Skip to comments.The Life and Death of the American Spectator
Posted on 10/23/2001 8:57:10 PM PDT by Luis Gonzalez
The conservative magazine survived and prospered for twenty-five years before Bill Clinton came into its sights. Now the former President is rich and smiling, and the Spectator is dead
by Byron York
ne Friday afternoon last July, Wladyslaw Pleszczyn ski, the No. 2 man at The American Spectator for twenty years, from its time as a small-circulation conservative intellectual review through its run as the shouting voice of anti-Clintonism, rummaged through the magazine's shut-down office in Arlington, Virginia, cleaning out his desk before movers arrived, on Monday, to cart everything away. The Spectator had been sold nearly a year earlier to the high-tech guru George Gilder, who, in changing the magazine to a journal of the New Economy, decided to fire the staff and move the operation to his headquarters, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Now it was time for the old office to be shut down, and Pleszczynski was getting ready to go. Dressed in shorts and sandals, he stopped every now and then to answer the phone; friends wanted to know if Wlady, as everyone called him, was okay. (I was a writer for the magazine from 1996 to 2000, and had dropped by that day for the same reason.) Never much of an optimist even in good times, Pleszczynski answered that he was fine, considering the circumstances.
In the hallway outside his office rows and rows of tiny nails were sticking in the wall where dozens of photos from long-ago Spectator parties had hung. Most of the pictures on the wall facing Pleszczynski's office were from the magazine's tenth-anniversary celebration, in 1977, at the St. Regis Hotel, in New York. At that time it was still possible to gather nearly every conservative writer in America in one room (actually, it still is, although one would need a slightly larger room), and the Spectator had drawn an impressive crowd. Around the candlelit tables were William F. Buckley and Tom Wolfe and Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol and William Safire and, of course, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the man who founded the Spectator as an anti-radical rag on the campus of Indiana University in 1967.
Tyrrell would be coming in that Friday night to clean out his stuff. Just outside his office was a Royal typewriter from the 1920s. Ever since the Indiana days the typewriter had sat on a table in front of a life-size black-suited papier-mâché dummy of H. L. Mencken, Tyrrell's idol, made by the artist Tim Moynihan, son of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another Tyrrell hero. Stacks of files and office trash sat around the typewriter on that Friday. Lying haphazardly on top of a throwaway pile was a copy of the Spectator's January, 1994, issue, with the British artist John Springs's caricature of Bill Clinton tiptoeing away from a house after a late-night romantic tryst. The headline was "HIS CHEATIN' HEART: DAVID BROCK IN LITTLE ROCK." This was the Troopergate story, the piece that exposed Clinton's extramarital dalliances while he was the governor of Arkansas. It had caused the President much embarrassment when it was published and had started a chain of events that eventually led to the Paula Jones lawsuit and Clinton's impeachment. In the process it made the magazine famous, increasing its circulation and income more than anyone could ever have imagined. And it did one other thing: it destroyed The American Spectator.
How that happened is the story of a magazine that was very, very good for most of its lifefor years it was one of the few outlets for first-rate conservative writers, and almost every prominent conservative writer today contributed to it at some time or anotherbut that in the 1990s lost touch with what had made it so good. A few conservativesTyrrell was prominent among thembecame possessed by a self-destructive brand of opposition to Bill Clinton, and in their desire to knock the President out of office they ended up hurting themselves more than him. What at first appeared to be an enormous successafter Troopergate the Spectator was a very hot magazineled to unexpected and calamitous consequences. There was the "Arkansas Project," a $2.4 million effort, financed by the right-wing philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, to uncover wrongdoing in Clinton's past, which ultimately led to the investigation of the Spectator itself. There was financial ruin, brought about by the magazine's almost naive inability to handle its new wealth. And there was the downfall of Tyrrell, a talented polemicist who craved acceptance in the world of Washington but allowed his obsession with Clinton to ensure that he would become increasingly alienated from that world. For a moment the men who ran The American Spectator believed that it could transcend the limitssmall circulation, small budget, an influence limited to elite readersthat define magazines of its type. But in the end the mistakes they made in the flush of success proved that it could not.
Unlike many other conservatives, Tyrrell never went through a left-wing period in his youth. He was always a conservative, but his was a libertarian, latitudinarian, literary kind of conservatism. He wanted to have a smart, dandyish style; he particularly admired the writing and style of Mencken and of magazines from the 1920s and 1930s such as The American Mercury, The Smart Set, and the original American Spectator. When Tyrrell looked around in the 1960s for the kind of fools, frauds, and deluded idealists whom Mencken would have debunked, he found them on the left.
Tyrrell believed that the student left in Bloomington had overwhelmed the right; conservatives on campus, he felt, could not begin to counter the left's political power. "Indiana University was the first major campus to become dominated by an SDS student government," he recalls, referring to the radical Students for a Democratic Society. "They were new left, hard left. We opposed them. They had their magazineoddly enough, it was called The Spectatorand we needed a magazine." So Tyrrell created one, which he called The Alternative. The first cover, in September of 1967, featured the fuselage and wings of a B-52 bomber inside a circle to form the shape of a peace sign; the cover said simply, "DROP IT." The magazine's twelve pages were filled with reprints of pieces by Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman, plus writings by Tyrrell, who gave himself the grand title of editor in chief. Later issues offered more of the same. Tyrrell would denounce campus leftists"a second-rate intellectual and a full-time sissy," he called one, in characteristic styleand throw jabs at the idols of youth culture. "The Insects have interrupted a trend of lyrical tommyrot and recorded several acceptable yodelings," he wrote in a review of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "but for the most part the civilized ear will remain wondering if the album's grooves circle in the right way."
But Tyrrell wanted to be more than just a writer and an editor. From the beginning he saw The Alternative as part of a movement, something that would one day become a political force on campus and beyond. Along with John Von Kannon and Ron Burr, friends who served at different times as publisher of the magazine, Tyrrell supported conservative candidates for student office, staged events for conservative speakers (Buckley, a god in their circle, came for a few visits), and endeavored to create a wider conservative culture that would ultimately change the direction of the university. His method of choice was mockery, making fun of the left's seriousness and appropriating its methods to create a sort of right-wing absurdist, radical-style agitprop.
In late 1969, for example, Tyrrell organized a "conservative teach-in" on campus and invited William Rusher and Frank Meyer, of Buckley's National Review, to debate liberal IU professors. Tyrrell himself arranged to debate one Dr. Rudolph Montag, a professor at Columbia University, on the subject of "The Social Problem." No one in the audience knew it, but Dr. Rudolph Montag and his impressive résumé were the creation of Tyrrell and Von Kannon, who recruited a fellow student to play the professor. On stage Tyrrell sparred with Montag, who mouthed liberal platitudes until a spectator in the audiencea member of the wrestling team put up to it by The Alternativestood up, called Montag "a goddamned Communist," and threw a pie in his face. Montag, offered a towel by a sober-faced Alternative staff member, stayed in character and lamented the tensions on campus that led to such acts of violence. It was all a marvelous send-up, but it nevertheless attracted serious coverage in the campus newspaper. "We had had events for a couple of years and never got any attention at all," Tyrrell recalls, "so we decided to have this bogus pie-throwing, and overnight we got a huge amount of attention." The lesson wasn't lost on Tyrrell: one could get a lot of mileage out of ridiculing one's enemies.
