What are more important to the health of an intellectual movement, writers and academics or investors and philanthropists? That thought occurred to me, when I was informed of the death of Chuck Brunie, the former longtime Chairman of the Board of the Manhattan Institute and the Chairman Emeritus of The American Spectator. Of course, an intellectual movement needs brains, but it also needs money — prudently spent money.
A writer or an academic can while away the days developing ideas, but without investors or philanthropists those ideas will not get to the public. Frankly, I would say that over the long run, investors or philanthropists are more important than the idea people. Take the field of economics. We have had a few giants, most recently Milton Friedman. After him, we have had some very bright economic minds, but Milton, for my money, was the last giant, and without people to fund Milton’s thought and the thoughts of his disciples, those thoughts would, quite possibly, die or be set back for years. How often does the left-wing media, for instance, mention Milton Friedman? Those who fund the think tanks and magazines of the right keep his ideas alive.
One of the investors that kept investing in Milton’s free-market ideas was Chuck Brunie. He began by heading the research department at Oppenheimer brokerage in the 1960s, where he made it No. 1 in its league. After four years there, he established Oppenheimer Capital, which he headed as chairman for more than a quarter century. He made many investors rich, among them Milton Friedman. He became Milton’s personal investor and prize student. In an inspired obituary for the City Journal, Myron Magnet tells the story about Chuck arriving at the Friedmans’ elegant apartment overlooking San Francisco. As Chuck entered the room, the great economist declaimed, “Welcome to the House that Chuck Built.”
One of the myths of modern-day politics is that the conservative movement vastly outspends the left. It is a comforting legend to the left as its stalwarts lick their wounds from a string of defeats ending in the presidency of Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, Jim Piereson has led the way in pointing out that the left outspends the right by an enormous amount. In what he calls the second phase of the conservative movement, beginning in the mid-1970s and ending in 2003, the top conservative foundations spent roughly $100 million annually from a combined worth of about $1.5 billion. The top five left-wing foundations spent a staggering $1.2 billion annually from a combined capital pool of approximately $24 billion. In an update from the Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock this week, the figures have grown to overall assets of $38.38 billion for the left to overall assets of $7.41 billion on the right.
The right has spent less money, but it spends it more wisely. One of the reasons there is so much acrimony in our politics today is that the old order is passing, and the old order is in a fury about its demise.
Chuck recognized the left’s demise. He was one of the investors who hastened its collapse. He was the exceptional donor who was both a financial wizard and an intellectual in his own right. He was widely read in economics, history, the social sciences, and politics. When he donated his money or his ideas to an organization, he knew he was expanding freedom. He did not shy away from controversy. As Magnet says, he was an intellectual investor. He always had a reason for what he did.
In the aftermath of the Clintons’ assault on The American Spectator, when the grand jury had been disbanded and the FBI had moved on, I can tell you that my telephone rarely rang. One day, Seth Lipsky did call and invited me to his editorial office at the New York Sun. There stood Chuck, all 6’ 6” of him. Seth has always had an eclectic group of friends. As the conversation bubbled on, and Seth poured a round of drinks, he said to Chuck, “Bob’s had a tough time at the hands of the government. You ought to get on his Board.” Without a hint of hesitation, he agreed. I have never had another Board member more generous or more helpful.
Chuck knew politics, finance, journalism, and he knew how to laugh. He is irreplaceable.