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.
"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.
Several former fellows and staffers describe the center as "adrift," "unproductive," beset by money troubles and hamstrung by Burgess's volatile personality and hands-on management style. "It's basically a PR machine for Phil," says one close observer. "He's the bottleneck. Nothing went out the door without his pawprints on it." (Many of the sources contacted by Westword agreed to speak about the center only on condition of anonymity; several said they were reluctant to be identified because of concerns about Burgess's formidable influence in public policy circles.)
Others, though, are quick to rally to Burgess's defense. "I know Phil is a controversial guy, but he was a tremendous mentor," says Andy Bane, the center's former managing director, who left the nonprofit for the private sector earlier this year. "My attitude has always been that anyone worth working for is usually difficult to work for."
Burgess says he's proud of the center's achievements and its "remarkable growth" under his direction, and he expects the future to be even brighter. But he also admits that the center is currently in a period of retrenchment. Revenues dropped by nearly a third after the completion of a million-dollar government contract a couple of years ago, and in the past few months the staff has been cut in half--from 27 to 14 full-time employees located in Denver and satellite offices in Arizona, California, and Washington, D.C. Tax filings for fiscal year 1994, the latest year available, show a net loss of $118,736 on revenues of more than $2 million. Bane says it's in the nature of think tanks to contract and expand their operations, depending on the level of funding.
"It's like a snake," says Bane. "It's constantly in the molting process."
But Burgess's think tank has left more than a few skins behind. Several of the deep thinkers listed as fellows in its 1995 annual report have since left the operation or haven't played an active role in it for years; several impressively described projects and satellite operations are now either "inactive" or "in transition." Questions about exaggerated claims, fudged research and media manipulation--particularly in relation to Burgess's pet Lone Eagle project--have been raised even by some long-term loyalists.
"The Center for the New West smokes what it grows," says one ex-associate. "They say something is true enough times, and then they believe it."
Burgess, though, remains an untiring booster of the center and the vision it embraces. "The West has always been dissed in the national media," he notes. "It's very important for those of us who want to see balanced growth and economic development to get a different picture out."
Yet the pictures developed by the center may have their own drawbacks--too much hype, overexposure, a tendency to lean to the right, a soft focus. It helps to know who paid for the pictures.
Whose West is it, anyway?
The office of the president of the Center for the New West, on the sixth floor of the World Trade Center in downtown Denver, is lined with plaques, photos and letters of appreciation--the trophies of a career in public life. There's a photo of a beardless Burgess huddling with former governor Dick Lamm, another of Burgess looking pensive on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News.
Behind the president's desk is a portrait of a beardless Abraham Lincoln and a US West poster of cowboys working on horseback. "If you don't make dust, you eat dust," the poster warns.
There's a conspicuous empty space on the wall of memorabilia facing the president's desk. Burgess says the space used to be occupied by a photo of a middle-aged farmer at market, hawking his corn; above the farmer's head a sign reads: A POUND OF CROP IS WORTH A TON OF THEORY. It's a perfect, if at the moment missing, illustration of what the president means when he talks about "peasant knowledge."
"I'm very sympathetic to storytelling," says Burgess. "There are a lot of people who just do data. Somehow you've got to combine stories with data. We've really documented a lot of peasant knowledge."
Folksy anecdotes and pithy sayings come easily to Burgess. They are, after all, his stock in trade. One way to measure a think tank's crop is in terms of the amount of media attention it attracts; by that standard, the Center for the New West is a well-cultivated quote farm, and Burgess is the top producer on the lot. He has the pitchman's ability to reduce tricky concepts to easily digestible sound bites, as well as a bushel of hyperbolic quotes for any topic, whether it's pernicious bureaucracy ("the one-size-fits-all intrusiveness of the federal government has got to stop"), the impact of telecommunications ("the most important issue of my lifetime") or the rise of the Lone Eagle ("the most important lifestyle change since the rise of the two-wage-earner family").
