Monday, March 31, 2008

Breaking bread with the vast right-wing conspiracy

While scanning the various Sunday commentaries, I stumbled across these laudatory effusions for Hillary Clinton: "...courage and confidence...political courage...impressive command...her answers were thoughtful, well-stated, and often dead-on...a very favorable (impression) indeed..."

The author of this particular newspaper editorial was Richard Mellon Scaife.

If that name doesn't ring a bell, here's some short-hand: Richard Mellon Scaife praising Hillary Clinton is roughly analagous to George Steinbrenner wearing Red Sox regalia. Or Keith Obermann vacationing with Bill O'Reilly. Or Woody Allen quoting approvingly from Mein Kampf. Or George W. Bush confessing all his screwups to Cindy Sheehan. Or some other topsy turvy notion, straight out of Bizarro World in the Superman comics.

Scaife is the reclusive rich guy who financed what Hillary once called "the vast right-wing conspiracy." She returns to that theme on page 449 of her memoir, referring to Scaife as "the reactionary billionaire who had bankrolled the long-term campaign to destroy Bill's presidency." That's basically accurate.

In late 1996, while I was researching a magazine story on the interlocking alliances of conservative Clinton-hunters, I found Scaife's fingerprints everywhere. Scaife, a western Pennsylvania heir to the Mellon fortune, financed something called "The Arkansas Project," an ambitious (and ultimately futile) effort to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency by probing his tenure as governor of Arkansas and unearthing evidence that he had run drugs and murdered people. He also funnelled money to the conservative American Spectator magazine, which at the time was hot on the trail of Bill's various Arkansas paramours.

He also funnelled money to the various conservative legal groups that offered legal advice to sexual-harassment accuser Paula Jones. He also sought to prove, via his generous largesse, that a Clinton aide who in 1993 was found to have committed suicide (Vince Foster) had actually been murdered by undetermined assassins, presumably at the behest of the Clintons. The coroner's suicide ruling was repeatedly debunked in the pages of Scaife's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - more on that newspaper in a moment - and Scaife himself told a magazine in 1998 that Bill was a potential murderer: "Listen, (Clinton) can order people done away with at his will. He's got the entire federal government behind him."

But Scaife was still wearing his tinfoil hat long after the Clintons left the White House. As recently as three years ago, as Hillary was gearing up to run on her own, some of the Scaife-financed conservative "news" websites were flacking a new Hillary-bashing biography written by Ed Klein, with special emphasis on the "widely rumored" whispers that Hillary was a lesbian...and that her daughter was allegedly conceived during an act of rape.

But Scaife's influence extends far beyond his anti-Clinton crusades. He has reportedly donated upwards of $1 billion (in current dollars, adjusted for inflation) to conservative causes and institutions, thereby playing an instrumental role in establishing the think tanks and publications and law firms and watchdog groups that have put liberals and Democrats at a distinct disadvantage over the past four decades. In other words, he stands for everything that the Clintons and their political compadres have long been working against. (And in 1981, when a Columbia Journalism Review reporter stopped Scaife on the street and tried to quiz him about his influence in conservative circles, he called her a "communist," along with a common pejorative slang for the female genitalia.)

Yet this very same guy, in the same Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, was gushing about Hillary in his signed commentary yesterday. And this was because Hillary herself stopped by early last week to shoot the breeze with Scaife and his editorial writers for 90 minutes. Result: "(A) lesser politician - one less aself-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 last Tuesday's meeting - and it's a very favorable one indeed."

Nobody is quite sure why Scaife has suddenly morphed into a pussycat; there have been various reports that Scaife admires Bill's post-presidential work on global issues, or that he's boosting Hillary because he thinks she beatable in November, or he's merely trying to stick it to his estranged wife (with whom he is immersed in an ugly divorce) because she is reportedly a Barack Obama supporter. Or maybe he was sincerely dazzled last week by Hillary's wonky presentation.

Whatever. What most interests me is why Hillary decided to seek out Scaife and sit with him in the first place.

At a time when Obama is still getting grief for his long association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, it's worth debating whether Hillary can justify enlisting, as a new best friend, the same guy who has called her own husband a murderer - and whose money has long empowered the conservative movement that Hillary views as an impediment to social and economic progress. A reasonable case can be made that Richard Scaife's money has had more impact on the life of the average citizen than Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric.

Yet, as a short-term tactic, Hillary's sitdown with Scaife was arguably a smart move. Upscale liberals probably scoff at Scaife's paper, but those folks are voting for Obama anyway. Culturally conservative Democrats in western Pennsylvania are more likely to read Scaife's paper, and Hillary badly needs those people to turn out on April 22. Secondly, by declawing somebody like Scaife, the Clinton camp can float the message that she's not such a polarizer after all, that she too has the potential to unite Americans across partisan lines. (Indeed, a Clinton spokeswoman said yesterday that the candidate "has demonstrated the ability to bridge old divides and get things done. Winning over Mr. Scaife is just another example.")

But with yet another Democratic senator today declaring support for Obama - Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the 64th superdelegate to back Obama since Feb. 5, as opposed to just nine for Clinton - it may be too late for the trailing candidate to shed her polarizing image. Scaife helped cement that image, and breaking bread with the guy won't make it go away.


On the broader issue of when (or whether) candidates should (or should not) be judged by the company they keep, I wrote about the outbreak of '08 proxy scandals in my Sunday print column.


And on the veracity front, this might not rank with Hillary's fantasy claim of dodging sniper fire, but nevertheless it stands as another tall tale from the trail:

Barack Obama has claimed that he owes his "very existence" to the Kennedys, because, in his telling, the legendary family provided the student scholarship money that enabled his future father to visit America in 1959 and meet his future mother. Turns out, however, that the Kennedys didn't kick in money for that particular program, which involved the airlifting of Kenyan students, until 1960.

The Obama campaign came clean yesterday. Unlike Hillary on the Bosnia falsehood, at least Obama didn't try to blame it on sleep deprivation.