Memoir: That think-tank guy looks back

It was the early 1980s.  I was running a public policy institute and executive seminar program affiliated with a small liberal arts college.  How’s that for a mouthful?  Tough on a kid in elementary school, for one thing, when the teacher has everyone tell what their parents do at work.

Our daughter Tina came home sputtering.  Why did her dad have to be in public policy, impossible to explain to classmates, when their dads and moms were in everyday fields like sales or nursing? Her sister Jen nailed it, though, with a tag that’s defined me ever since: “My dad typewrites and staples.” 

This is a chapter from my forthcoming book, Downstream: An American Album, co-authored with Jim Andrews. It’s a far-ranging brothers’ memoir of our Boomer experiences and life lessons, set for release October 1. Pre-order your copy by emailing me at, subject line “Downstream.”

Guilty as charged.  The typing goes on, upgraded to a Mac from the old Underwood, and my trusty Bostitch is always in reach.  She has a way with words, that Jennifer.  As do I, friends say– the one aptitude and fascination that has given my varied career some continuity.  

And it’s been a trip.  Without exaggeration I can say I have delighted in all the work that has come my way to do, in all the years since Jim Prowell’s dad gave me my first paycheck – dubiously earned, suitably meager – at his welding supply in the hot Amarillo summer of 1959.

But unlike that teenage job of a few weeks, as tactile as an oxygen cylinder muscled onto a truck, everything I’ve done since has been brainwork. Useful in its way, but far removed from the vital basic tasks of keeping Americans fed, warm, housed, healthy, mobile, and safe.

In the Arena 

Indoors with no heavy lifting, nice work if you can get it.  We all contribute what we can, though. What sweat there was for me – and there’s been some – was figurative, wrung from the intensity of wanting to do right by the gifts I was born with, for the country I was born into. 

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My father was born a moral educator. My mother’s brother, Edward Hutchinson, was born a legislator. Some of both is in my genes. But whereas each had a sense of where he was headed after getting out of the service, I had no such clarity when my Navy duty ended. Mine became a largely accidental career in what you might call the idea business.

 I’ve contended in the public arena where human aspirations meet hard realities – the subjective colliding with the objective, if you will.  For me, as for any young idealist, it was a process of reconciling the romance of the former with the stubbornness of the latter.  My climb up the learning curve, I hope, has helped others climb too.

Four strands wove through my working life from early 1970, when I hired on with White House press secretary Ron Ziegler, to late 2015, when I retired from Bill Armstrong’s cabinet at Colorado Christian University.  Politics, education, media, and ministry alternated and overlapped through a dozen changes of venue.

With each came treasured friendships, many of which I’ll mention in the flyover that follows. If some names aren’t familiar, think of them as landmarks in a far country, home ground to me though unvisited by you. It gratifies me to say the litany of them. So now let’s fly –


Among those who pay attention to such things in my adopted state of Colorado and in the conservative movement nationally, my one-liner in the record books might simply be “that think-tank guy.”  Five or six of them dot my resume.

I led the Shavano Institute with Hugh Fowler, the Independence Institute with Dave D’Evelyn, the Texas Public Policy Foundation with Fritz Steiger, the Claremont Institute legislative shop with Brian Kennedy, and the Centennial Institute with Jeff Hunt.  Along the way, with Byron Lamm, I helped form the State Policy Network, a sort of tank of tanks.

This was my arcane side, the fuzziness that flummoxed my kids. On the conventional side, I apprenticed in PresidentNixon’s press office, then joined his speechwriting team under Raymond Price.  I was a Reagan appointee and education council chairman under Secretary Bill Bennett. I was Republicannominee for Governor of Colorado against the formidableRoy Romer.

When my neighbors later elected me state senator, my GOP colleagues honored me with several years in leadership, teamed with Mark Hilllman.  For a time I felt the yen to be a congressman – like my friend Tom Tancredo, my schoolmate Mike Barnes, my mentor Bill Armstrong, or my uncle Ed Hutchinson. I wisely lay down until the feeling went away.


I never did feel the yen to be a teacher.  But the question of how education can help individuals be their best, and how schools can help sustain civilization, began absorbing me when I was still in college.  The educational writings of Mary Kimball Morgan, Principia’s founder, published as a book in my senior year, gave rise to my impassioned “Elsah Manifesto,” an all-campus talk on Prin’s world-changing mission.  

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For Nixon I wrote the first presidential address ever given in favor of school vouchers and parental choice.  In my first job after escaping Washington and Watergate, helping my father run the Adventure Unlimited youth organization, I saw our work with those kids as not just recreating for leisure but educating for life.

My next post was helping George Roche run Hillsdale College in Michigan while we experimented with lifelong learning at Shavano in the Rockies.  I would later serve 18 years with Guy McBride on the Colorado School of Mines adjunct faculty, before being tapped by former Sen. Bill Armstrong to help put Colorado Christian University on the map.


The media thread in my career also had a didactic tinge.  The White House, think tanks, and Senate credentialed me to opine on current events for papers from the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines like Newsweek and National Review.  I self-published a little monthly journal called Andrews’America, along with books of family history, short stories, and spiritual reflections.

Tele-Communications Inc. engaged Bob Chitester and me to create a conservative cable news product, right before Roger Ailes launched Fox News and lapped the field.  It reprised my dad’s story about the guy who, dreamt of making it big in soft drinks and kept tweaking his formula – only to go broke on 6-Up.  Bob and I commiserated that we’d come “that close.”