Rather than produce "reports gathering dust on a shelf," the center declares, the group would rather make dust by being "a proactive source for the working press"--which means that it supplies reporters not only with interviews but also with background information, connections to other sources and ideas for future stories, like any eager-to-please public-relations firm.
"Reporters look at us as a resource," explains Robert Wurmstedt, the center's director of communications. "They call us all the time looking for our views on what's happening in the West."
Media coverage of the center's work is not only as important as the work itself; in many ways, it is the center's work. A five-year tally of publications lists only seven books by authors associated with the think tank. Most of its published output consists of columns by Burgess and senior fellow William Charland for the Scripps Howard News Service, a prodigious stream of newspaper articles about Western economic and political issues by journalist (and recently departed fellow) Joel Kotkin, and the center's own quarterly newsletter, edited by Wurmstedt. Denver Post columnist and ex-editor Bill Hornby, a former member of the center's board of trustees, has also contributed a gaggle of op-ed pieces offering awkward cheers for the center's work. (Sample: "Admittedly much of the study is not new, but it is better and more hopefully expressed than in most previous such efforts.")
The blitz-the-media strategy reflects Burgess's impatience with what he calls the "turnaround time for conventional publication channels"--and, perhaps, his yearning to make a splash with policymakers. An Indiana native and former Fulbright scholar, Burgess grew restless with academic life in the mid-1970s and left a faculty position at Ohio State University for a policy job in Colorado. Before long he was running the Western Governors' Policy Office while setting up a doctoral program in public-policy administration at the University of Colorado.
In his seven years at WESTPO, Burgess says, "I never once had a governor call me up and say, 'I read an interesting book. Get hold of the guy and see if his ideas hold water.' But at least once a month a governor would send me a clipped op-ed piece. I'd just come out of an academic career, and that was a startling thing to me--that a newspaper op-ed piece really made the world go round."
After a stint as founder and executive di-rector of the Western Coal Export Council, in 1985 Burgess moved to Washington as director of staff for the Democrats' National Policy Commission. He might have stayed there, he says, sailing Chesapeake Bay and living in northern Virginia, if he hadn't received a call from US West.
At the time, Burgess says, "I didn't even know what US West was." Officials at the Baby Bell were looking for a policy guru to help them "get their arms around this region they'd inherited" from the breakup of AT&T--someone who could set up a brain trust inside the company that would study economic and demographic trends in its fourteen-state service area. "I told them I wasn't interested in that," Burgess says. "I wouldn't last two minutes in a big company."
Burgess proposed an independent, nonprofit organization that would study economic development across the entire West and would take its results public. "I decided early on that we were not going to invest a lot of money writing books," Burgess notes. "Most of what we do are op-ed pieces or reports that are easy for people to use."
Yet the Western States Strategy Center, later renamed the Center for the New West, was hardly an independent entity. In its start-up phase US West provided more than 90 percent of the center's funding. The chairman of its board of trustees was Gary Ames, then US West's president of operations. The current board is headed by US West Communications CEO Solomon Trujillo (elected unanimously to succeed Ames last fall) and also features Ames (now based in London) and US West public-policy veep James Stever. Former US West chairman Jack MacAllister is listed as the board's "counsellor."
"It's kind of hard to convince anybody you're independent if your board is populated by your funders," says Ronald Binz, former head of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel. "That's a recipe for the kind of influence you don't want to see."
Binz, who battled US West over rate and service issues for years, recently announced the formation of another think tank of sorts, the Washington-based Competition Policy Institute, bankrolled by MCI, AT&T and other telecom giants eager to compete with the Baby Bells in providing local phone service. But Binz says none of the funders will be sitting on his board of directors.
"I've got an advisory board of very strong consumer advocates from around the country," he says. "I also think it's appropriate to build a firewall with your funding sources. We have a charter that the funders endorsed, but that's the extent of their influence."
Burgess says the center's board is "self-recruited" and consists mostly of executives of companies that believe in the organization's mission and have donated accordingly. That includes not only US West but Arizona Public Service, the Western Fuels Association and the investment firm of Goldman, Sachs & Co. He points out that the center has broadened its membership in recent years and has attracted occasional grants from the Gates, El Pomar and Ford foundations--as well as two major government contracts from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Transportation.