But attention didn't necessarily make a magazine successful, and The Alternative was chronically low on money. At first Tyrrell, Von Kannon, and Burr got along with cash from a few local supporters and the national conservative group Young Americans for Freedom. But early on, facing the immediate prospect of going broke, Tyrrell asked the widow of the pharmaceutical magnate Eli Lilly for a contribution. She sent $3,000 and offered to give much more if the magazine could be set up as a charitable foundation, which would make her contributions tax-deductible. On her advice Tyrrell incorporated The Alternative as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) charity, which the magazine remained until Gilder bought it, more than thirty years later. For all those years individual contributions to The Alternative and, later, to The American Spectator were fully tax-deductible. (Although it seems a peculiarity of the tax code that a political magazine could qualify as a charity, the liberal American Prospect and Mother Jones both have 501(c)(3) status.)
The extra Lilly dollars brought in by the magazine's change in status helped to secure The Alternative's future. And shortly thereafter Tyrrell attracted the attention of the foundation that would become the magazine's most generous benefactor. In 1970 a man named Richard Larry, who had just started work at the charitable trusts controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife, received a call from a friend in Indianapolis. "He said, 'Dick, there's an outfit in Bloomington that you really ought to take a look at,'" Richard Larry recalls. "The campuses were in uproar, the left was in its glory, and here was The Alternative, taking on these people and their ideas in a way that nobody else at the time, at least that we were aware of, was doingwith humor and sarcasm. It was having some effect on the campus there in Indiana, and we felt that it could have a broader impact." Scaife gave The Alternative a grant of $25,000, an enormous sum for a young magazine at the time. The foundation's support gave Tyrrell and his group the means they needed to reach beyond Indiana University.
As the magazine expanded, Tyrrell spent much of his time cultivating conservative intellectuals and the group of disaffected liberals who would become known as neoconservatives. Tyrrell wrote them letters introducing himself and his magazine, asking them for advice, articles, and support. Milton Friedman, Ernest van den Haag, Nathan Glazer, Sidney Hook, Herbert Stein, Edward Banfield, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Irving Kristolall were on the receiving end of the young Tyrrell's appeals. "They were charmed by his hijinks, flattered by his attention, and impressed by his seriousness," recalls Adam Meyerson, who joined the magazine in 1974 after finishing a senior thesis at Yale on Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. "They would share their ideas and their brightest protégés with him." They shared something else, tootheir children. Tyrrell cultivated conservative kids as well as parents. The precocious William Kristol began writing for the magazine while he was still in his teens; so did his sister Elizabeth. Elliott Banfield, Edward's son, did much of The Alternative's artwork. Ben Stein, son of the economist Herbert Stein, began a long-running association with the magazine. Later Naomi Decter and John Podhoretz would also make the trek to Bloomington.
Tyrrell was cross-generational; born in 1943, he was eighteen years younger than Buckley and ten to fifteen years older than some of his writersand he could appeal to both. The Alternative kept picking up talent. In October of 1971 it published the first "Letter From a Whig," a column by its new Washington correspondent, George F. Will, who was then a Senate aide. The youngand nonconservativeRoger Rosenblatt also contributed essays. As it gained credibility among the neocons, the magazine began publishing serious pieces by people like Roger Starr, Elliott Abrams, James Q. Wilson, Harvey Mansfield, Michael Novak, and others. "It had big ambitions and a sense of tilting against a majority culture that was either amusingly stupid or dangerously wrong," says Erich Eichman, now an editor at The Wall Street Journal, who joined the magazine in 1977.
The Alternative also had a kind of Bloomington cachet for intellectuals who lived in the East. "Part of its charm, part of its attraction, was that it was coming out of this college town in the Midwest," recalls Steven Munson, who came to Tyrrell's magazine from Irving Kristol's The Public Interest in 1977. "It was of the New York intellectual world, but not in it." The Alternative had its headquarters in a farmhouse outside Bloomington that was known as The Establishment, where visitors who came to meet the magazine's staff would spend the night. It was a notably downscale experience; the rooms were a wreck and the bathroom was in the hideous, scum-brown condition common in some college quarters. "Pat Moynihan and Bill Buckley both had the same reaction when they walked in there," Von Kannon recounted in a 1980s magazine article. "They walked right back out and took a leak off the front porch."
The Alternative changed its name in 1974. Worried that a conservative journal had a title that harked back to sixties counterculture, Tyrrell changed it first to The Alternative: An American Spectator, and then, in 1977, to The American Spectator. In a note that ran for years beneath the magazine's masthead he wrote, "By November 1977 the word 'alternative' had acquired such an esoteric fragrance that in order to discourage unsolicited manuscripts from florists, beauticians, and other creative types, [we] reverted to the magazine's original name." It was classic Tyrrell, amusing to his fans and offensive to othersand a put-on as well, since The American Spectator wasn't really the magazine's original name but, rather, a bit of Tyrrell fiction to connect his publication to its 1930s model.
Although the Spectator could never be described as flush with cash, its increasing prominence helped to pull in more contributions. Scaife's grants increased during this time, and so did those from the Lilly Endowment. The South Carolina textile magnate Roger Milliken was another big supporter, as was Henry Salvatori, the California oil baron who was a close adviser to Ronald Reagan. "You put them together and you've got probably ninety percent of the contributions budget from that time," says Von Kannon, who took care of most fundraising duties. (He is now a top official at the conservative Heritage Foundation.) That was also the lion's share of the magazine's budget; its circulation hovered around 20,000, and its advertising revenues never amounted to much. Like other political journals, the Spectator dependedand would always dependon the generosity of a few wealthy and like-minded individuals and foundations.
As did Tyrrell himself. Although the rest of the staff earned little, he received a substantial salary (determined by his hand-picked board of directors), and the Lilly Endowment paid for part of his house in Bloomington. The magazine's tax-exempt parentthe Alternative Educational Foundation, later The American Spectator Educational Foundationpaid for his membership in the New York Athletic Club, where he stayed during his increasingly frequent magazine-funded visits to Manhattan. (Later it would rent a small apartment for him on the Upper East Side.) And it paid for Tyrrell's trips to London, where he would stay at Brown's Hotel, buy suits on Savile Row, and lunch with his favorite British writers, Malcolm Muggeridge and Peregrine Worsthorne.
"Tom Wolfe once said that Bob had cultivated the perfect life," says Andrew Ferguson, a writer who joined the magazine in the 1980s, and who is now a columnist for Bloomberg News. "He had his apartment in New York, he could go to Europe when he wanted, and then he could return to this idyllic, perfect little town and do intellectually engaging work."
The magazine's tenth-anniversary party at the St. Regis, with Buckley and Podhoretz and Kristol and Wolfe and everyone else, marked a milestone in Tyrrell's ascent in the conservative world. But it also marked the beginning of his rise in the wider world of mainstream journalism and public affairs. For each issue of the Spectator, under the rubric "Public Nuisances," Tyrrell wrote a sketch about a prominent person. His prose was wordy and ornate but also sharp-edged and funny, packing the punch of an old-style broadside. He went after people in politics, literary life, and pop culture, mostly but not exclusively on the left: Jimmy Carter, Bella Abzug, John Kenneth Galbraith, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal, Bob Dylan, Henry Kissinger, Walter Mondale, and dozens of others. Nearly every essay was built around a single theme: the subject was a fraud, usually an intellectual poseur, whom Tyrrell was perceptive and brave enough to expose.
