Editors' note: Michael Scherer wrote this profile over half a decade ago, but with America's debt just downgraded—and some blaming the GOP's anti-tax stance—there's never been a better time to read about Grover Norquist, the unquestioned leader of the nation's anti-tax movement.
Grover G. Norquist is in fine form as he warms up the crowd at his Wednesday morning meeting. The conference room at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters is packed on this cool October day, and Norquist, ATR's president, jokes about the "fun-filled, star-studded" agenda in store. Why wouldn't he be in good spirits? The invitation-only meetings Norquist hosts have become a hot ticket for Washington's conservative in crowd, the place for GOP players to brainstorm, swap intelligence, and see and be seen. The 100-plus people who come each week are the powers who run the federal government—congressmen, lobbyists, senior White House and Senate staffers, industry-group leaders, and right-wing policy wonks. "Everybody there has some sort of entrée," says conservative activist Peter Ferrara, a longtime attendee. "When the White House sits down and says, 'We want to get the word out on something,' the top of the list is Grover."
Norquist, the master of ceremonies, sits in the middle of the room, a microphone pinned to his tie. Stout and bearded, with rosy cheeks, he calls on speakers in his eager, nasal voice, cutting off ramblers and keeping the proceedings on track. There is no time for canned political rhetoric. The focus is on winning. Here, strategy is honed. Talking points are refined. Discipline is imposed. "It's the most powerful, nihilistic movement in Washington today," says Ralph Nader, who recently attended one of Norquist's meetings to give his views on corporate welfare. "It is such a cold-blooded atmosphere it would sustain icicles."
The same spirit that chills Nader warms the heart of Norquist. When he founded his weekly Wednesday meeting in 1993, its numbers rarely brooked a dozen. "It was like a conservative version of Seinfeld," says an attendee of those early meetings, "with people double-dipping into the bagels and cream cheese." But conservatives, with Norquist as one of their pre-eminent strategists, have since overtaken the capital. Once a consigliere to Newt Gingrich, Norquist now has the ear of Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, who has been known to stop in at the Wednesday meetings. In turn, Norquist plays the role of national ward boss, delivering the coalition that has rallied around the president's policy agenda.
Norquist calls it the "Leave-Us-Alone Coalition," a grouping of gun owners, the Christian right, homeschoolers, libertarians, and business leaders that he has almost single-handedly managed to unite. The common vision: an America in which the rich will be taxed at the same rates as the poor, where capital is freed from government constraints, where government services are turned over to the free market, where the minimum wage is repealed, unions are made irrelevant, and law-abiding citizens can pack handguns in every state and town. "My ideal citizen is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit," says Norquist. "Because that person doesn't need the goddamn government for anything."
Few in American politics are as blunt about their plans. "If the American people really want to know what George W. Bush is up to, the best place to look is the candor of Grover Norquist," says Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. Norquist is not above equating tax collection with a street mugging, or suggesting that arguments for higher taxes on rich people echo the ones Nazis used to justify their targeting of Jews. "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," he told a reporter in May, borrowing a phrase from former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He likes to say he wants to shrink the size of government in half over the next 25 years "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
By the age of 12, he already knew that government was bad.…He isn't about to change his mind now.
These are not the musings of an ideological fringe. Norquist has already secured written promises never to raise taxes from a majority of federally elected Republicans: 217 House members, 42 senators, and the sitting president of the United States. In 36 state capitals across the country, he is organizing weekly meetings modeled on his Washington coalition, and more than 1,200 state legislators and 10 governors have taken his anti-tax pledge.
Norquist has also helped found a raft of Republican recruitment efforts in immigrant communities, attempting to attract Muslims, South Asians, and religious Jews to the GOP. Norquist's goal is nothing less than a well-oiled national, state, and local political machine that can roll over and crush the last few bastions of Democratic Party support. "We plan to pick up another five seats in the Senate and hold the House through redistricting through 2012," he says. "And rather than negotiate with the teachers' unions and the trial lawyers and the various leftist interest groups, we intend to break them."
It's hard to imagine what would be left if you took the politics out of him. In his office one evening, after all but one of ATR's staff had headed home or off to a bar, Norquist considered the question of how many hours a week he spent doing something other than politics. "Mostly, it is what I do," he said, after a pause. "I read murder mysteries. I exercise 40 minutes a day. I watch videotapes while I exercise. I listen to audiotapes when I am in my car. And I try to stay in three different centuries." At the time, the book was a Philip Marlowe mystery, the audiotape was Shakespeare's Henry V, and the videotape an educational offering from the Teaching Company about Alexander the Great. Did he ever watch CNN? "Too boring," he said. "And I'm not learning anything."
As early as the sixth grade, Norquist, now 47, remembers arguing with classmates over the Vietnam War. "Suzy somebody thought Nixon was a fascist and [Alger] Hiss was a good guy," he says. Thanks to a fire sale at his local public library in Weston, Massachusetts, he picked up several books by J. Edgar Hoover and Whittaker Chambers on the communist threat. At 12, he was volunteering for Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. After church, his father would buy him and his three younger siblings ice-cream cones and then steal bites, announcing with each chomp, "Oops, income tax. Oops, sales tax."
These are the anecdotes Norquist offers up to explain how his obsession took hold. Politics hit him like puberty, and he has never looked back. "From the moment he gets up to the moment he gets to bed, he thinks, 'How am I going to hurt the other team?'" says Stephen Moore, the president of the anti-tax group, the Club for Growth. "One time I was telling Grover about this woman I met. Most guys would say, 'Oh, is she really good-looking?' or something like that. Grover said, 'Is she good on guns?' He was being totally serious."
Until last year, when he bought his own place on Capitol Hill, Norquist had lived with roommates in a rented house. His new four-bedroom home seems too large for one person. The walls and bookcases are decorated with the mementos of three decades of conservative crusading: a statue of Lenin he got in Bulgaria; a billy club from the tiny African nation of Lesotho, where he once went to promote private-property rights; and a Nixon campaign poster, circa 1972, hanging next to his bed.
Norquist first made a name for himself in Washington in the early 1980s as a leader of the College Republicans. From there, he signed on as president of Americans for Tax Reform, whose original mission was to push for the Reagan administration's 1986 tax plan. Once the tax bill passed, Norquist turned the group into a platform from which he could build the ranks of the GOP while moving the party further to the right.
At the same time, he was working internationally, intent on helping to win the Cold War. "I'd ride to where there weren't any guns and capture the high ground," he says jokingly of his think-tank-sponsored forays to Afghanistan, Angola, and Mozambique to organize anti-communist rebels. In those places, he usually made time to get photographed with a large piece of artillery, pens sticking out of his shirt pocket, the serious look of a warrior on his face—"armed nerd," he now calls the pose.
He says he plans to start a family someday, but it's not clear how he could swing it. "It's hard to believe that anybody can take as many plane flights as he takes," marvels his father, Warren Norquist, a retired Polaroid executive. In one two-week period last fall, Grover squeezed in an Arab American conference in Michigan; anti-tax meetings in Georgia, Missouri, and New York; and a speech at a Texas think tank. At nearly every other point, he was in Washington, dining with journalists, conferring with senators, exchanging emails with the White House, arranging press conferences, hosting meetings, or working the phones. "A lot of power in this town comes from who you know," says Jonathan Collegio, Norquist's spokesman. "The guy is out every night talking to people."