but it was always fairly murky.”

In fact, about the only real problem in the Seychelles today, says Norquist, is that the U.S. government doesn’t spend enough money there. Last year, Norquist, who has spent his political life working to reduce the size of government, lobbied to save the American Embassy in the Seychelles, as well as an Air Force-run satellite tracking station that was a major source of income for the René government. Both have since closed, and Norquist is now trying to convince congressional delegations to visit the country. He’s also working to get the Navy to anchor some of its ships in the Seychelles’ only port. “Why don’t you think about swinging by the Seychelles?’” Norquist says he asks congressmen who might have some juice at the Pentagon. “‘It’s closer than going by Australia or Bangkok. And there’s no AIDS.’”

Pretty oily stuff. And pretty routine. When he talks about the Seychelles, Norquist sounds like any other cash-addled, morally malleable lobbyist in Washington. Except that Norquist is more than your garden-variety Washington lobbyist. He’s one of the most influential conservative strategists in America—an intimate of Newt Gingrich, a small-government radical, the Ché of the Republican Revolution. How did he end up lobbying Congress to steer federal funds to a Third World leftist? Simple: Norquist’s party came to power. Suddenly his ideology was marketable. After two decades of watching from the sidelines as Democrats worked the system for personal advantage, the outsider figured it was his turn.

Norquist is in the middle of a long interview in his office at Americans for Tax Reform when the phone rings. Norquist has been explaining ATR’s latest plan to slash spending—Our present managing thought is twenty-five years from now we want the federal government to be half its present size,” he says—while simultaneously rooting through papers on his desk. He continues to do both as he brings the receiver to his ear. “Grover G. Norquist,” he barks. The ensuing conversation lasts for less than a minute. Norquist hangs up without saying goodbye.

“They want my help to fight against a spending program,” he explains. “They used the acronym, so I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. But they’re going to fax me the information, and I’m against it. I agree with them.”

Norquist has conversations like this throughout the day. The purpose, he says, is not simply to influence specific pieces of legislation, but to build and strengthen what he calls the Leave Us Alone Coalition, a nationwide alliance of conservative activists. The coalition is Norquist’s version of the Bolshevik vanguard, and, like the early Soviets, Norquist envisions a day when this revolutionary cohort will lead the proletariat to rise up, crush the corrupt liberal ruling class and reorder society along radically new lines. As early as 1985, Norquist felt the stirrings of a revolt. “I think the revolution is happening,” he told The Washington Post that year.

Norquist always knew he wanted to be a conservative ideologue. Growing up in Weston, Massachusetts, he learned fiscal conservatism from Republican parents who taught him early about the government’s potential for evil. The lessons began, Norquist remembers, at the local Dairy Joy, where his family went for ice cream every Sunday after church: “Dad would take a bite of your ice cream cone and say, ‘sales tax.’ When he wanted a little more, he’d say, ‘income tax,’ ‘estate tax.’” Norquist says he entered politics seriously at the age of 12, working for the 1968 Nixon campaign. After graduating from Harvard in 1978, he moved to Washington, a city whose government buildings in the “Neo-American fascism” style made him “physically ill,” he once told The Washington Post. He took a job with the National Taxpayers Union and other conservative anti-tax groups in Washington, and then he founded Americans for Tax Reform in the summer of 1985, the year he felt the revolution beginning to happen.

As it turned out, Norquist had to wait the better part of a decade for the Republicans to retake Congress. He spent the interim years in a constant state of readiness. Norquist assumed a revolutionary persona, eschewing bourgeois conventions like a wife and family, table manners, even personal relationships. When I asked Norquist which of his friends could tell me what he is like as a person, he suggested I speak to “anyone in leadership, House or Senate.” No, I said, I mean the names of people with whom he talks about something other than Movement politics. “I don’t have any friends like that,” he replied. This is true, it seems. “There might be a couple of family members Norquist keeps in touch with in spite of ideology,” says a former employee. Otherwise, “his relationships are exclusively based on philosophy.” “Grover’s a Leninist,” says one longtime acquaintance.

Norquist’s great philosophical relationship, forged during his years in the wilderness, is with another Leninist of the New Right, Newt Gingrich. Norquist says he sensed in their first meeting that Gingrich possessed the revolutionary spirit. “It was pretty obvious to me that this was a guy who wanted to change this town,” he says. Since then, the two have kept in close, usually weekly, contact—a fact that is instantly clear to anyone who picks up Norquist’s résumé, which begins with a footnoted quote from Gingrich hailing Norquist as a man who has “truly changed American history.”