Of the President at the time, Tyrrell wrote,
In an earlier era Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia, would be devoting himself to procuring his young daughter's first pair of shoes, a bottle of Peruna for a fat wife, and a dusty flivver for himself. At day's end he would withdraw to the humid coziness of the local Coca-Cola parlor, there to discourse upon the latest intrigues of the Popish camorra and to remain au courant with reports of frightening suicide rates experienced by misguided Negroes lured to the Sodoms of the North and taught to read. Of Vidal, living the exile's life in Ravello, Italy, Tyrrell wrote,
On summer nights the villa fills with the most renowned left-wing intellectuals of the West. In the soft light of the great vaulted living room sit Claire Bloom, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Princess Margaret, and the scholarly Newmans, Joanne and Paul. The talk turns to health care, and Gore laments that our system compares unfavorably with the barber shops of the last Persian empire, one of the few cultures he still admires (he finds it "subtle").No one else was writing anything quite like that. Tyrrell revised and collected the essays in a book, Public Nuisances (1979). His style caught the attention of the late Washington Post editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield, who met Tyrrell during a visit to Bloomington. Greenfield, who was greatly pleased with the writing of George F. Will, whom she had brought to the Post, was looking for other voices to give the page freshness, and she offered Tyrrell a column.
It was an extraordinary opportunity; not only would his readership expand but his words would be seen by the politicos and policymakers whom he could scarcely have hoped to reach in the past. The opportunity for national recognition stoked Tyrrell's nearly all-consuming ambition. "It was as if he couldn't be satisfied with the kind of success he had achieved in terms of the magazine and its impact and the extraordinary achievement of its alumni," Steven Munson remembers. "It just didn't seem to be enough to do that. He seemed to have this gnawing desire for more." On the eve of the 1980s Tyrrell was on the verge of achieving just that.
The Spectator's stance toward Reagan is probably best understood in the context of the role Tyrrell envisioned for the magazine at its inception. In 1967 he had wanted The Alternative to become part of a political movement, and he believed that conservatives should join together behind a good cause and a good leader. Although Tyrrell was a writer, he had the party operative's sense of loyalty; he simply didn't understand why some in the conservative camp would take potshots at their own people, why they wouldn't support the cause. As the 1980 election approached, he tried to build a coalition of all conservatives for Reagan.
In the summer of 1978, at the request of one of Reagan's aides, Tyrrell arranged for Reagan to meet a group of mostly neoconservativessome were still registered Democratsat the Union League Club, in New York. Although everyone in the group admired Reagan's heartfelt anti-communism, many worried that he was simply too right-wing for them to support. Although assessments of the meeting varied (some remained skeptical; others believed that Reagan had wowed 'em), in the end most of the neocons came around. To the degree that he played a part in the change, Tyrrell deserves credit; it was a genuine achievement to persuade the New York thinkers that Reagan was not some sort of southern-California John Bircher but, rather, a political figure to be taken seriously.
Reagan rewarded Tyrrell with access to the White House, and Tyrrell was thrilled. When he was invited to one of Reagan's early state dinners, in June of 1981, Tyrrell literally worked himself into a fever in his room at the Hay-Adams Hotel as he waited to cross Lafayette Square to the White House. His wife, Judy, who was pregnant with their daughter and had arranged to undergo a cesarean section the week of the dinner, rescheduled the birth so that she could attend. "Annie Tyrrell was a presidential baby," Tyrrell says proudly today. In the East Room, Tyrrell was mesmerized. "It was glittering, and the President was charming," he recalls. "It had all the grace of the Kennedy White House."
Tyrrell later wrote about receiving a call from Reagan in August of 1982. Tyrrell was struggling with a passage he was writing when the phone rang, and a woman told him that the President would like to speak with him. Tyrrell thought someone was kidding him until "the old charmer came on the line, appeasing my irritability as effectively as my nocturnal martini," he wrote. "Literature could be postponed for les affaires d'etat." As they talked, Tyrrell suggested that Reagan invite several "like-minded intellectuals" to lunch at the White Houseto help in "the establishment of a conservative political counterculture."
Reagan agreed, and Tyrrell organized the group. "We met in the Cabinet Room," he recalls. "We all walked in, and Reagan said, 'Well, Bob, this is your meeting, you sit there,' and he had me sit in the Vice President's chair." As the group ate lunch, Tyrrell urged Reagan to implement conservative proposals on limited government, economic growth, and a strong foreign policy. "Now that was a thrill!" he later wrote. "I had lived to deliver a stirring exhortation to the President of the United States in the privacy of his own home."
In the attic office of his house in Alexandria, Virginia, Tyrrell has carefully stored his correspondence with Reagan. There are letters, encased in clear plastic sheaths, from Reagan's years as governor; a fairly thick stack of correspondence from the White House years; and a smaller sheaf of handwritten notes from Reagan's retirement. Some of the letters show the extent to which Tyrrell, when it came to Reagan, simply abandoned the critical stance toward politics that had made the Spectator so interesting during its early years. "I ... wonder if there is anything I could do for you," he wrote the President on April 4, 1983. "You are doing a great job, and as you know I want to help you in every way I can." A month later Tyrrell wrote again. "Your speech last Wednesday was superb," he said, "and we shall continue the good fight with you in the pages of the Spectator and in my weekly column."
But even though the magazine was, as far as Tyrrell was concerned, on autopilot, it remained animated by the spirit he originally brought to it; the Spectator still seemed remarkably Tyrrellian even when Tyrrell himself had little to do with it. In the early 1980s it published lengthy musings on martinis and second wives along with analyses of communism and the arts. In 1981 the editors were particularly proud ofand Tyrrell was actually involved inthe former National Security Council aide Peter Rodman's detailed rebuttal of William Shawcross's Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. They were even happier when Shawcross submitted an equally detailed defense of his argument. His response meant that the Spectator's conservatives weren't just talking among themselves; when they criticized someone, their target would feel obliged to answer.
The magazine was doing well, but Tyrrell's infatuation with Reagan (in the magazine he fondly referred to the President as "Our Ron") began to cause problems for him in the world outside the Spectator. Given his feelings, he simply couldn't use his Post column to pick fights with the Administrationor to offer any criticism other than the gentle we're-all-on-the-same-side variety. That is not a posture that makes for interesting columnizing, and by 1982 Greenfield had cooled on Tyrrell. He found himself moving into the paper's op-ed Siberia, appearing less frequently and on varying days of the week. By the end of the year he was rarely appearing at all.
Even after the Post quit publishing him, Tyrrell continued to write the column for syndication, and he also worked on another book, which he called The Liberal Crack-Up. It was an attempt to move beyond the sketches of Public Nuisances to more-general statements about the political culture. The book discussed the change from the old liberalism of the Roosevelt and Truman years to what Tyrrell called the "New Age Liberalism" of the sixties and seventiesthe liberalism of feminism, environmentalism, anti-nukism, and the like.
