Richard Mellon Scaife is dead, and conservatives are sad. Long before the Kochs became infamous, Scaife pumped millions into a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to nail the Clintons for... whatever. But Scaife's admirers forgot his love of Planned Parenthood and change of heart toward Hillary and Bill.
First, the background: Scaife—who, yes, is a Mellon of the filthy rich oil and steel variety—was worth an estimated $1.4 billion and owned, among other things, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review before dying of cancer at 82 over the long weekend. His political involvement started with a failed bid to bring Barry Goldwater into the White House in 1964, but by the 90s, he'd pushed support for conservative candidates on the back burner to try something that was still novel: steering millions of dollars through various nonprofits into opposition research on politicians he loathed.
The main focus of his ire was Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary; Scaife's fortune bankrolled the paleoconservative American Spectator's Arkansas Project, dredging up muck on Bill's sexual escapades and trying to make something out of Whitewater. Scaife also used his newspaper to suggest the Clintons had White House adviser Vince Foster killed. (Foster was later determined to have committed suicide.)
The hijinks didn't stop there; Kenneth Starr, the "independent" government counsel appointed to investigate Clinton—and who later became famous as the Monicagate inquisitor—was offered a job running a new public policy school at Pepperdine University in California—a school that Scaife, a university regent, had bankrolled and helped found. (Starr declined the job amid public pressure, but ended up becoming Pepperdine's law dean after the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment had run their course.)
For all this, Scaife was lauded as a hero by arch conservatives over the weekend. He "was an indefatigable warrior in what he called the Battle of Ideas," according to idea-deficient Islamophobe and Breitbart contributor Frank Gaffney:
On July 4, 1826, two of America's founding fathers – former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – passed away. Their myriad contributions to the character and direction of this country have long survived them.
The same will surely be true of a man who passed away this Fourth of July, a founding father in his own right: Richard M. Scaife. Few have done more than Dick Scaife to give life to and build the modern American conservative movement which has, in turn, played an outsized role in shaping our nation over the past fifty years.
The National Review's John Fund gushed similarly:
It was fitting for a patriot such as Richard Mellon Scaife that he died on the Fourth of July. Dick Scaife loved his country, and as a philanthropist, political activist, and newspaper publisher he helped to make it and his hometown of Pittsburgh better.
"There would be no conservative movement as we know it today without Dick Scaife," says Chris Ruddy, the owner of the popular Internet and cable-TV outlet Newsmax.
I'll go ahead and disclose here—since Fund doesn't—that Scaife was reportedly the second-biggest shareholder in Newsmax, behind Ruddy with 40 percent of the company's holdings. What Fund does disclose is that, to his mind, Scaife was "a benefactor of the causes of liberty."
Scaife's causes, though, apparently included the liberty to terminate pregnancy, live more or less religion-free, contribute liberally (no pun intended) to public TV, and eventually even support the political futures of Bill and Hillary Clinton—all anathema to most of the conservatives lionizing him over the weekend.
Newsweek wrote in 2007 about the rapidly evolving "mutual admiration society" between Scaife and Bill Clinton:
Last July, the former president sat down with a billionaire impressed with the William J. Clinton Foundation's campaign against AIDS in Africa. The two men chatted amiably over lunch for more than two hours, and the visitor pledged to write Clinton's foundation a generous check. But there was something unusual, if not plain weird, about the meeting. NEWSWEEK has learned that the billionaire so eager to endear himself to the former president was Richard Mellon Scaife—once the Clintons' archenemy and best-known as the man behind a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton said was out to destroy them.
By the following March, Scaife had penned a cheery endorsement of Hillary for the Democratic presidential nomination. He'd grown smitten with her, as with Bill, after a series of social and philanthropic encounters and a long editorial Q-and-A session about her candidacy. "I have a very different impression of Hillary Clinton today," he wrote. "And it's a very favorable one indeed."
As for Scaife's support of abortion, it was unequivocal. He was a longtime financial backer of Planned Parenthood, even allowing his pro-choice op-eds to be used as PPFA advertisements during the 2004 election—when George W. Bush and most Republicans were running as ardent anti-abortion candidates:
"If not for Margaret Sanger's vision and bravery, many poor Americans would have no place to turn for birth-control measures and counseling or for other health-care services," Scaife wrote of the Planned Parenthood founder, a friend of his grandmother—in language that would get a female speaker denounced as a slut by Rush Limbaugh today.
Then there was the $1 million Scaife gave to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Republicans have tried to kill for years now.
This may not all be news: Scaife's positions are certainly not a secret, as the links above attest. But neither are they advertised by most fawning conservatives today. ("He later mellowed and reconciled with both of the Clintons," Fund dolefully drops like a rotten grape in the middle of his bunch of laudatory sentences.) The sole exception seems to have been Paul Kengor at the American Spectator, which Scaife funded so lavishly:
Conservative friends and associates who learned of my relationship with Scaife (I didn't tell many people) usually brought up two things: For one, they knew he was a big pro-choicer on the abortion issue, having supported Planned Parenthood in the past. They knew I was just the opposite. The subject did come up, and Dick told me flatly, "I'm in favor of abortion."
The other elephant in the room was his faith. He was widely believed to be an atheist. "Talk to Dick Scaife about God, Paul," friends urged me. "This man is a walking scandal. He has led an immoral life. He has some serious sins on his soul, and he doesn't believe in God."
Scaife assured Kengor that he was a Bible believer, just not the kind that goes to church, which seemed sufficient to Kengor—at least, preferable to "people on the Religious Left who were sympathetic to or duped by atheistic-totalitarian communists," whatever that means. In any case, bully to Kengor for mentioning the real elephant in the Republican money room.
Not every political fellow traveler agrees on every issue. But the relative silence from conservatives—excepting Kengor—on Scaife's deviations from right-wing orthodoxy holds a higher lesson. All things being equal, Scaife's orneriest ideas would be unwelcome in the conservative rank and file. But fortunately for the billionaire, all things were not equal.
For all the sway ideological purists have gained over Republicans' policy and messaging, there's plenty of room for mavericks under the big tent—as long as you're the guy who paid for the tent.
[Photo credits: AP Images]