He also insists that his board doesn't dictate the center's agenda. His staff is as likely to devote time consulting with one of the "affiliate" members, who pay dues of $195-$250 a year, as it is with one of the $25,000-and-up "founders."
Burgess adds that the center deliberately avoided addressing telecommunications issues for the first five years of its existence, even though he regards the field as "the most important revolution going on in our time--as important as the Gutenberg press." Former staffers say they were instructed to minimize the think tank's ties to US West, for reasons both strategic and economic. "There was always a concern not to look like US West was the sole funder and an effort to get money elsewhere--willy-nilly, sometimes," says one.
So what does US West get out of its investment? Board chairman Trujillo wasn't available for comment, but Burgess says he once asked Jack MacAllister that question. "He said, 'What's good for the West is good for US West,'" Burgess recalls. "It made sense then, and it makes sense now."
Yet in recent years the center has focused increasingly on technologies and lifestyle issues in which US West has a clear financial interest: telemedicine, telecommuting, tele-you-name-it. A center study on "high performance communities" concluded that Rocky Mountain scientific talent could be better utilized if linked by telecommunications into "multistate consortia." An article by a center fellow urged smaller communities to get connected to "broadband telecommunications services" in order to attract the economic stimulus provided by Lone Eagles. More often than not, it seems, the center has taken the position that what's good for US West is good for the West.
Burgess contends the center is "observing" the telecom revolution, not promoting it, but the distinction disappears in his own work. In 1993 he tapped out an overheated column praising US West's $2.5 billion investment in Time Warner. "A large part of the future" had arrived, he announced, thanks to the "visionary leaders" of both companies; the ecstatic piece failed to disclose that its author is an employee of US West. Rocky Mountain News editorial-page editor Vince Carroll later described the column as a "blatant ad" for US West. (The News now identifies Burgess's connection to the company when he writes about US West, but not when he addresses telecom issues in general--as he did in a recent column about doing an "information audit" of his home, which concluded that his TCI cable service was a relative bargain.)
The lopsided support from US West remains a sore point at the center. When asked for a list of the organization's top ten donors and amounts contributed, Wurmstedt refused, saying such disclosure "is a privilege of donors." During a two-and-a-half-hour interview, though, Burgess said that the center's "founder" members contribute between $15,000 and $25,000 a year, with two exceptions: GTE, which donates $50,000 a year, and US West, which ponies up $750,000.
Burgess says he hopes to see US West's contribution reduced to $500,000 in the near future, as the center continues to tap into new funding sources. Yet even the $750,000 figure understates US West's current level of support, since it doesn't include Burgess's salary--which is not listed in the center's public tax filings and may be the most closely guarded secret in the organization.
Tax records do, however, reveal that the center's president continues to wear many hats in his dual role as US West exec and independent think-tanker. The center operates a speakers' bureau, and among the disbursements for fiscal year 1994 was an unspecified portion of the $34,400 that Burgess earned in speaking fees. The money was paid to Burgess and Associates, "a corporation wholly owned by Mr. Burgess."
Over the years, the Center for the New West has taken credit for a number of heroic achievements, from slaying ill-advised energy legislation to standing up for the economic vitality of rural communities. Yet the cause-effect relationship between a think tank's work and public-policy decisions is rarely a straightforward one, and even the center's most solid claims tend to involve triumphs of perception rather than fact.
Late in 1992, as the Clinton transition team began making noises about imposing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, Burgess rallied the troops into action. The resulting study--financed entirely by the center, Burgess notes, but warmly embraced by its coal-burning-utility donors--argued that capping CO2 at 1990 levels would actually damage the environment by, among other consequences, retarding the development of cleaner coal technologies. The Clinton administration subsequently retreated from proposed carbon and BTU taxes, and victory was declared.