But the demise of TCI Cable News as a national venture caromed me into local television with a daily mini-debate that Dani Newsum and I named “Head On.” During those same years I had fun with a weekly talk show, Backbone Radio (Matt Dunn, sidekick), and a monthly column in the then-robust Denver Post (Dean Singleton, publisher).

My viewpoint as expressed in all this punditry, well to the right, often ran contrary to the way my brother sees things.  Yet Jim would graciously tip his cap to John’s sheer volume of output. And he kept after me on something else I’m indebted for. 

Without Jim’s gentle prodding to diversify a bit and test my writer’s gift on more expansive, less polemical forms, my book Responsibility Reborn would not have come to be. Nor would we have produced the “Cityscape” and “Conversations” essays that form the nucleus of this book. Merci beaucoup, mon frère


There you have my first three threads: politics, education, and media.  What of the fourth one, ministry?  The word itself, common in the Bible, is for some reason little used in the Christian Science movement, where I’m grateful to have been raised.  I only use it now because life took me in another direction.

Ministry, as I’ll define it here, simply means serving God by serving his people.  That needn’t involve formal vocation, but it does involve directly invoking Him: witnessing. The wordless, God-honoring ministry of a Christian factory worker or computer programmer, sacred in its way, isn’t what I mean.

My seven rich years with Adventure Unlimited had a ministry dimension, as well as the educational dimension I spoke of earlier. It was in wrestling with howto minister to the young Christian Scientists in our care that I began to question my religious upbringing and look afield.

I count as a sort of “ministry in the wilderness” all the hand-circulated devotional writing and biblical networking I pursued with friends across the country, after leaving A/U in 1981 and prior to joining a Presbyterian church in 1996.  What a slow learner I was; a dumb ox, in Chesterton’s phrase.  What patience my family had with me during those years. 

What grand ministry models I had in men like Greg Read, Don Reeverts, and Jim Groen.  And in Ted Noble of Greater Europe Mission. My stint there was an eye-opener about the ebb and flow of today’s global Christianity.

My career-capping tenure as a Colorado Christian University vice president had a ministry component too.  We tried to infuse biblical truth into all our programs framing public issues for the students on campus and a growing national audience.  

The ‘Why’

The “what” of my life’s four strands braided perfectly in that job. But it took 2016 to remind me of the “why.”  That was a doubly disorienting time. I was newly retired and missing the world of work.  Worse, I was digesting the crazy victory of my one-hundredth choice for the nomination, Donald Trump, over my one-thousandth choice for President, Hillary Clinton.

This think-tank guy was forced into some soul-searching.  My side had won, sort of.  Yet as a conservative acolyte of Edmund Burke and Bill Buckley in civics, of C.S. Lewis and Cardinal Newman in religion, what did I have to show for a lifetime of typing and stapling?

Plenty, I concluded, based on my faith that when we serve a high purpose, the battle is its own reward. We’re not called to be successful, Mother Teresa said, but only to be faithful. By that criterion, 2016 was just another opportunity to be of good cheer and keep on keeping on.

Aim high? I’ve tried.  My working life of close to half a century has not only been that of a conservative “in the trenches” (Jim’s phrase when we outlined this section) and a thinker “in the idea business” (my own phrase at the outset) – but something more as well. 

I’ve battled as much in the stratosphere of worldviews as in the trenches of elections won or lost.  And contra those who wield ideas manipulatively, I’ve espoused an unvarying, reverential sense of truth and right – what T.S. Eliot (echoed by Principia’s Mary KimballMorgan) called “the permanent things.”

What are those things, by my lights? In politics, the natural-law assumptions and constitutional order of America’s founding documents.  In education, character and content, competition and choice.  In media, virtuous free expression for a free and virtuous society. In ministry, the gospel, the creeds, the commandments, the beatitudes.

Such has been my conservatism, dimly grasped in the early years, maturing with the decades, and still even now unfolding. It would take another book to explore how my core beliefs worked themselves out in all the settings I’ve described. 

Time tempered my outlook with less of the dazzle of the Apocalypse and more of the acerbity of Ecclesiastes.  The conservative worldview became for me not so much a dogma or an agenda, but increasingly a lens for looking at life. 

Open Question

I’ve gained an affectionate realism about the human condition, growing from a chastened self-knowledge. Today I’d second the answer G.K. Chesterton gave when surveyed by some magazine on what’s wrong with the world. “I am,” he shot back, gleefully grim.

To get there, I had to outgrow the utopianism of Tom Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” (quoted by no less a paragon than Reagan, who knew better). And I had to cast off the solipsism of Hamlet,  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (taught me early by the same people who taught me Scripture).

Can mere thinking make it so?  Of course not. This fallen world has its givens. Things are as they are.  “I refute it thus,” growled Dr. Johnson, lustily kicking a cobblestone, when asked about Berkeley’s theory that everything is mental. 

The objective usually humbles the subjective when they collide. “As surely as Water will wet us,” chants Kipling in a sardonic poem every voter should memorize, “as surely as Fire will burn, the Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!” 

Return they do, good or bad thinking aside. Good thinking, though, is today more than ever a vital line of defense for our precious, fragile American way of life endangered by unthinking indulgences and idolatries.  

My bottom line as a think-tanker comes from the first page of The Federalist Papers. That’s where Publius asks whether it is possible for a people to govern themselves by “reflection and choice” rather than by “accident and force.” 

The answer, I believe, is yes – provided we balance liberty with responsibility and keep freedom from becoming its own worst enemy. But for ten generations now, this has remained an open question confronting what Lincoln calls our “new nation conceived in liberty.”  

For the privilege of doing what I can in the time allotted me to help our fellow citizens wrestle with that question, I am inexpressibly grateful.