The book, published in 1984, received a few good notices, but Tyrrell wasn't happy. In a Spectator column he complained that The Liberal Crack-Up had not been reviewed in the Post, The New York Times, and other liberal publicationssomething, he suggested, that might be the result of a conspiracy to silence conservative voices. (As it turned out, both papers eventually ran reviews.) Beyond the reviews, though, there was a sense that Tyrrell's thinking, even at a fairly early stage in his career, was becoming a bit stale. There wasn't much nuance in his treatment of the good guys and the bad guys, and his baroque style made an easy target. Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in The New Republic, attacked Tyrrell's "verbal dandyismChicken McMencken, perhaps":
The formula is simple. First, select a person to attack. If possible, refer to him or her as the Hon. insert surname, the Rev. insert surname, or Dr. insert surname. Second, call the person a nasty name, either a heavily sarcastic one (esteemed eminento, sonorous pontificator, distinguished scholar) or simply a jeering onebellyacher, buffoon, dolt, dunderhead, galoot, gasbag, greenhorn, half-wit, idiot, imbecile, jackass, loony, moron, nincompoop, pinhead, poltroon, popinjay, quack, rube, sap, simpleton, snot, windbag, wretch, yahoo, yokel, or zealot. Third, add an adjective (optional). Brazen, fuliginous, gaseous, gimcrack, maudlin, meretricious, piffling, portentous, sophomoric, puerileany of these will do. Fourth, accuse the person of engaging in bibble-babble, claptrap, flapdoodle, flumdiddle, hokum, moonshine, pishposh, rumble-bumble, pronunciamentos, or tosh. Finally, work in a reference to the United States as "the Republic." You will soon be writing, or programming your computer to write, sentences such as this one, from page 21: "There have always been whistle-brained pontificators at large in the Republic, all promising a New Age full of wonder and kookery." To add to Tyrrell's growing negative mood, he began to feel less welcome at the Reagan White House. His 1982 meeting with the President and conservative intellectuals, which Tyrrell had hoped would be the first of many, was instead the last. (He returned to the White House on other occasions, but not for his cherished purpose of establishing a conservative political counterculture.) Tyrrell blamed the men around Reagan, particularly David Gergen, who, Tyrrell believed, wanted to keep conservatives away from Reagan lest they exert too much influence.
The moment of opportunity Tyrrell had had in 1980the moment when it seemed he might become a truly public figurehad passed. When, in 1985, Tyrrell and the Spectator pulled up stakes and moved to Washington, to live and work at the center of government and political journalism, they instead found themselves increasingly marginalized in what conservatives sometimes call the "right-wing echo chamber"until events intervened to bring the magazine a level of fame and prosperity the editors had never thought possible.
After rejecting New YorkManhattan was too expensive and too close to National Review, the editors feltthe magazine decided to move to Washington. But downtown Washington was also expensive, so Burr rented offices across the Potomac, in Arlington, Virginia. The accommodations were spartan, and the staff mostly stayed out of the city, choosing instead to live in suburban apartments. Tyrrell moved into a large house in McLean, Virginia, just outside the Beltway"the American side of the Beltway," as he called it. Using the proceeds from the sale of his house in Bloomington, The American Spectator Educational Foundation paid for a significant portion of the new house: about $200,000. The foundation also bought a big black Mercedes for Tyrrell's use; gave him a generous entertainment budget and paid for a membership in the Cosmos Club, on Embassy Row; and continued to pay for his trips to New York and London.
Despite all the comforts, it was a troubled transition for Tyrrell. After the move his marriagehe and Judy Mathews Tyrrell had been married since 1972 and had two daughters and a sonbegan to fall apart. In 1988 she divorced him, leaving him alone in the big house in McLean. Tyrrell began to spend more time in town, cultivating the image of a sophisticated playboy. He wrote often about his friend Taki Theodoracopulos, the Greek shipping heir and jet setter usually known simply as Taki, and the many evenings the two of them spent hanging out in fashionable nightspots around the world. To people close to him, the I'm-having-fun bravado masked a sad reality, which Tyrrell seemed to acknowledge when he later wrote, of his life after the divorce, "Lose a familygain a nightclub." He had an affair with a much younger woman, a beautiful staffer in the Bush White House. They vacationed in Grenada, where Tyrrell wrote of the heroism of Ronald Reagan's liberation of the island.
As Tyrrell struggled, and spent even less time on Spectator matters than he had before, the magazine continued to evolve. One of the purposes of moving east had been to be closer to more journalists, writers who could look into a story and report what they found. The pages of the Spectator began to fill with articles such as Rael Jean Isaac's investigation of the Government Accountability Project, anti-nuclear-power activists whose reports were often cited unquestioningly in the mainstream press; Michael Fumento's article on the left-leaning Center for Defense Information; and a story about pro-Sandinista members of Congress by a young writer named David Brock, who at the time was working for Insight magazine, owned by the conservative Washington Times. "It was the kind of reporting done in standard print media, except it was done in accordance with conservative suppositions rather than liberal ones," Andrew Ferguson recalls. "It asked questions that only conservatives would ask."
This was a big change. Writers who in an earlier era might simply have pontificated on a topic were now making phone calls, looking at documents, and discovering new information. The new style proved popular with readers; in a few years Burr and the Spectator editors realized that reporting from the right made for a particularly appealing marketing device. "In selling subscriptions you could call the magazine America's leading monthly of investigative journalism," Pleszczynski says. "You could use the word 'investigative' against the liberals, like we're getting the goods on these rats."
It was a task that seemed to suit David Brock perfectly. He was young and ambitious, with a network of connections in Republican circles. A serious, unflashy writer, he focused on weighty issues, most often involving U.S. foreign policy. As the nineties arrived, his articles displayed a growing scope, especially a 1991 cover story on the "incompetent reign" of Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, whom Brock portrayed as unprincipled and more interested in gamesmanship than statesmanship. The article stuck to the topic of Baker's job performance with one exception: a small aside that in retrospect seems to have offered a glimpse of Brock's future direction. Discussing two top Baker aides, Robert Zoellick and Margaret Tutwiler, Brock wrote, "Tutwiler is first among equals," adding, in parentheses, "I assume that Zoellick does not receive a fresh rose on his pillow each night while on the road with the secretary, delivered by Baker's security detail." It was a jarring note, a hint of scandal unsupported by any evidence. Daniel Wattenberg, who began writing for the magazine about the same time as Brock, says, "I remember that's when I noticed his style changing. Up until then he had not been that kind of reporter."
For a writer becoming more interested in hints of scandal, the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas offered a bonanza of possibilities. In early 1992 Burr approached Pleszczynski and said that a contributor had offered a $5,000 grant to fund a story on the way Senate Democrats had used Anita Hill in an attempt to block the Thomas confirmation. Burr suggested Brock as the reporter, and Pleszczynski agreed. Brock happily accepted the assignment. The article he produced, "The Real Anita Hill," was a wide-ranging attack on Hill's credibility and included Brock's now famous question, "So Hill may be a bit nutty, and a bit slutty, but is she an outright liar?" His answer, of course, was yes. (Later Brock would have an equally famous change of heart and confess to using grossly unethical methods in subsequent stories about Hill, adding further confusion to the question of her credibility.)