Norquist identifies so strongly with Gingrich that at times he appears unable to distinguish between his own life and Gingrich’s. A day after I first interviewed him for the article, Norquist sat down, uninvited, at my table during lunch at a Washington restaurant. His hands shaking with anger, he accused me of being the instrument of a conspiracy to “destroy the Speaker.” How typical of the Speaker’s enemies, he hissed at me, to “get a Movement conservative [me] to attack Movement conservatives [Norquist and Gingrich].” My questions about his relationship with the government of the Seychelles, he said, were “not helpful to the Movement.”

With the 1994 elections, Norquist’s long relationship with Gingrich began to pay off. Before 1994, says a former ATR employee, “We sometimes had more interns than staff. During 1994 and 1995, it just exploded over there. It got big.” Norquist suddenly had a valuable commodity to sell. His relationship with Gingrich had never been more widely known. “We have never met,” says Nichol Gabriel, a diplomat in the Seychelles mission office in New York. “But I know that Mr. Norquist has access to people in Congress.” Norquist was also better situated than perhaps any single person in America to influence the direction of grass-roots conservative activism, mostly due to his weekly Wednesday strategy meetings.

The meetings began in 1993, when a small group of conservatives gathered in Norquist’s office to figure out how to kill the Clinton health care plan. The plan was duly killed, but the meetings continued. Today, the meetings draw a group of anywhere from fifty to eighty people—think tank analysts, members of Congress, sympathetic journalists and Hill staffers—who gather every Wednesday morning at 10:30 to talk about how to advance the Movement. The meetings are worth going to, says someone who attends, “if you want to know what The Washington Times and National Review will be writing about next week.”

Norquist’s meetings were influential partly because he himself was considered above ideological reproach, a man wholly and single-mindedly devoted to the Movement. But as Norquist’s power increased after the 1994 elections, and as he began taking on more commercial clients, the leaders of conservatism’s disparate factions began to express some surprise at the topics and positions Norquist chose for weekly discussion. At a Wednesday meeting early in 1996, for instance, Norquist announced that the Communications Decency Act—the bill to regulate online pornography—violated the core principles of the Movement. Good conservatives, he implied, should fight against it. This news came as a surprise to the Christian conservatives present, most of whom had supported the act. An argument ensued. The Christians were apoplectic.

The dispute might have ended there, a minor if contentious spat between conservatism’s libertarian and traditionalist wings. Soon thereafter, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that Norquist had signed on as a $10,000-a-month lobbyist for the Microsoft Corporation, one of the leading opponents of the Communications Decency Act. To some Wednesday morning regulars, the revelation explained Norquist’s sudden deep interest in protecting cyber T&A. “I was wondering about that,” says one disillusioned think tank employee. “I mean, here the Republican leadership on the Hill is disintegrating, and we’re talking about the Internet.” Norquist strongly denies that his Microsoft deal influences his position.

Another frequent Wednesday morning agenda item was Angola. In August of 1996, Norquist became a registered agent for Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and paid a salary of $5,000 a month to “raise the visibility” of the country. Throughout the 1980s, Savimhi, a onetime Maoist, was considered a hero in conservative circles, admired as much for his articulate defense of democratic principles as for his resistance to the Soviet-backed Angolan government. In the summer of 1989, however, an article appeared in National Review that made many on the right rethink their support. Written by a refugee from communist Poland named Radek Sikorski, the piece contended that Savimbi was not a democrat at all, but a malevolent tyrant who had constructed a brutal cult of personality in the Angolan jungle. Many conservatives have come around to Sikorski’s position in the years since. Whether or not they are right, flacking for Jonas Savimbi is hardly the way you would expect a single-minded Movement builder to be spending his time.

This kind of freelance work is not supposed to interfere with Norquist’s day job—leading ATR as it labors to reduce the size of government. But the line between Norquist’s role as a lobbyist and his job as the head of ATR has never been clear, and at times it has become virtually invisible. Press releases about Norquist’s work for Angola and the Seychelles have on several occasions advised interested parties to call ATR’s phone number for more information.

Ordinarily, details like these might not amount to much—it is relatively rare for a 501c(4) organization to have its nonprofit status revoked—but ATR is now under scrutiny from the Senate committee investigating campaign finance violations. In the final days before the 1996 election, the Republican National Committee gave Norquist’s organization about $4.6 million to “educate” the public about the Republican position on Medicare reform. In the space of a few weeks, Norquist says, ATR had used the money to call 4 million voters and send 17 million pieces of mail. The campaign seems an obvious example of the kind of political money laundering that both parties exploited in 1996, a way of pumping soft money into the system. “We did it to neutralize the AFL-CIO ads,” Norquist says bluntly.

