Matt Lewis

A chat with Grover Norquist

“My grandfather is named Grover — and he was born during the administration of Grover Cleveland,” explains anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. “I don’t know for a fact — but I’ve always assumed that he was named after the president — and that I got named after him.”

Interesting namesakes aside, Norquist has become a huge name in American politics in his own right. Some view him as a hero of the taxpayer. Others see him as a boogeyman who bullies Republicans and prevents compromise. Even some conservatives view him as a sellout on various issues. Regardless of your viewpoint, he is a fascinating figure who has become a major player in politics.

I recently had a chance to talk with Norquist at length about his life and work. (Listen to a podcast of our full conversation here.)

Norquist grew up in Massachusetts, went to Harvard undergrad — and later — Harvard business school. A few years after his stint as executive director of the National Taxpayers Union, “the Reagan people put [Americans for Tax Reform] together and asked me to run it in ’85,” he says.

Today, Norquist is perhaps the most important conservative activist in America. He is married and is the father of two daughters. For fun, he enjoys doing standup comedy, and tells me his favorite comedian is Eddie Izzard, a British standup.

Though the tax issue has made him famous, it wasn’t his first political passion. He sort of fell into it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “I got into politics from the anti-Communist world,” he says. “I read Nixon’s writings, J. Edgar Hoover’s writings, and “I Led Three Lives” by Herb Philbrick and “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers.”

But his passion for the anti-Communist cause ultimately led Norquist to embrace the tax issue by making him realize that the Soviet Union’s “big government was evil — and that our big government wasn’t always a delight” either.

Regarding his now famous (and controversial) “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” Norquist recalled its earliest beginnings. “In ’88,” he said, “all the presidential candidates except Bob Dole took the pledge. Bob Dole lost the primary largely because of that in New Hampshire.”

Norquist notes that George H.W. Bush signed the pledge and won the election– but he betrayed it in 1990, and, “despite a fairly successful presidency … he preceded to get thrown out of office because he raised taxes.”

Though his enemies cast him as a villain, Norquist is known for his sense of humor. I asked him if he would shave his beard if President Obama signed the tax pledge. “I’d shave my head bald,” he quipped, “if I believed he was really going to be a friend of the taxpayer, because that would be a tremendous victory.”

Norquist sees the presidential race as now between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and maybe Rick Perry. He likes Gingrich’s energy, but worries that “sometimes he can be for an energetic government.”

“I think a slothful government is a good idea,” Norquist explains. But he concedes that shrinking government will take a lot of energy “and Newt’s enthusiasm,” he says, “would be well spent making the government tiny.”

You can listen to an audio stream of the interview here. Or download the podcast on iTunes.