All Those Dollars Have Strings Attached
In early December the word made the rounds in Washington that Richard Mellon Scaife, the reclusive financier from Pittsburgh famous for funding right-wing think tanks and conspiracy theories, was withdrawing his financial support from the American Spectator magazine. For years the Washington-based Spectator has been the lead attack vehicle and purveyor of stories aimed at the Clinton White House on issues like health care and environment.What it has been best known for, however, is its Clinton White House smear stories.Starting in 1992 with troopergate and on through the Vince Foster murder theories, the Spectator was the mouthpiece for stories of supposed drug dealing from the Mena, Arkansas, airport during Clinton's time as governor as well as the instigator for many of the scandal stories of ex-FBI agent Gary Aldrich's book Unlimited Access (Regnery Press). Aldrich, after the book was published, admitted that the source for a number of his unsubstantiated stories -- including the charge of a Clinton liaison at a downtown Washington hotel -- was Spectator associate editor, David Brock. Brock gained his early stripes on the right for publishing stones that smeared Anita Hill in 1991 as someone "a bit nutty and a bit slutty." He went on to write a book The Real Anita Hill: the Untold Story, that was funded by conservative foundations.Since 1992, the Spectator has seen a meteoric rise in its circulation from 60,000 copies a month to 200,000 in 1997, largely on the strength of its scandal stories and sensationalism. The publication was founded in the late 1960s by R. Emmett Tyrrell and Ronald Burr when they were students at the University of Indiana. It was originally called The Alternative. Tyrrell, who is editor-in-chief, was interviewed in mid-December from his Arlington, Va. offices by C-SPAN. When asked about the withdrawal of Scaife's money, Tyrrell maintained that this would not hurt the Spectator. C-SPAN's Brian Lamb then pressed about the amount of money that Scaife had contributed over the last few years to the magazine, and posited the figure of two million dollars. Tyrrell dodged the question and finally would not confirm the exact amount that Scaife's foundations had contributed to the magazine.The triggering event for the Scaife money departure was a book review which, Tyrrell implied, was not to Scaife's liking. Many observers saw this comment as a smoke screen covering the real break over an article that criticized the Foster murder conspiracy idea. Other sources and published reports claim that the breakup was long in the making. In October, co-founder and publisher Burr was fired by the Spectator board, apparently at the behest of his longtime friend, Tyrrell. The dispute was over Tyrrell's claim that Burr had jeopardized Tyrrell's relationship with Richard Larry, president of the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the centerpiece of Richard Mellon Scaife's conservative grant-making network. Annual grants to the American Spectator from this foundation and the Carthage and Allegheny foundations, also controlled by Scaife, have run in excess of half a million dollars per year during the 1990s. Most of these monies have gone for so-called "special projects" that have included the original Clinton "troopergate" story and allegations of drug use in the White House. Tyrrell himself once authored a Spectator article, "Is Clinton on Coke?"David Brock, the inquisitor of Anita Hill, also apparently left the Spectator near the end of 1997. It is unclear if his departure was over the dispute with Burr and Larry or over the withdrawal of Scaife's support. Tyrrell insisted in the C-SPAN interview that he would keep Brock's name in the staff box of the magazine and that Brock could write for the Spectator any time he wanted to.As the C-SPAN interview continued, the camera meandered around the room and examined at close range framed articles on Tyrrell's office wall. The first was from a 1967 issue of Time magazine featuring Tyrrell as a young man at Indiana University entitled "God and Man at Bloomington," apparently a take-off on William F. Buckley's early 1950s student book titled God and Man at Yale.As the camera roamed, Tyrrell spoke of his first publication at Indiana of The Alternative. That first issue's cover was framed near Tyrrell's desk. The graphic m the middle of the cover was of a B-52 bomber in the shape of the then-popular peace symbol. Underneath was written "Drop It." With the Vietnam war going all-out at the time, Tyrrell was clearly part of the conservative cadre on campus being groomed by his right-wing elders for better days. The Alternative would, over a few years and changes of location, metamorphosize into the American Spectator and spawn, with the help of large conservative donors, a host of campus imitators around the country, often with the word "Spectator" in the titles.Tyrrell has long been a peddler of fringe ideas. His book Boy Clinton (Regnery Press) was recently followed by The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton (Regnery Press), a book about the fictional impeachment of Bill Clinton and the triumph of ultra-conservative ideology in America. Regnery Press is a small, ultra-conservative Capitol Hill operation funded by an array of heavy-hitting conservative donors, including Scaife.Following Tyrrell in the C-SPAN interview was the ubiquitous Ben Stein. A so-called diarist for the Spectator, Stein's career has benefited from his connection to Scaife-funded endeavors. His strangely sycophantic columns in the Spectator are often written about Tyrrell as he follows Tyrrell around the night clubs and restaurants of Washington, helping Tyrrell, in his words, look for "large breasted women." Stein's qualifications for his status as magazine and television pundit on a wide range of topics seem to be that he was a junior speech writer in the late Nixon White House and that his father is Herbert Stein, who was chairman of Richard Nixon's Council of Economic Advisors in the early '70s.Stein's other source of punditry qualification comes from his professorship at tiny Pepperdine University in upscale Malibu, California, an institution favored with far right money, including many millions from Richard Scaife. Stein holds a professorship there in securities law.Interestingly enough, Stein's Pepperdine campus, with its small student population and location is also known for a second Scaife connection. In mid-1997 Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr briefly resigned his prosecutor position as he prepared to head out to Pepperdine to take a job as law school dean and, simultaneously, dean of the new Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Scaife is also the deep-pockets donor who provided a reported $1 million dollars to create the dual deanship for Starr.How the loss of the Scaife foundation money will affect the future of the Spectator is not clear. But there likely will be no disruption in the flow of invective directed toward environmentalists, teachers, progressives and all non-conservatives.Craig McGrath is a free-lance journalist based in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared in the Progressive Populist (March 1997).