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Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

When Phil Burgess gets up to speak, he doesn't just take the floor. He takes the whole room--floor, walls, ceiling, people and every last scrap of oxygen in the place. He storms the podium like Patton rolling through the Rhineland or Al Haig commandeering a press conference; there's no question who's in charge here.

A veteran of the rubber-chicken circuit, Burgess can dominate a room with his voice. It's stout, capacious, bristling with authority--and loud. At a recent luncheon at the Denver Athletic Club, attorney Don Bain referred to Burgess as the "best conservative speaker in the country." Burgess proceeded to stake his claim to the title by haranguing two dozen members of the Colorado Republican Business Coalition in a voice that seemed designed for a much larger crowd, a voice that drowned out the clatter from the kitchen as it boomed its relentlessly upbeat, can-do message.

For thirty minutes Burgess raced through the themes he has sounded again and again over the past seven years as president of the Center for the New West, a nonprofit, Denver-based think tank pushing economic development in the region. Washington bureaucrats are out of touch with the people, he said; the Republican revolution of 1994 "was really about a government that had become too big, too costly and too intrusive." Contrary to the doom-and-gloom crowd inside the Beltway, the American entrepreneurial spirit has never been stronger.

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"This nation wasn't made great by 'Woe is me' messages," Burgess declared. "It was made great by people who believed in themselves and made things happen."

The audience loved it, of course, even though what Burgess had to say was short on specifics and curiously nonpartisan. But then, Burgess has never been one to play favorites. A Young Republican in college, he later headed up the Democratic Party's National Policy Commission. In 1991 he was named co-chair of Wellington Webb's transition team--the same Wellington Webb who'd just creamed Don Bain in the mayoral race, the same Don Bain who was paying tribute to Burgess five years later.

Burgess's true loyalties may be hard to determine, but his public orations generally involve a few digs at big government--and big business. At the end of his talk, someone asked him about the concept of corporate social responsibility; Burgess snapped, "I don't want the people running corporations deciding what my children's schools are going to be like. Big corporations lost 4 million jobs in the last twelve years. Why should they tell us what to do?"

Why indeed? Listening to Burgess bang the drum for the little guy, it's easy to forget that he's being paid by a big corporation to tell the rest of us what to do. His paycheck comes not from the Center for the New West, but from US West, which hired him in the late 1980s as a "special assistant to the chairman" for the express purpose of setting up the think tank. The telecommunications giant remains the largest sponsor of the organization, contributing around $750,000 a year to it--roughly a third of the center's current budget.

Burgess himself is a bundle of contradictions, a mercurial figure who talks like a sagebrush rebel but runs with the policy elite. He extols the virtues of grassroots economic development and "peasant knowledge," yet the bulk of the funding for his think tank comes from US West and a handful of other large Western utilities, manufacturers and energy companies. He bashes the federal government for its excesses while accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal research contracts. He's a former college professor who speaks in sound bites; a self-proclaimed Westerner who makes his home in Annapolis, Maryland; an avowed critic of "Washington insiders" who spends several days of every month within twenty miles of the Beltway, huddling with policy wonks.

Under Burgess's direction, the Center for the New West has emerged as the most visible think tank in the Rocky Mountain states. Its loose-knit network of "senior fellows," experts in everything from rural culture to international barter arrangements, has launched numerous roundtables and conferences, consulted with dozens of corporations and local governments on economic issues, and garnered widespread media attention for its research on burning topics of the day, such as energy taxes, the future of the Great Plains and what Burgess calls the "Lone Eagle" phenomenon--the rise of freelance professionals who choose to live in rural areas, connected to the world by fax and modem.

The center bills itself as an independent voice in support of the New West, which it sees as a place brimming with technological innovation and opportunity. Burgess says the center's primary mission has to do with promoting balanced growth and "ending the boom-and-bust cycle that has been extremely damaging to the environment of the West."

Yet much of what the center has to offer doesn't seem all that new--or independent. Unlike larger, more well-established think tanks, it has focused less on producing detailed, original studies than on generating media coverage of its programs and ideas; Burgess himself writes a weekly syndicated column that appears in the Rocky Mountain News and hosts a Denver public-television talking-heads show, Body Politic. While a few of the center's projects appear to have had some impact on policymakers, others have been a triumph of slick packaging over substance.

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