Salon is in the news. Stories by Murray Waas and Jonathan Broder concerning Whitewater witness David Hale have ratcheted up the Clinton assault on special prosecutor Ken Starr. They have been cited in the pages of Time magazine and the New York Times, and on television shows such as "Geraldo Live." The Justice Department has used them as a basis to push for an investigation of alleged conflicts of interest in the independent counsel's office.
The stories purport to reveal that the "right-wing conspiracy" (aka Richard Mellon Scaife) provided cash payments to Hale through intermediaries running the Scaife-funded Arkansas Project. Despite what you've heard, the Arkansas Project did little more than provide money for investigative reports by the American Spectator magazine into various aspects of the Clinton scandals.
In one of the stories, Waas and Broder explain: "The nagging problem for Starr is that the same Scaife-controlled foundations that funneled money to the Arkansas Project have also contributed more than $1 million to the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy in California, where Starr will become dean after he completes his duties as independent counsel. Following the money trail of the alleged payments to Hale inevitably would lead to Pepperdine benefactor Scaife."
Most of that statement is now inoperative since Starr, citing the pressure of his Clinton investigations, has given up the Pepperdine job. But even if he had not, as I have pointed out in this space before, the Pepperdine connection does not make for even a tenuous thread of conspiracy. How could it be a conspiracy when, on the one hand, Scaife underwrote journalist Chris Ruddy's efforts to insinuate that Vince Foster was murdered, and on the other, the fact that Starr's own investigation and report shot that theory down?
Equally indigestible for the conspiracy hypothesis is the fact that if Starr had accepted the Pepperdine job when it was offered -- as he originally did -- there would be no Starr investigation of Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Vernon Jordan, et al. If one nonetheless insists on a conspiracy explanation of these events, the only plausible interpretation of Scaife's gift to Pepperdine would be that he wanted to buy Starr off the case because he thought Starr was not pursuing his investigation of Clinton malfeasance aggressively enough. This, indeed, was the conventional conservative wisdom about Starr's efforts before the Clintons launched their full-court anti-Starr strike -- a scorched-earth campaign that seems to have forced Starr into an aggressive mode out of sheer self-defense.
Janet Reno, Clinton's attorney general, has now taken up the Broder-Waas lead. But others, less obligated to Clinton, may wonder about the reliability of their story about Judge Hale. The chief sources of this story (which Hale denies) are an ex-girlfriend of one of the Arkansas project sleuths and her son. The ex-girlfriend is an astrologer who is said to have claimed she knows where Jimmy Hoffa is buried. This doesn't mean her story about Hale is conjured, but one would have more confidence in it if there weren't certain questions about how Waas and Broder gathered the Hale-Scaife stories in the first place.
For example, where did the stories actually originate? Were Waas and Broder in touch with the Clinton camp before they wrote them? Did they get a special White House briefing on the Arkansas Project? Are they both on White House aide Sidney Blumenthal's direct feed list? Salon's online rival, Slate, reported seeing Waas, Broder and Waas' occasional writing partner, Joe Conason of the New York Observer, at a Salon party in Washington with Blumenthal. At this festivity, Waas and Blumenthal were seen to step outside for a private consult. It could have been as innocent as it was cozy, but given the implications of the stories Waas and Broder are writing, the questions deserve to be raised.
Having asked these questions, I guess it is now incumbent on me, in the present political atmosphere, to engage in a ritual disclaimer: I am not now and have never been a member of any right-wing conspiracy. I have never met or spoken with Kenneth Starr. I have only met Richard Scaife just twice in my life, and not at all since the launching of the Arkansas Project. If I had failed to swear as much, in the current atmosphere generated by the Clinton hot-air machine, I would be subject to automatic discreditation, and the kind of letters to the editor Joe Conason wrote to Salon accusing me of being a "hired propagandist."
That was a nice hit that Conason based on the fact that the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which I head, has received funding from the Sarah Scaife Foundation. That is no secret. It's on the public record. In fact, in addition to moneys that the Center receives from the Sarah Scaife Foundation, Scaife's personal fund, the Carthage Foundation, regularly gave the Center $250,000 annually, that is until 1995, when the sum went to zero. The reason? Scaife apparently decided to direct more of his resources into the investigation of the Clintons. In other words, my operation lost money as a result of the campaign that Conason is so concerned about.
It should also be noted that the unfairly maligned Richard Scaife, a leader in the campaign to topple Richard Nixon, has been funding conservative policy projects and intellectuals for decades. While not nearly as numerous as the liberal and left-wing projects funded by Rockefeller, Ford and MacArthur foundations, it is fair to say that Scaife has helped support many conservative intellectuals engaged in the nation's debates over policy and ideas.
How convenient, therefore, to use the specter of Richard Mellon Scaife if one's purpose is to link and destroy by association every conservative in sight. Scaife, although one would never know from the reporting of late, has not been accused of anything more sinister than funding investigative reporting into the dubious activities that the Clintons have spent millions of tax-payer dollars in an effort to cover up. Yet, somehow, Scaife is being portrayed as a master criminal.
Conason's accusation that I am a "hired propagandist" could be considered actionable, but unlike his good friend, Sidney Blumenthal, I'm not a litigious fellow. I prefer to conduct the debate as to who is and who is not the real propagandist in the arena of public debate. Anyone who has followed my long public career or read my autobiography, "Radical Son," knows at what personal cost I have arrived at my present opinions. Given the price I have paid to remain faithful to what I have learned and believe, let me assure Mr. Conason that I would make a poor candidate at this stage in my life as a hired gun.
Moreover, despite my low opinion of Bill Clinton the man, I had not written a single anti-Clinton paragraph during the first six years of his presidency. It was only when my effort to provide legal help for Matt Drudge elicited attacks on me from the Clinton camp that I was thrust unavoidably into the fray.
Here's another irony. In the midst of this Clinton-inspired morass we've all been wading through, the bright spot that remains for me, at least, is Salon's provision of a platform from which I can write these columns. For more than a decade after my change of political heart, I was excluded from the pages of the liberal media. The present political unpleasantness affords many examples of why a multi-vocal dialogue is essential to a democracy like ours. It was conservatives who were the original targets of the special prosecutor's office and the sexual harassment laws, and who were its original critics. It was liberals who were the original victims of McCarthy-like witch hunts and guilt-by-association smears. Now the shoes are on the other feet. We would all do well to take a deep breath and think twice before we rush precipitously to judgment about conspirators and conspiracies.