The RNC contribution caught the attention of Democrats on the Senate committee, and earlier this year ATR was subpoenaed. Norquist says he considers the investigation into ATR simply another example of the left-wing cover up of Bill Clinton’s fund-raising scandals. The media, he says, do it all the time. “You look at The Washington Post and there have been all of these huge pictures of floods in North Dakota. Floods in North Dakota?” He chuckles bitterly. “Clinton’s troubles are off the pages. There have been lots of floods in the world, but they didn’t get that much coverage.” Norquist says he isn’t afraid to testify. On the contrary, he looks forward to “talking to John Glenn about being a member of the Keating Five, and Carl Levin about taking money from mob unions.”

Actually, it’s not Democratic senators who should be taking a close look at Norquist, but Norquist’s own foreign clients. Norquist began working for the Seychelles in August of 1995. Around the same time, he hired Scott Hoffman, an ATR staffer, to assist with lobbying on a contract basis. (Hoffman has since moved to the Merritt Group, a lobbying firm Norquist recently set up.) Norquist paid Hoffman $1,000 a month for his work, keeping the other $9,000 for himself. Hoffman, who had just turned 21, didn’t have any great experience in lobbying Congress on Africa policy. In fact, Norquist admits, “I don’t know what his background is,” other than that he had “worked on computers” around the office.

Nevertheless, Hoffman was soon doing virtually all of Norquist’s foreign lobbying work. In 1996, for example, Norquist did not personally lobby a single elected official on behalf of foreign clients during the months of January, March, May, June, July or October. Once he took over Savimbi’s account in August, little changed. Norquist never even bothered to set up separate meetings to discuss Angola, and instead routinely brought up both UNITA and the Seychelles whenever he went to meetings on the Hill. Not that there were many meetings. During the whole of 1996, he made contact with elected officials or their staffs—usually over the telephone—a total of only twelve times, making Norquist’s net profit per lobbying session more than $12,000.

What did UNITA and the Seychelles get for their money? Not, apparently, a lot. According to statements Norquist filed with the Justice Department, he or Scott Hoffman contacted Kevin Fitzpatrick, legislative director for Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, four times between December of 1996 and early February of this year. None of it made much of an impression on Fitzpatrick. “Let me think back to what the Seychelles issue is,” he says. “I’m trying to think. I’ll have to look at my files. I vaguely remember something, but we haven’t done anything about it.” Another Hill staffer, described in Justice Department filings as having made contact with Norquist or Hoffman three times in a single week this fall, seems even more baffled when asked what he has learned from being lobbied. “I don’t know squat about the Seychelles,” he says, “except I’ve always wanted to go there.”

Even by the low standards of Washington lobbying, Norquist’s work for his clients seems shoddy. And it also contradicts what is supposed to be Norquist’s abiding passion: transforming the culture of Washington. So why does he do it? Probably not for the money. Norquist no longer takes a salary from ATR. He has lived with roommates in the same shabby rented house for years. His clothing is inexpensive, almost self-consciously unstylish. Despite his high income, and the stingy deal he has worked out with Scott Hoffman, Norquist seems uninterested in wealth. Ask him about his relationship with Microsoft, however, and he suddenly becomes animated. “You’ve got a Fortune 500 company that takes your advice seriously?” Norquist says, his voice rising, like he still can’t believe it. “I want 100 more of them.”

What Grover Norquist really wants, it seems, is to be regarded as powerful by his peers in Washington. He has just about achieved it, but there have been some necessary adjustments in attitude along the way.

Since he first arrived in Washington, Norquist has warned conservatives against collaborating with the city’s occupying forces of liberalism. “Those of us who are part of the revolution,” he explained to The Washington Post early last year, “didn’t come into politics and Washington to join the present establishment or influence that establishment. We didn’t come to get invitations to their dinner parties or their receptions. We don’t need permission, seek approval or hang out with the people who built the welfare state.” Even now, he says, “It is always a danger that you have to be concerned with because this town is very seductive, and power still resides with the more liberal establishment.”

Norquist still mouths the words, but it’s mostly out of habit. Last month, he held a book party for Elizabeth Drew at his house. Drew, of course, is the former New Yorker reporter, the quintessential sensible liberal, the very embodiment of the progressive, Eastern establishment press. Drew is the woman who, in 1984, described supporters of Ronald Reagan as a “nativist movement” that fears “America is losing its white, English-speaking identity.”

Just the other night, this very same Elizabeth Drew wandered happily through a crowd of well-behaved admirers at Grover Norquist’s house. In the corner, a salesman from a local bookstore sat with a credit card machine selling copies of Drew’s new book about Congress, Whatever It Takes. By the end of the night, he said, he expected to sell all 100 copies.