"The Real Anita Hill" proved a sensation. It tapped into an enormous well of resentment among Republicans, who five years earlier had been stunned by the ferocity of Democratic attacks on the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. The radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh read parts of Brock's story aloud on the air, and overnight The American Spectator was famous. Actually, faster than overnight. "When Limbaugh mentioned it, I remember coming back to the office that afternoon," says Christopher Caldwell, who was the magazine's assistant managing editor at the time. "The phones were ringing so fast that no one could make a call. I'd never seen anything like it."
Many of those callers had checkbooks in hand, ready to subscribe to a magazine they had only just heard of. In January of 1992, before the Hill piece was published, the Spectator's circulation was around 30,000virtually unchanged from what it had been a decade earlier. By the end of the year it had hit 114,000 and was still rising.
The happiness of the Spectator staff was clear enough in December of 1992, when the magazine held its twenty-fifth-anniversary dinner at the Capital Hilton Hotel, in Washington. It was a time to celebrate the Spectator's accomplishments, said P. J. O'Rourke, the master of ceremonies, who had written humor pieces for the magazine over the years. "But we are also here to celebrate something elseour return to political opposition. Let's be honest with ourselves. What a relief to be on the attack again. No more gentle sparring with the Administration. No more striking with the flat of our sword. No more firing blanks. Ladies and gentlemen, we have game in our sights. Clinton may be a disaster for the rest of the nation, but he is meat on our table. What a joy to be able to turn to the helmsman of our good ship Spectator and say, 'Captain Bob, bring the guns down to deck level and load with grapeshot.'"
The crowd loved it. But even though the magazine was delighted to be back in opposition, nothing in the Spectator in 1993 would support the charge that it was obsessed with Bill Clinton. The magazine published little serious reporting on the new President or his Administration, two exceptions being Fred Barnes's devastating critique of the assumptions behind the First Lady's health-care initiative and Wattenberg's examination of Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The year's cover stories were eclectic: articles on Slobodan Milosevic, the mayoral race in Los Angeles, political correctness on Broadway, and Canada's first female Prime Minister.
Then, in August of 1993, Brock was approached by a wealthy Republican who put him in touch with Cliff Jackson, an Arkansas lawyer who was a longtime enemy of Bill Clinton's. Jackson represented several state troopers who said they had facilitated Clinton's extramarital liaisons during his years as governor and were now ready to tell the press about it. Jackson was working with the Los Angeles Times, which he hoped would publish the story, giving it the imprimatur of a first-rate mainstream news organization. But he also feared that the Times might change its mind, and if so, he wanted a reliable backup to publish the story.
That's where the Spectator came in. At Jackson's invitation, Brock went to Arkansas and talked to the troopers, with the understanding that the Spectator would break the story only if the Times declined to publish. After much haggling with Jackson and the troopers, Brock finished an early version of his article in the beginning of October. "I was stunned when I read his first draft," Pleszczynski recalls. "I knew it was the hottest story the magazine would ever publish." But the magazine did not have permission to publish, and for the next two months Brock and Pleszczynski waited. During that time the Los Angeles Times reporters William Rempel and Douglas Frantz worked on their story, carefully gathering evidence to corroborate the troopers' version of events.
October passed, and then November, and then the first two weeks of December, and the Los Angeles Times had still not published its trooper story. Rempel and Frantz faced delaying tactics from the Clinton White House and opposition at their paper. By mid-December word of the story was all around Washington; when television reporters started mentioning it, everyone knew it would be out soon. With the Times still not publishing, Jackson told the Spectator it could go with the story. On the night of December 19, a Sunday, the editors were at the Spectator office, sending Brock's story out to the press sheet by sheet on the magazine's creaky old fax machine. By Monday morning the news was everywhere, and The American Spectator was the magazine that had broken it.
On Tuesday the Times finally published its account, and although the gist of the story was the same, the contrast between the two articles pointed to something characteristic in Brock's work. The core allegation of the Spectator's piece was solid (there is little doubt that Clinton engaged in the kind of behavior depicted in the article), but Brock included a variety of lurid, extraneous, and unverifiable details that made easy targets for Clinton's defenders. For example, he suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton was having an affair with her law partnerlater the White House deputy counselVincent Foster. Brock quoted one trooper describing a dinner at which Foster "came up behind Hillary, and squeezed her rear end with both of his hands." The trooper continued, "Then he winked and gave me the 'OK' sign." A little later that evening, the trooper said, "Vince put his hand over one of Hillary's breasts and made the same 'OK' sign to me. And she just stood there cooing, 'Oh Vince. Oh Vince.'" Brock offered no corroboration for the incident; in fact, the only person named by the trooper as a witness told Brock that she hadn't been there.
Another oddity in the article was Brock's reference to a woman "whom the trooper remembered only as Paula." Brock's source said the woman had joined Clinton alone in a room at the Excelsior Hotel after the governor spotted her at a business conference. The inclusion of Paula Jones's namealbeit only her first namewould have enormous consequences, but it appears to have been included almost by accident. In a 1999 interview Pleszczynski said, "It was obvious from the start that we would never mention any of the women by name without their approval." In the case of Paula, "It never dawned on me that anyone would recognize her. David didn't know her last name, and I thought Little Rock was a big enough place for there to be many Paulas." Brock knew the names of the women involved in all the other cases (they had turned down his requests for interviews), but he had tossed in the Paula anecdote without even knowing who the woman was.
In contrast, the Times reporters, while relying heavily on the troopers' accounts, searched more widely for evidence that might verify the accusations. For example, after the troopers named a woman with whom they said Clinton had had an affair, Rempel and Frantz examined Clinton's telephone records for calls to the woman. Among other things, they found that during a business trip in 1989 Clinton had called the woman from his hotel at 1:23 A.M. and talked for more than an hour and a half. A few hours later, at 7:45 A.M., he called again. The reporters found eleven calls from Clinton's cell phone to the woman in a single day. It was not solid proof, but it gave the Times story a degree of reliability missing from Brock's account.
The White House denied everything. The President's damage-control team was happyat least, happy under the circumstancesthat the Spectator was receiving all the attention for breaking the news, because this allowed the White House to ignore Rempel and Frantz's careful work and denounce Troopergate as a right-wing smear. But in the conservative world Troopergate was a smashing success. Like the Anita Hill story, it got tremendous airplay on talk radio. Reporters ran features on the magazine's new notoriety. Circulation had risen to 143,000 by December of 1993. The January, 1994, issue, containing Brock's article, sold 296,000 copies.
Brock became a superstar. He appeared on TV, was celebrated at conservative gatherings, and by his own account basked in his new reputation as "the Bob Woodward of the right." The recording on his home answering machine said, "I can't come to the phone right now. I'm either on another call, writing, or out taking down a President."
Larry, Henderson, and Boynton were all avid outdoorsmenand all interested in politics. As they set their lines, they began talking about Bill Clinton. (Tyrrell did not tell them about Brock's article-in-progress; that was still a closely guarded secret.) According to an unpublished memoir written by Henderson, Boynton talked about his experiences in Arkansas, where he had met a man named Parker Dozhier, who operated a bait shop on Lake Catherine, near Hot Springs. Boynton told the men that Dozhier had written a "white paper" alleging corruption at the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission during the Clinton years.
Henderson wrote in his memoir,
As Steve and I talked about this issue, there was a visceral reaction from both Bob Tyrrell and Dick Larry. Bob speculated aloud about the possibility of doing an investigative piece in The American Spectator. Dick Larry said that it would be difficult for the young writers at the Spectator to do such a project because of the cultural differences involved. After all, this was a fish and game story, not strictly a political or intellectual story. [Larry] believed that the trust necessary for a project of this type could not be attained by "twenty-somethings" who had no background or ability to meld with the outdoors types. Addressing me, he said, "I could do it, you could do it, and Steve could do it, but these young intellectuals would never understand the culture sufficiently, and they would fail to gain the cooperation necessary to break a story like this."The conversation ended with the understanding that the Spectator would apply for a Scaife grant to fund an investigation of the "fish and game story." The plan that developed was for Boynton to look into Dozhier's tip and, if he found useful information, for a Spectator staff writer to turn it into a magazine piece. A few days after the fishing trip the grant request was sent to Scaife, which approved the project. Everyone expected that it would last a month or two.
Early in the morning of November 2, Henderson picked up The Washington Post and read a front-page story headlined "CLINTONS' FORMER REAL ESTATE FIRM PROBED; FEDERAL INQUIRIES FOCUS ON FINANCIAL ACTIVITIES OF OTHER ARKANSANS." The article said that David Hale, a former municipal judge, had accused Clinton of pressuring him to make Small Business Administration loans to benefit the failing Whitewater real-estate investment. Henderson was transfixed. He knew Hale from a time when both had been in the Jaycees. Although they hadn't seen each other in fifteen years, they had kept up with mutual friends, and Henderson felt sure he could reach Hale. "There was a unique opportunity here, and it didn't require brilliance on my part to recognize it," Henderson wrote. "Maybe, just maybe, I could ... allow The American Spectator to compete with the big media on this story." Excited, Henderson called Tyrrell at 7:00 A.M. and told him to read the Post article.
With Tyrrell's blessing, Henderson got in touch with Hale and arranged to see him, along with Boynton, in Little Rock. Meeting at Hale's lawyer's office on November 20, Henderson and Boynton explained that they had been retained by the Spectator and asked Hale to assist them as they investigated Whitewater. Hale agreed. Once that happened, the modest investigation that had been discussed on Chesapeake Bay no longer really existed. After the Whitewater revelations and, later, Troopergate, what came to be known as the Arkansas Project no longer had anything to do with the state Game & Fish Commission. Tyrrell came to believe that there was a vast reservoir of Clinton corruption to be found in Arkansas, and the once limited project was transformed into an all-purpose investigation of the President's past. "I thought that by early '94 we really had a hell of a lot of scandal to reveal," Tyrrell recalls today, "and I'm pretty convinced we only touched the tip of the iceberg."
Henderson and Boynton traveled frequently to Arkansas, where Hale acted as what Henderson later called a "living road map" to Whitewater. Hale helped Henderson and Boynton find land records that were obscure but available to the public. He took them on a tour of the Whitewater development. And he told them lots of stories. According to Henderson's memoir, the two men met Hale many times, sometimes at Dozhier's bait shop. Henderson and Boynton had put Dozhier on the payroll, at $1,000 a month, to gather information for them when they weren't in Arkansas. During the visits Hale was often in the company of FBI agents under the control of the recently appointed Whitewater special prosecutor Robert Fiske; Hale would become a key witness in the financial-fraud case against Clinton's former business partners James and Susan McDougal and Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker. (Hale himself was later imprisoned for fraud.)
Henderson and Boynton believed that they were learning things that would make for groundbreaking stories in the Spectator. That opinion was not shared by others at the magazine. "They had nothing," Daniel Wattenberg recalls. "Henderson supposedly had Arkansas wired for sound and would deliver big bombshells, but whenever I would challenge him, he would either not have anything or say he couldn't share what he knew." Pleszczynski, too, was deeply skeptical. "I wasn't impressed by what they had to say," he wrote later, in a memo. "They seemed to have a source or twoDavid Hale, Parker Dozhierbut not much more than that. There always seemed to be a lot of hush-hush and heavy breathing, but it never amounted to anything concrete enough for a story." The magazine published several articles on Whitewater by James Ring Adams, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer, but as 1994 wore on, it seemed increasingly clear that nothing of any real consequence would come out of the Arkansas Project.
The magazine, however, was still riding high on the success of Troopergate. The American Spectator was going where no opinion magazine, of any political persuasion, had ever gone before. Circulation continued to rise, hitting a peak of 309,000 in February of 1995. And since readers seemed to love the Clinton stuff, there was every reason to believe the circulation would rise even higher. The magazine's annual budgets hit $8 million, $9 million, and nearly $10 million during those years, also unprecedented figures. Contribution income (the magazine remained tax-exempt) also went up. The Spectator's board of directors gave Tyrrell, Burr, and Pleszczynski substantial raises.
At first Henderson was paid $10,000 a month and Boynton $12,500; later they received $12,000 and $14,500, respectively. Henderson and Boynton also retained a private investigator and paid him about $470,000 over the course of the project. By early 1995 they had expanded beyond Whitewater and were working with Tyrrell on the subject of Mena Airport, a remote landing strip in western Arkansas that had long been the subject of tales about gunrunning, drug running, and CIA skullduggery. Tyrrell was talking regularly with an Arkansas state trooper named L. D. Brown, who had been the source for a Troopergate follow-up that focused on further allegations regarding Clinton's extramarital affairs. After that article was published, Tyrrell believed that Brown knew more about Clinton than he had revealed, and Tyrrell was eager to learn what it was.
In 1995 Tyrrell wined and dined Brown, looking for information about Mena. "Henderson and I spent a lot of time telling Brown that the story was going to come out," Tyrrell recalls. "He was fearful for his life. Finally one night we got it all out of him. We were at my house. I was the only person who could go through a fifth of whiskey, so I could keep up with him, drinking his Stoli." The next morning, Tyrrell recalls, he woke up with a terrible hangover and the belief that he had an important story.
Tyrrell wrote an 7,000-word piece on Mena that began with a justification for pursuing allegations about Clinton and drugs. After Troopergate "some argued that the governor's sex life was a private matter," Tyrrell wrote in an unpublished draft.
Some argued that it had no relevance to his public life. [But] every reader agreed that if stories could be reported depicting irregularities of a more serious nature they would be very damaging to Clinton's repute and political longevity. Well, how about evidence linking the governor to drug trafficking, money laundering, and illegal international arms shipments?Tyrrell laid out Brown's tale. The trooper said that in 1984 he had applied for a job with the Central Intelligence Agency and in response received a call from the notorious drug dealer Barry Seal. Seal directed Brown to meet him at Mena. There, Brown says, he boarded Seal's C-123K transport plane, which according to Brown was loaded with crates of M-16 rifles intended for Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Brown says he went along as Seal and his crew air-dropped the weapons and then landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where they picked up bags of what Brown later learned was cocaine.
According to Tyrrell's account, after two such flights Brown told Seal he wanted no part of the guns-for-drugs operation. And Brown said he was later disappointed to learn that Bill Clinton knew what was going on. Brown told Tyrrell that he had confronted Clinton with the information about Seal's operation and Clinton had told him not to worry. "That's Lasater's deal," Brown says Clinton told him, referring to Dan Lasater, a well-known Little Rock businessman later convicted of distributing drugs. In addition, Brown's brother Dwayne told Tyrrell that when he asked L.D., "Who's pushing this?" his brother "nodded over toward the governor's mansion."
Tyrrell believed the story. He wrote in the original draft,
The American Spectator, after a thirteen-month investigation, has come upon documents and testimony revealing Governor Clinton again compromising state officials but now in activity involving the apparent misuse of an American intelligence agency and drug trafficking. According to evidence that has come into our hands, Clinton involved at least one of his top troopers in intelligence work in foreign countries and in flying aboard international flights out of Arkansas that turned out to be involved with drug trafficking, arms shipments, and the importation of unreported currency. Precisely how much profit Clinton realized from these flights is at this point unknown.The manuscript caused an uproar at the magazine. Christopher Caldwell wrote a long memo to Pleszczynski, taking Tyrrell's draft apart allegation by allegation. "It runs the risk of discrediting by association all of the investigative work on which we've staked our reputation over the last 30 months," Caldwell wrote. "Running it would make us the laughingstock of the journalism world and cost us a mammoth price in both reputation and subscribers."
But Tyrrell insisted. "Goddammit, I want you to understand that I edit this magazine," Caldwell remembers Tyrrell telling him. "It's going to run." When the showdown came, Caldwell refused to take part in the editing. He walked out, and Pleszczynski followed. A few days later Caldwell was gone for good, but Pleszczynski stayed on. A resolution was achieved when Tyrrell enlisted John Corry, the former New York Times reporter who wrote the magazine's "Presswatch" column (and who just happened to be visiting from New York), to edit the article. Holing up in an empty office, Corry rewrote the manuscript as a one-man's-story featuring L. D. Brown. It appeared under Tyrrell's name in the August, 1995, issue.
Tyrrell and Henderson believed that the Mena piece would be a bombshell. When publication day arrived, Henderson went to Tyrrell's house to help with the expected press inquiries. But no one called. "It just went flat as a brick," Henderson says. That didn't mean it had no impact. In Washington conservative circles word of the internal squabble at the Spectator spread fast. "People knew about that more than they knew about the article," Pleszczynski says. The open revolt suggested that Tyrrell wasn't really in charge of his own magazine. His later effort to re-establish control would result in a fight that proved much more ferocious than the dispute over Mena Airport.
The problem, management believed, was the physical magazine. It was printed on cheap, newsprint-like paper not suitable for reproducing the color pictures that advertisers required. So in 1995 the staff began work on a redesign, giving the magazine a new look and new artwork and, most important, printing it on expensive, glossy paper. A New York-based salesman was hired to give the Spectator a presence in the nation's advertising capital. The new design, filled with color artwork and fronted by a new logo, made its debut in January of 1996.
But things did not work out as planned. In the early months of 1995 circulation began falling. From its high of 309,000, in February of 1995, it had fallen to around 200,000 by the time the new design was unveiled. And the hoped-for new advertising revenues did not materialize. "They ran into political objections to the magazine," recalls Terry Eastland, who would later become the magazine's publisher. "The Spectator had gotten this very high-profile, anti-Clinton reputation, so if you go into consumer ads, the agency or advertiser can say, 'That's nice, you have great demographics, but we can reach the same demographic in another magazine without being associated with controversy.'" Making matters worse, the Spectator began losing more money on expensive direct-mail appeals designed to keep circulation from falling below 200,000.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Project was limping along. Henderson and Boynton were, in Henderson's words, "essentially self-directed." A better way of putting it might be that no one was in charge. Neither Tyrrell nor Burr kept a careful eye on the work that was being done, and yet the $40,000 checks were still going out of the magazine's office each month. The project continued for two years after the Mena debacle, and during that time produced nothing of use to the Spectator. In the spring of 1997 the project's miserable cost-to-benefit ratio became a source of friction between Ron Burr and Scaife.
The dispute was simple. With the magazine beginning to suffer from the squeeze produced by lower circulation and higher production and direct-mail costs, Burr had begun to use a small portion of the Scaife funds to cover non-project articles and also some general operating expenses. It seemed like a reasonable idea, because devoting all of Scaife's contributions to the projectan enterprise that was worthless to the magazinemeant, in effect, that Scaife was no longer offering support to The American Spectator but was instead subsidizing Henderson and Boynton. Strapped for cash, Burr sent a request to Scaife for a grant of nearly $1 million.
Richard Larry was dumbfounded. In his view, the Scaife money was to be used for the Arkansas Project, period. The two men argued over the issue; Larry also discussed it with Tyrrell, who sided with him. The dispute reached a critical point when Tyrrell told Burr that Larry had said that Burr had misallocated Arkansas Project funds. Believing that his integrity had been challenged, Burr demanded that the project be audited.
Tyrrell resisted an audit. Burr insisted. During the standoff Tyrrell, looking to shore up his authority, brought Henderson into the magazine, giving him the title of vice-president. (Henderson officially went off the Arkansas Project payroll in July of 1997; his salary as vice-president was paid by a specific grant from Scaife.) Burr continued to insist on an audit, and the Spectator became two warring camps, with Pleszczynski on Burr's side and some directors of the magazine on Tyrrell's. Determined to show his primacy, Tyrrell fired Burr, ending an association of nearly thirty years.
Ultimately there was no audit, but it seems unlikely that one would have resolved the dispute. There were no accusations that anyone had pocketed the Scaife money. Rather, Larry's objection was that the magazine had used Arkansas Project funds for general Spectator purposes. But how, precisely, could one define which was which? An audit could never have answered the question of whether Arkansas Project funds had been misallocated, because there had never been any formal understanding of how they would be allocated in the first place.
After the blowup the magazine's situation deteriorated rapidly. Tyrrell had spent nearly all of his internal political capital in getting rid of Burr. Needing a publisher, he turned to Eastland, a respected journalist and a former Reagan Justice Department spokesman who had been editing the journal Forbes Media Critic, which had recently ceased publication. Eastland joined the Spectator with the understanding that his first task would be a thorough review of the Arkansas Project. That in itself was a full-time job, and Eastland became, in effect, the magazine's inspector general. "I didn't know anything about it from the outside," he recalls. "When I went in there, I spent the bulk of my days looking at records from Henderson and Boynton."
As Eastland pored over expense vouchers and American Express receipts, the magazine took more financial hits. First, the board of directors decided to give a six-figure severance to Burr, to be paid over two years. Second, the conservative Bradley Foundation, which had long supported the Spectator, withheld its contribution out of concern for the magazine's stability. And finally, not only did Scaife turn down the million-dollar grant request but it later decided to cut the Spectator off completely.