A success story, surely. But Burgess points out that there were more than a hundred studies arguing against the cap before the center unveiled its work at the National Press Club. The center's unique contribution, he says, was to put the issue into terms a layman could understand. Burgess himself made the rounds of energy conferences with two Styrofoam cylinders, illustrating different countries' percentages of present and projected world CO2 emissions--an impressive visual aid, right down to the color scheme (United States, green; China, red; emerging industrialized nations, black).
Another major study, backed by the Ford Foundation and others, set out to refute the pessimistic view of the Great Plains economy put forth by Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper. In 1987 the Poppers had stirred outrage from Fargo to Amarillo by suggesting that much of the Great Plains was in a state of decline and could fare better if it became a quasi-public-land "Buffalo Commons" devoted to tourism and recreation.
Burgess wasn't about to let a couple of academics from New Jersey have the last word. He and three other center researchers headed out to the Plains to harvest the peasant knowledge, returning with a glowing report about the region's "innovative" new jobs, its growing per-capita wealth and its "New Economy" (which would, of course, require new "social and economic indicators" to be properly assessed).
The center's report was a smash. Editorials across the Corn Belt lauded its wisdom and insightfulness ("Pooh to you, Popper!" sneered one headline in the Topeka Capitol-Journal). Yet all the center's talk of "possibility thinking" and "bootstraps action" tended to disguise the report's reliance on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data to support its upbeat conclusions.
Lost in much of the coverage was the fact that many of the new jobs the center was talking about were low-paying, or that many of the most distressed counties were, as the Poppers had claimed, losing population at an alarming clip. The only media skeptic was Chicago Tribune writer Jon Margolis, who denounced the Center for the New West as "a practitioner of pseudo-science and one of the frauds of American public life"--a review that was somehow omitted from the center's thick packet of newspaper coverage of its report.
The hoopla over the Great Plains study pales, though, in comparison to that generated by the Lone Eagle project. No other "study" has triggered such an avalanche of attention for the center and its president. It's a stunning example of how a vague, poorly researched idea can, through cunning promotion and the cooperation of unskeptical reporters, be transformed into a media phenomenon of absurd dimensions.
The project had its genesis in the center's Great Plains research. Burgess and company kept bumping into stockbrokers, health-care consultants and other white-collar types in unlikely places such as Superior, Nebraska--highly skilled people who had chosen a rural lifestyle but used computers and other technology to serve distant markets. Burgess began calling such people "Lone Eagles" and decided this new breed of bird was worth studying.
Before long, Burgess's columns were larded with seemingly authoritative statistics about Lone Eagles. As he saw it, nearly 40 percent of all jobs now require "knowledge workers"--people who work with their heads rather than their hands, who can take their skills with them and live as they choose. Within that group, there are "about 9 million workers in the Lone Eagle category," he announced, and most of them are settling in rural areas, "often in the West." Furthermore, the "typical Lone Eagle carries work orders for $50,000 to $150,000--and many have much higher annual revenues."
The bottom line: It makes sense for rural communities to do whatever they can to lure these rare birds. Get ten of them to nest in your town and you've pumped a million dollars into the local economy. "A Lone Eagles recruitment strategy can become the centerpiece of a community's economic development portfolio," burbled one center handout on the subject.
Burgess and senior fellow Colleen Boggs Murphy went on to study the subtler characteristics of Lone Eagles and came up with an official-sounding list of different types: Golden Eagles (upscale, "some old, some young and many in between"); Bald Eagles (migrant retirees); Country Hawks (seeking a rural nest); Trustfunders ("rich Trustfunders are found in Aspen and Jackson Hole"); Piggybackers (live off spouses' incomes); Hummingbirds (celebrities who want mountain retreats, not really Lone Eagles at all); and so on.
It all made for a smooth package, and the media guzzled it down like a bunch of drunks locked inside a brewery. The button-down business press, the cheerleading regional newspapers, the lifestyles mavens, the slick newsweeklies--the slicks most of all--they all pounced on it. In the fall of 1993, less than a year after the center first began pushing the Lone Eagle idea, Time magazine ran a cover story on "Boom Time in the Rockies," declaring in bold type that the region "has become a magnet for lone-eagle telecommuters." The story quoted Burgess at length on the matter.
