Feature

Peter Flanigan, 1923–2013

The Nixon aide who pioneered education reform

Peter Flanigan’s ability to push business interests through regulatory barriers during his time as an aide to President Richard Nixon moved Time to term him the administration’s “Mr. Fixit.” Liberal activist Ralph Nader, for one, disagreed. He considered Flanigan’s influence so pervasive and insidious that he called him the “mini-president” and the “most evil” man in Washington.

Flanigan was a vice president at investment house Dillon Read when he became active in Republican politics in the 1950s, said The New York Times. An “early and strong supporter of Nixon,” he headed up the then vice president’s New York office during his run against John F. Kennedy. By 1968 he had raised enough money and given enough support to Nixon to be named deputy campaign manager, and after Nixon’s victory he slipped into an unpaid position to help fill executive branch appointments. The quiet, unassuming Flanigan was “possibly the least known of President Nixon’s dozen or so top aides” in 1969.

Flanigan made a name for himself as Nixon’s assistant for international economic affairs, said Bloomberg.com, becoming a powerful advocate for business. “He’s the guy who people in our industry turn to,” a steel executive said in 1972. But Democrats were wary of his connections, criticizing him for his role in persuading the government to drop antitrust charges against telecom giant International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. When it emerged in 1974 that a former colleague at Dillon Read had drafted the analysis that convinced the government not to act, Flanigan quit, “just weeks before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign the presidency.”

After his foray into politics, Flanigan returned to Wall Street, but he became heavily involved in education philanthropy in the “bright autumn of his years,” said The Wall Street Journal. In 1986 he founded a scholarship program for poor students that is considered the forerunner of voucher programs, and subsequently became a “giant of the school-choice movement.” Using his wealth and political skills, Flanigan helped build an “army of benefactors” in an effort to fund alternative inner-city schools, and “it’s working.” A recent Brookings Institution report found that school vouchers had boosted college enrollment among African-Americans by 24 percent. Flanigan saw his work in education as a dictate of fairness. Among the middle classes, he said, there were “very few people whose parents didn’t, one way or another, get their kids into a good school of their choice. But we deny that right to [inner-city kids].”

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