Richard Mellon Scaife died at 82 on the Fourth of July, and conservatives surely believe that the billionaire’s timing was appropriate. After all, as right-wing media boss Christopher Ruddy pointed out, “The modern conservative movement owes its existence to Richard Scaife and his early vision.”
Scaife, an heir to the Mellon fortune in western Pennsylvania, virtually bankrolled and built the ’90s fever swamp that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. His seed money was everywhere. He funded the infamous Arkansas Project at the American Spectator magazine, which investigated Clinton’s gubernatorial sex life. He financed the Western Journalism Center (it should’ve been called the Western “Journalism” Center), which championed the baseless theory that Clinton aide Vince Foster was murdered. He funded the aforementioned Chris Ruddy (now the CEO of Newsmax), who also flogged the Foster murder theory. Scaife also helped seed the foundation that gave legal advice to Paula Jones, who had been unearthed by the Spectator. And so on.
When a coroner ruled that Foster’s death was a suicide, the ruling was repeatedly debunked in the pages of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review – a newspaper bankrolled by Scaife – and Scaife himself told a magazine in 1998 that the president was a potential murderer: “Listen, (Clinton) can order people done away with at his will. He’s got the entire federal government behind him.”
All told, Scaife was the key player in what First Lady Hillary Clinton rightly called the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” As financier of the partisan crusade to paint Bill Clinton as a lawless illegitimate president, he laid the cornerstone for today’s anti-Obama infauxtainment machine.
When Ruddy wrote his farewell paean to Scaife, he also said this: “Some years ago, I introduced Dick to former President Bill Clinton. Despite their previous political differences, Dick developed a friendship with President Clinton. He believed Bill Clinton had served the American people most ably as president, and he held the former president in the highest esteem.”
There’s much more. Scaife praised Hillary Clinton in 2008, and endorsed her bid for the Democratic nomination. That spring, after meeting with her for 90 minutes, he penned a Sunday commentary piece lauding her “courage and confidence…political courage…impressive command.” He wrote that “her answers were thoughtful, well-stated, and often dead-on.” He also wrote that “a lesser politician – one less self-assured, less informed on domestic and foreign affairs, less confident of her positions – might well have canceled the interview…I have a very different impression of Hillary Clinton today than before (the) meeting – and it’s a very favorable one indeed.”
That episode laid the groundwork for his friendship with Bill – and his philanthopic contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative. His bond with the Clintons might seem surprising, given all his previous schemes, but here are a few other factoids to complicate the Scaife story:
He opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He endorsed gay marriage long before it became fashionable or politically convenient. He opposed the ban on legal marijuana. And even though he donated lavishly to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, he also supported organizations that rank high on the conservative hate list: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Planned Parenthood.
You read that correctly. And when congressional Republicans tried to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, Scaife said in an open letter that he was “aggravated by the continuing attacks” on the group: “Republicans and conservatives are dead wrong. Abortions are a minor aspect of Planned Parenthood’s mission to provide reproductive health care, education, and other services to Americans, regardless of income.”
So. How to explain all these nuances? How is it possible that a guy can be the ’90s version of the Koch brothers – yet align himself with liberals on an array of issues, and wind up a frenemy of the Clintons?
Short answer: People in public life are complicated and multi-dimensional, far more interesting than their stereotypes. Today’s partisan demonizers would do well to heed that truism. Let that be Richard Mellon Scaife’s most enduring legacy.
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