With Time on the bandwagon, small towns, public officials and untold numbers of restless office workers bought into the idea, too. Live anywhere! Commute by phone! Goodbye, city life! Suddenly, rural economic development councils were seeking the center's advice and setting up task forces to go scouting for Lone Eagles. The state of Nebraska announced plans for a Lone Eagle Award, in recognition of the elusive bird's vital contribution to rural life.
Throughout it all, few people bothered to ask if this massive social movement was as far-reaching as Burgess claimed it was, or whether it made sense for strapped rural counties to spend public money to "recruit" Lone Eagles. The awful truth was that there was no thorough, credible study of the phenomenon, just the center's press releases and newsletters and the resulting media coverage--a mishmash of misleading numbers, inspiring anecdotes and sheer fantasy.
Knowledge workers? According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of jobs in America still require little, if any, postsecondary education. Even taking into account all managerial and professional positions, the number of knowledge workers is closer to twenty than forty percent--unless one's idea of a knowledge worker is someone with the know-how to flip burgers or change oil.
Nine million Lone Eagles? "We looked at all the people who had computers, who were in certain income categories, employed in corporate staffs, and started subtracting out, and that's how we arrived at that number," Burgess says. But in his early columns on the trend, he cited an article in Inc. magazine as his source for the magic 9 million. That article uses the figure in reference to the total number of self-employed people in the country--a group that includes plumbers, contractors, taxi drivers and many others.
But surely, even if we don't know how many there are, these birds are soaring to the wide open spaces of the West?
"From my point of view, the Lone Eagle thing is vastly exaggerated," says Joel Kotkin, a "founding" senior fellow at the center who departed a few months ago to work more closely with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute. "If you take a look at where the big concentrations of Lone Eagles are, it's in cities. The kind of skills that urban people have--writing, entertainment, design--need to be in an urban economy. The rural areas don't have a need for those skills. The ones that go there are burnout cases."
A former Washington Post reporter, Kotkin says his own research on Lone Eagles in Utah revealed that "they were mostly people in their forties and fifties who'd already had successful careers and had leveraged their lives so they could live in Park City. I'd never recommend it for people in their twenties."
Kotkin prefers the term "Valhalla Syndrome" to describe the rush to the hinterlands, and he sees the trend as being driven less by positive economic and social forces than by negative ones such as "white flight" from troubled big cities. "It's really a flight from diversity," he says. "They want to go places where they can find people more like them."
But what about those six-figure incomes? Those economic development opportunities? The center's own writings on the Lone Eagle phenomenon make passing reference to the fact that many "freelance professionals" are actually victims of corporate downsizing, shorn of health insurance and pensions and struggling to work out of their homes. Resort towns like Aspen and Telluride have had some success building high-tech enclaves, but their "Trustfunders" are hardly typical. Recently the Colorado Advanced Technology Institute invested $1.7 million in public and private funds into developing new telecommunications applications in ten rural communities; the project managed to create a total of forty new jobs, with an average salary of $25,000.
Burgess is now writing a book about Lone Eagles, trolling for success stories on the center's Web page. He dismisses questions about the validity of his research as just haggling over details. What matters, he says, is not how many Lone Eagles there are or even where they are but the case studies he's compiled. "If you have five or six Lone Eagles move into a small community, it can make a big difference," he insists.
But even the anecdotal evidence isn't always what it seems. Major stories in the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times featured a Hillrose, Colorado, health-care consultant named Jeff Bauer as a sterling example of Lone Eagledom. Neither article mentioned that Bauer is one of Burgess's earliest discoveries--and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West.
A cynic might conclude that the Lone Eagle project was nothing more than an attempt to persuade rural officials to upgrade their outmoded phone services in a misguided effort to attract well-heeled professionals. Burgess hotly disputes that notion. "We're not advocating anything," he says. "The idea that [the project] is a stalking horse for US West is just wrong."
Former center manager Andy Bane agrees. "Lone Eagles will cause more headaches than opportunities for telecom companies," he says. "They're the ones demanding the services. If anything, we identified problems US West needed to fix."
But consumer advocate Ron Binz isn't so sure. "It's probably a mistake to imagine that a telecommunications infrastructure in an area is automatically a magnet for economic development," he says. "If that kind of infrastructure is put in to serve a tiny minority of customers, everybody's going to pay for it. The center is pushing the envelope on that, and I think it's significant that it's to US West's indirect benefit that the position is pushed."
Two years ago, not long after Burgess moved his family to Maryland, an article in Forbes ASAP portrayed him as the consummate Lone Eagle. The writer described him at home in Annapolis, surrounded by computer hardware in his basement office, looking out at "his 37-foot Tartan sloop, Happy Days III, moored in its slip at Wild Duck Cove." Burgess calls himself a "payroller"--a Lone Eagle who draws a corporate paycheck but lives where he pleases.
Unfortunately, his home office doesn't see as much of him these days. "Working out of my home just got to be overwhelming," he says. "I'd be traveling for five or six days and come back and have 150 pages of faxes. One day my wife said to me, 'I married you for better or worse, but I didn't marry you for lunch.'"
The payroller now keeps a separate office in Annapolis, complete with a secretary to handle his voluminous faxes and e-mail.
"Most secretaries wouldn't want to come into your house," he says.
One of his longtime admirers says that Phil Burgess reminds him of Herman Kahn, the celebrated founder of the Hudson Institute. The comparison fits in several ways. Like Burgess, Kahn was an outsized, outspoken, bearded eccentric with a forceful personality and eclectic interests. Kahn was also said to be the model for Dr. Strangelove in the Stanley Kubrick film, and the think tank that Burgess has created has its eerie, Strangelovian qualities, too.
Burgess calls the Center for the New West a "virtual organization" that engages in a "surfing strategy" of management. Translation: The center has a small staff but a vast pool of expertise to draw upon, and thus it can shift direction effortlessly to keep up with the ever-changing world of public-policy issues.
"Anybody who's ever surfed knows that sometimes you catch a big wave and it peters out on you," Burgess explains. It's not easy shuffling from one hot issue to the next, he adds, juggling agendas and experts, "but I know what happens when you get a bunch of people who can only hammer nails. When you need a screw, they'll hammer the screw."
Bane says that surfing allows the center to avoid the kind of hidebound bureaucracy found in larger, more predictable think tanks, but he acknowledges that the strategy has its drawbacks, too. "It can make it harder to raise money," he says. "It can make it harder to develop core competencies or to get a reputation as the place to go for a particular piece of work. The upside to it is that you don't get aligned with one industry."
Other former center associates say that Burgess's restless hopping from project to project has frustrated staff and alienated funding sources. "Phil has a real control issue," says one. "He can't delegate, and there was never any direction. Projects would start, and two weeks later they'd disappear. And then there was denial that they didn't exist anymore."
At any given moment, certain portions of Burgess's virtual organization may be virtually nonexistent. Take, for example, the center's Institute for Information Law and Policy--if you can find it. According to the latest annual report, the institute provides administrative support and other services to the National Information Infrastructure Testbed, a group of corporations, universities and federal agencies involved in developing info-highway technologies. The relationship with NIIT was forged when attorney Troy Eid, the executive director of NIIT, was provided office space at the center and named director of the institute.
But NIIT quickly outgrew the relationship, and Eid moved into other offices last fall and resigned from the center. Eid says the center was a "useful incubator" for NIIT, but he can't recall anything he did for the center's institute except for a couple of op-ed pieces. Most of his time was devoted to NIIT, which was paying his salary. Burgess says he's now putting a considerable amount of his own time into planning for the institute, which currently has no director.
The center frequently makes use of "loaned executives" like Eid, who are being paid by someone else but are featured prominently in center publications. Last year the Institute for Telemedicine consisted of Leslie Sandberg, a loaned Pacific Telesis executive, and Peggy Poggio of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Both are gone now, and the institute has its third director in as many years.
