Ten public health workers and advocates from Haiti, along with a similar number of U.S. experts and researchers, are engaged in an intense weekday morning discussion at the Northside headquarters of Indianapolis' signature think tank.

"If someone had to put me on a continuum, I'd probably be placed on the far left," says Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John Clark. "No other conservative think tank would put up with me.""What is the HIV infection rate in Haiti?" asks the American public health expert, who has worked in humanitarian assistance with the United Nations in Bangladesh and for other relief agencies in Angola, Jordan and Rwanda.

The Haitian who is an executive with a global relief group responds even before the French translator can do his work. "It is 6 percent," he says in English. The highest rate in the Western Hemisphere.

A young woman who works for a health outreach program in Port Au Prince speaks up. "Much of the problem comes from young women having to prostitute themselves to survive, which leads to infection," she says in French. The group proceeds on a lengthy exchange about how the complicated mix of health, economics and education factor into Haiti's AIDS problem. The Americans, including a university professor and several Ph.D. researchers, ask several times for ideas about how they can help the Haitian visitors with their work.

Given the topic, it is not surprising that public education, poverty and safe sex practices are discussed. But since the host is Hudson Institute, long known for promoting an extremely conservative political agenda, the surprise may lie in what is missing from the discussion. No one says prayer in schools will solve the Haitian AIDS crisis. No one suggests that total surrender to free market forces will stop the epidemic. Contrary to what some of us may have guessed, a long productive meeting occurs where no one from Hudson invokes either Margaret Thatcher or Pat Robertson.

Asked about that image, the host of today's meeting, Hudson Senior Fellow John Clark, sighs. "Oh, yes, the idea that we are all right-wing lunatics. If people just take a look at Hudson, they'll see we are more diverse than they think, and we do different stuff than they think."

Clark himself may be the best example of Hudson defying expectations. The director of Hudson's Center for Central European and Eurasian Studies helped found California's Green Party and is a blunt critic of much of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. He doesn't think much of the war in Iraq, he decries the shunning of international law in the U.S. response to Sept. 11 and he speaks out in opposition to the detention and military tribunals planned for Guantanamo Bay prisoners (see, "Surprising Thoughts Spill from Hudson's Tank" sidebar).

Clark, whose resume includes four books, a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley and a stint in the 1980s as an advisor to the democratic opposition in Poland and Hungary, points out that other Hudson foreign policy analysts opposed the recent invasion of Iraq. By Clark's reckoning, two of the five senior researchers in Hudson's Indianapolis office would be classified as liberal Democrats.

Clark does not include himself in that category, preferring a "none of the above" classification. But pressed, he admits he doesn't fit the Hudson stereotype either. "I try not to be ideological," Clark says. "But if someone had to put me on the continuum, I'd probably be placed on the far left. No other conservative think tank would put up with me."

Clark is also a longtime adjunct professor at Butler University. Again, it may seem surprising that a Hudson fellow fits in at a political science department that has featured progressive voices like David Mason and the late Dale Hathaway. "By reputation, Hudson is conservative, but John is very open-minded," says Craig Auchter, chair of the department and a researcher in Latin American politics. "I don't agree with him all the time, but he is interested in a vast array of questions about politics and public policy, and he really understands and engages in political issues in a very honest and forthright way."

An altar call for international involvement

Make no mistake, much of the publicly disseminated thought from Hudson still has a significant right-wing character to it. Clark acknowledges that the institute's Washington office sounds more like a typical conservative think tank. "They are in an environment where you have to shout pretty loud to be heard," he says. "In the 1990s, the political culture in Washington became very partisan, divisive, shrill. To get attention, you have to be louder and more visible than your competitors."

Some of the shouting coming from the most recent issue of Hudson's quarterly magazine, Outlook, includes a book review complaining that a text entitled How Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education is in fact "not brutal enough" on the unions. In the same issue, the editor-in-chief's introduction to a series of articles on the Israel-Palestine crisis establishes the premise that the Arabs in the struggle are "obviously in the wrong."

Clark says that it is to Hudson's credit that analysts propounding opposite views share the same letterhead. "There is no official Hudson Institute position on anything," he says. "We pay a price for it. Someplace like the Heritage Foundation has thousands of individual donors because it presents an ideologically pure voice, one that Rush Limbaugh can quote all the time."

As an example of Hudson's non-ideological domestic research, Clark points to a restorative justice project in Marion County's juvenile courts. The project, based on a custom of Maori aboriginals in New Zealand, brought together the child, the victim and neighbors to try to fashion a better solution than incarceration. "We watched the people work through the problem and we worked with the community groups wrestling with the problem," Clark says. "We learned a lot that we never could have if we were just sitting in Washington writing papers."

Clark also tries to avoid ideology in his Indianapolis outreach on international relations issues, preferring instead to set out the range of options in foreign policy debate. "What we want to do in Indianapolis is build coalitions, which requires a very different approach than what you see in D.C.," he says.

Clark's approach includes a hectic schedule of regular teaching at IUPUI, Butler, Cathedral High School and senior and community education through OASIS (Older Adult Service and Information Systems) and Mid-North Shepherd Center. In the past year, in addition to his university teaching, Clark spoke to more than 100 groups about various international themes and topics.

Clark describes this outreach as something of an "altar call" for people in the heartland to realize they can impact international debate. He says the foreign policy leadership of Hoosier politicians like Sen. Richard Lugar, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, once the chair of the House Committee on International Relations, shows that Indiana can make a global impact. "People here care about international issues, sometimes even more than they know," Clark says. "Our challenge is to tap into that."

Clark has discovered that the interest in international relations interest has become easier to tap into during the past two years. "People say the world changed after Sept. 11. That's not true," he says. "But that is when people started asking me to talk about it."

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ...