Lost History: Rise of the Right-Wing Machine
President Nixon's aides might have thought the boss climbed out on the wrong side of the bed, if his snarly behavior weren't so typical. That Saturday, Sept. 12, 1970, Nixon had slept late at Camp David. But upon waking, the president was barking orders about "several plots he wants hatched," his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman reported in The Haldeman Diaries."One [was] to infiltrate the John Gardner 'Common Cause' ... and needle them and try to push them to left," Haldeman wrote. "Next, [Nixon wants] a front that sounds like SDS to support the Democratic candidates and praise their liberal records, etc."Then, Nixon hectored Haldeman about one of the president's pet ideas, one that would make all the scheming so much easier: a network of loyal conservatives who could be trusted to battle Nixon's many political enemies. The president was "pushing again [a] project of building our establishment in press, business, education, etc.," Haldeman wrote.Over the next quarter century, that Nixon brainchild would grow and mature into a powerful Right-Wing Machine -- complete with well-trained cadres, scores of think tanks, loads of media and plenty of dirty tricks. It would be this conservative "establishment" that might be Nixon's most lasting, and dubious, legacy.Financed by rich conservative foundations and wealthy special interests, the machine now can manufacture scandal from the flimsiest of evidence, such as the baseless stories about Vincent Foster's "murder." Or it can nurture key political operatives, including Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. The machine also can influence more general national opinion by churning out reams of anti-government propaganda to discredit social programs, environmental laws and tax policy.A new study by the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy has compiled the first financial database on one of the machine's principal sources of ideological money. The NCRP examined 12 "core" conservative foundations from 1992 to 1994 (the latest data available) and discovered that the dozen foundations alone donated a stunning $210 million to fund right-wing activities.The 12 conservative foundations are the Lynde and Harry Bradley, Smith Richardson, Sarah Scaife, Carthage, Philip McKenna, John M. Olin, Henry Salvatori, Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch, Claude R. Lambe, Earhart and the J.M. foundations. The Coors family foundations were not included in the study because, with their political connections hurting beer sales in recent years, the Coors' foundations diversified their giving away from a consistently right-wing approach.The study also did not count the hundreds of millions more from corporations, Christian Right groups, smaller foundations and such foreign interests as the Asian-based Unification Church. But the study did discover that the "core" foundations anchored a comprehensive strategy for advancing conservative goals through institutions from universities and think tanks to media and pressure groups.FOCUS ON 'FREE MARKETS' The NCRP study found that the lion share of the $210 million -- more than $80 million of it -- went to organizations that explicitly advocated unfettered "free markets." Freedom for business -- rather than the conservative social agenda -- stood out as the top priority of the major funders.Many of the leading foundation recipients also pushed legislative agendas that dovetailed with the patrons' economic interests. Citizens for a Sound Economy, for instance, spearheaded attacks on the Food and Drug Administration, challenged environmental laws and fought a proposed BTU energy tax. Not surprisingly, CSE was founded with grants from the billionaire Koch family, which owns a diversified energy company chafing under federal environmental rules and threatened by energy taxes.The study listed leading "free market" grantees as the Heritage Foundation at $8.9 million (the largest single recipient overall), the American Enterprise Institute at $6.9 million, the Cato Institute at $3.9 million, CSE at $3.8 million, the Hudson Institute at $3.3 million and the Manhattan Institute at $2.1 million. Big chunks of the remaining $130 million in conservative grant money went to media outlets, academic centers or right-wing legal groups, which also advanced the "free-market" cause though, the issue was less central to their work, the study found.By comparison, liberal economic think tanks attracted scant support from progressive foundations. "The role that conservative foundations have played in reinvigorating the institutional base of American conservatism simply has no parallel in the liberal funding community," concluded Sally Covington, who directed the NCRP study.In another recent study, People for the American Way noted that progressive foundations devote most of their money to service programs, such as buying park land, seeking an AIDS cure or supplying food to the poor, not the ideological "war of ideas." "Progressive groups, local and national, have over the years sought to fill in the gaps in the ever more frayed social safety net," that report said. "Conservative groups have invested their resources, by and large, in efforts to further shred that net."The right-wing foundations also have purchased a large megaphone for the conservative message: a media that stretches from magazine racks to television networks.MEDIA CLOUT While launching a conservative cable TV network called National Empowerment Television, Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Research and Education Foundation received $5 million in grants from 1992-1994, according to the NCRP study. Among conservative magazines, Irving Kristol's National Interest/Public Interest pulled in $1.9 million. New Criterion grabbed $1.7 million. Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz, collected $1 million. Another $3.2 million paid for public TV programs featuring conservative figures such as William F. Buckley and Ben Wattenberg.Some conservative publications earned their keep by specializing in smear campaigns. The foundations gave The American Spectator $1.7 million, as it trashed Anita Hill for testifying against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and spread "Troopergate" rumors about Bill and Hillary Clinton's sex lives. Even little-known groups joined the lucrative fray. Billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife subsidized the obscure Western Journalism Center as it ran full-page national newspaper ads purportedly linking the Clintons to Vincent Foster's death.The conservative foundations invested millions more in organizations that bashed perceived "liberals" in the mainstream media, according to the NCRP database. The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, run by ex-leftist David Horowitz, received $3.3 million in 1992-1994 as it published Comint, a magazine that policed the Public Broadcasting System for suspect political views. Other media "watchdogs" were well fed, too. Robert Lichter's Center for Media and Public Affairs gobbled up $1.2 million from the right-wing foundations. Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media devoured $365,000.The NCRP study traced another $10 million to conservative legal groups pressing "tort reform" and other rightist judicial policies. The Institute for Justice topped these recipients with $2.4 million, followed by the Washington Legal Foundation with $2.1 million, the Federalist Society with $1.6 million, and the Center for Individual Rights with $1.3 million.The conservative foundations also kept faith with groups that backed Reagan-Bush national security policies. The Hoover Institution took in $3.2 million from 1992-1994 for its anti-leftist and pro-business efforts. Freedom House garnered $2.7 million. The Ethics and Public Policy Center, which hired former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams of Iran-contra fame, received $2.1 million.The 12 foundations devoted large sums as well to support conservative scholars and to train young activists in the nation's universities. In addition to paying for scholarships and endowing chairs at such prestigious colleges as Harvard and Yale, the foundations invested heavily in lesser-known schools, such as George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., just outside the nation's capital. There, the foundations donated $3 million to the Institute of Humane Studies and $2.1 million to the Center for Study of Market Processes, the NCRP study showed. Both promote "free market" principles.THE MACHINE'S ORIGINS The origins -- and hard-edged tone -- of this Right-Wing Machine can be traced back to those early days of the Nixon administration, when the president ordered dirty tricks against Vietnam War protesters and the "counter-culture" Democrats. Even today, the right's leaders nurse grudges from that era. "They are consumed with a hatred of all things 1960s," observed journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who chronicled the machine's early days in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment.As the Watergate scandal engulfed the Nixon presidency in 1973, conservatives rallied to Nixon's defense. With more than $1 million, Coors and Scaife christened the Heritage Foundation as a conservative flagship. But the right lacked the political clout to save Nixon. His Watergate ouster in 1974 and America's defeat in Vietnam in 1975 only put larger chips on the conservatives' shoulders.In 1978, Nixon's friend and Treasury Secretary William Simon again trumpeted the need for a conservative establishment. "Funds generated by business ... must rush by the multimillion to the aid of liberty ... to funnel desperately needed funds to scholars, social scientists, writers and journalists who understand the relationship between political and economic liberty," Simon wrote in his book, Time for Truth. Simon used his post as head of the Olin Foundation to put its money where his mouth was.The "bosses" of this Right-Wing Machine were an odd mix of political moneymen and ideological strategists. They included embittered ex-leftists Kristol and Podhoretz; ultra-conservative tycoons Scaife, Coors and Simon; right-wing apparatchiks Paul Weyrich and Michael Joyce; and libertarian oil men Charles and David Koch.But the machine benefited from cooperation among these leading funders. The "bosses" often coordinated giving to the same think tanks; they sat on each others' boards; and they adopted broad strategy through such organizations as the Philanthropy Roundtable. "This is a highly networked group," noted Covington.By the late 1970s, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson supplying Christian Right foot soldiers, the machine went on the offensive, helping Ronald Reagan to victory in 1980. With a conservative in the White House, the machine gained a new legitimacy and access to more money. In 1984, John Saloma, a moderate Republican, warned in his book, Ominous Politics, that "the conservative labyrinth is a major new presence in American politics."THE IRAN-CONTRA TEST In the last half of the 12-year Reagan-Bush reign, the Iran-contra scandal confronted the Right-Wing Machine with its sternest test. Fearing another Watergate-style catastrophe, the conservatives fought back, battling investigators, trashing journalists and bashing Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh even though he was a life-long Republican. Anti-Walsh attacks appeared in The American Spectator, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times and other conservative publications.Though George Bush's defeat in 1992 was a setback, the Right-Wing Machine soon switched from defending Republicans to offense, attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton. In Fools for Scandal, Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons argued that the numbing series of Clinton scandals "didn't just happen. They are," Lyons wrote, "the result of one of the nastiest and most successful political 'dirty tricks' campaigns in recent American history." Often, it turned out, the conservative foundations were footing the bill. But inside the movement, the machine's growing totalitarianism troubled some conservatives, such as Michael Lind, former executive editor of The National Interest. In a new book, Up From Conservatism, Lind declared that "by the early 1990s, ... almost all major conservative magazines, think tanks, and even individual scholars had become dependent on money from a small number of conservative foundations. Washington had come to resemble Hollywood, with the foundations playing the role of the big studios, the program officers acting as producers."Lind watched conservative writers develop a "reflexive self-censorship" avoiding topics that might offend the foundations. "Good team players would advance, from grant to grant, in the manner of superstars Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza; troublemakers would ... have their funding cut off," Lind wrote.Now, with its allies controlling both Congress and the special prosecutor apparatus, the machine's next mission will be the destruction of Bill Clinton. It will be the ultimate revenge for the impeachment-resignation of the machine's patriarch, Richard Nixon.