Sandberg says she made valuable contacts at the center, but "I think the issue of continuity is there. In a perfect world, it would be great to have people [running the institutes] who didn't have to worry about financial issues every day, and your funding could be more broad-based--but that's a tough thing to do."
Other senior fellows listed on the center's masthead seem to be underutilized or simply passing through. University of Colorado professor Patricia Limerick, a revisionist Western historian, would seem to have little in common with the center's boosterish agenda--but then, she hasn't participated in any of the think tank's events for five years.
"I've gotten a note from Phil a couple of times in the last few years, but that's it," says Limerick, a 1995 MacArthur Fellow. "It's not because of any reluctance on my part. There's no one bigger than me on the idea of getting outside the university and speaking to people who might be inclined to dismiss you."
Burgess says he hasn't "engaged" with Limerick as much as he'd like to, "but that's the whole idea of a virtual organization. You engage with people when it makes sense." He points out that Denver community activist David Stalls, another associate "whose views are different from mine," was featured on a center panel on career-shifting last month.
Stalls says he's done little for the think tank, but Burgess "was kind enough to offer me some office space" on occasion. "They've been a wonderful ally for me when I needed a place to regroup," he adds. "Phil's a pretty cool guy. We've just grown apart philosophically over the years."
"Phil views the center as a conveyor--not a place that people stay forever," says Robert Maynes, director of the center's Washington office, who's announced plans to leave this spring. (The Washington operation is being scaled back, Burgess says, so that the center can devote more resources to state and local government issues.)
Burgess concedes his management style can be messy, even "volatile." Others suggest that it can be downright intimidating, and that the center's revolving door of staff and fellows reveals more about Burgess than his surfing strategy. Several sources say Burgess has a habit of berating staff and even senior fellows at length about their work or their failure to bring in new funding sources.
"You never knew where you stood," says one. "Phil could be complimentary one day and in a fury the next. He frequently reduced staff to tears--and not just the females, either."
Burgess doesn't see himself as a particularly demanding boss, "but I guess I'm not a warm fuzzy," he says. "I come from an aca-demic environment, where you sit around a table and criticize methodology and call a spade a spade. I believe in high-feedback systems."
The high feedback sometimes spills over into Burgess's performance at conferences and public forums. He's been known to get into loud confrontations with speakers with whom he disagrees--not just theatrics but displays of genuine emotion--that some colleagues find embarrassing. "I've seen it get to the point where people in the audience would actually get uncomfortable," says one observer. "He'd be yelling, just cowing them into submission."
Another associate recalls a health-care conference a few years ago, at a time when the center was seeking to position itself as a leading voice in the debate over federal reform. "Burgess just went off," he says. "He started telling experts in the field that they didn't know anything. As the saying goes, he went postal."
Patricia Limerick says Burgess uses "strategies of proclamation and assertion" in his public addresses. "My personal experience is, when you try that, a number of spines in the audience stiffen. The people already with you say, 'Oh, boy,' but you don't bring around the people who have questions or doubt."
Burgess, however, makes no apologies for his bully-boy persona. When invited to speak, he says, "I'm more like the football coach at halftime than the first-grade teacher. I am personally engaged. I like what I do. I believe what I say."
Even his toughest critics acknowledge that Burgess may be the center's greatest asset. His personal interests and enthusiasms contribute at least as much to the think tank's agenda as any corporate influence, and his boundless energy--spending weekends in Maryland and much of the week on the road, surfacing at the Denver office for only a few days a month--rivals that of the Energizer bunny. Yet he may also be the operation's greatest liability, since his role raises inescapable questions about the center's finances and its credibility.
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"The real problem with the US West money is that Phil Burgess is on their payroll and not the center's," says one former think-tanker. "When the head of the organization isn't on the payroll, then he's not as concerned as he should be about the financial picture. I would never be on a board that supported that situation."
Burgess doesn't see the problem. What's good for the West--for his West--isn't that what it's all about?
"Not everyone agrees with us, but I think most people see us as independent," he says. "If we couldn't win our spurs by having independence and credibility, we wouldn't have anything.