Richard Mellon Scaife was widely known to entertain conspiracy theories about the 1993 death of Vincent Foster. A Scaife-owned newspaper hired Christopher Ruddy, a reporter who questioned the authorities' conclusion that Foster had killed himself in a park just outside Washington. In 1997 Ruddy published a book, The Strange Death of Vincent Foster, which suggested that Foster had been murdered. The book appeared almost simultaneously with the final report of the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who concluded after an exhaustive investigation that Foster had killed himself. Most conservative publications took Starr's report as an opportunity to knock down Ruddy's work once and for all, but since Ruddy was a favorite of Scaife's, the Spectator faced a dilemma over whether to review the book. Had it been Pleszczynski's decision, the book would most likely not have been reviewed, but Tyrrell intervened, knowing the issue was a sensitive one for his biggest donor. Tyrrell gave the book to John Corry, who had rewritten the Mena Airport story.
Corry hated the book. Calling Ruddy a "very heavy breather," he compared Foster conspiracy speculation to way-out theories such as that the CIA had introduced crack cocaine into the ghetto, that a Navy missile had brought down TWA Flight 800, and that British Intelligence had assassinated Princess Diana. "Beware when an investigative reporter begins sentences with words like 'oddly,' 'strangely' or 'interestingly,'" Corry wrote. "There may be nothing odd, strange or interesting at all, but the game is to make you think there is." When the review appeared, in the December, 1997, issue, Scaife was livid. He called Tyrrell and told him that the foundation would no longer contribute to the Spectator, ending another relationship of some three decades.
In January of 1998 the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. It was a godsend for conservative commentators, but for the Spectator it meant even more trouble. On January 27 Hillary Clinton, denouncing the President's adversaries during an appearance on NBC, blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy" for circulating baseless allegations against the Clintons. In a few weeks the Arkansas Project would become Exhibit A of the vast right-wing conspiracy. On March 17 the online magazine Salon published "The Road to Hale," a story that accused Scaife and the Spectator of funneling money to David Hale, by way of Parker Dozhier, allegedly to influence Hale's testimony against the President. Salon's witnesses were Caryn Mann, Dozhier's former girlfriend, and her son, Joshua Rand. The boy, who was thirteen at the time the payments allegedly began, told Salon that Dozhier would give Hale cashsometimes $40 or $60, sometimes as much as $500when Hale visited the bait shop on Lake Catherine. Mann and her son alleged that Dozhier used money he received from Boynton (and thus the Spectator) to pay Hale. Dozhier denied the allegation.
Tyrrell ridiculed the story with jokes about the "bait-shop junta," and the Spectator's defenders argued not only that Mann and her son were not credible witnesses but also that the story bore the fingerprints of a White House defense team eager to divert attention from the Lewinsky matter. But the Clinton Justice Department took the Salon story very seriously. On April 9 Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to Kenneth Starr recommending an investigation of the bait-shop allegations. Starr appointed the former Justice Department official Michael Shaheen to look into the matter.
The decision meant that the Spectator, already barely able to pay its bills, would have to hire a lawyer to defend it in an open-ended probe. Just before the investigation began, Eastland presented the results of his own Arkansas Project review to the magazine's board of directors. (It was done orally, with nothing written down that could later be subpoenaed.) The good news was that he had not found any funny business with the money that went to Henderson and Boynton. "They could account for the money they spent," Eastland says. "There were no serious discrepanciesmaybe a few hundred dollars here and there out of nearly two million." Eastland also found no evidence to support the allegations that money or other things of value had been given to Hale, other than some meals and $400 that was given to him so that he could make long-distance phone calls from prison. But beyond that, Eastland's presentation was a devastating indictment of the project. The short version was that the Arkansas Project was extremely expensive; had no managerial controls, accounting controls, or clear mission; and brought very little benefitand enormous controversyto the magazine. The board passed a series of resolutions stripping Tyrrell of the unilateral power to undertake similar projects in the future.
The Shaheen investigation went on for fourteen months. Scaife, Larry, Henderson, Boynton, Dozhier, and others were called to testify before a grand jury in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sensitive to the appearance of violating the Spectator's First Amendment rights, prosecutors did not subpoena Tyrrell or any of the magazine's journalists. In July of 1999 Shaheen announced that he would not prosecute anyone involved in the allegations about Hale. "In some instances, there is little if any credible evidence establishing that a particular thing of value was demanded, offered or received," Shaheen wrote. "In other instances, there is insufficient credible evidence to show that a thing of value was provided or received with the criminal intent defined by any of the applicable statutes." Shaheen also filed a 168-page report with the court that oversaw the investigation. The report remains sealed, although there is a chance it will be made public whenever the Office of Independent Counsel releases its final report on Whitewater.
Salvation appeared in the spring of 2000, when Conrad Black, the owner of The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The (London) Spectator, Canada's National Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, offered to help the Spectator. Tyrrell had cultivated Black for years and hoped the relationship would one day pay off with a generous investment in the Spectator. After extensive talks with several Spectator executives, Black, acting in conjunction with two conservative foundations, offered enough money to stabilize the magazine's financesabout $400,000 a year. Black made it clear that his group planned to provide the money indefinitely, guaranteeing the magazine's long-term survival.
But Black wanted much in return. First, he asked for de facto control over the board of directors. Second, he wanted to demote Tyrrell, taking away his title of editor in chief and cutting his pay by 40 percent. Third, he proposed that the widely respected conservative writer David Frum become the new editor of the Spectator. Although the offer would have given the magazine new life, and also, with the association of Black and Frum, a chance to regain its old respectability, it was a mortal threat to Tyrrell. He resolved to stop it.
One day during discussions of the plan, Tyrrell gave Eastland a ride back to the office. Sitting in the black Mercedes, Eastland asked Tyrrell whether he would rather see the Black proposal accepted, which would keep the magazine going but reduce Tyrrell's standing, or reject the proposal, which would mean that the Spectator would go under. "He said without hesitation that he'd choose rejecting the proposal," Eastland recalls. "I asked why, and he said he had a bond with all of those who had taken on Clinton and fought for his impeachment, and that he was seen as a leader of the opposition, and that if he were demoted or marginalized, he would be letting down those who had followed him. He also said Clinton and those around him would notice what a terrible fate had befallen him and take great pleasure from it. In his view, they would be vindicated if that happened."
Tyrrell found what appeared to be an escape route. While the board was still considering the Black proposal, Tyrrell told members he had arranged for a better deal from the high-tech investment guru George Gilder. (In truth, Gilder had pledged to give $250,000 a year for three years, less than what Black's group proposed.) Even though it was not clear whether Gilder's offer would be sufficient to keep the magazine in business, Tyrrell's word was enough for his hand-picked board to say no to Black's bid.
By summer the magazine was almost out of money. In August, Gilder, who was looking for a new publication to feature his views on issues such as Internet bandwidth and the New Economy, offered to buy the Spectator outright. With the magazine a few weeks away from missing a payroll, Tyrrell agreed. He had known Gilder for years; he told employees that the Spectator would still be about politics and culture, but would now take more notice of technology issues. Instead the magazine became something entirely new, virtually unrecognizable to readers of the old Spectator. Gilder would eventually close the office and fire everyoneexcept Tyrrell, who stayed on, with no control over the magazine he had run for thirty-three years.
Why couldn't Tyrrell see that the projectwhich involved nonjournalists and a private detective funded by a third partywas an extraordinarily dangerous proposition for any journalistic enterprise? Perhaps because Tyrrell never saw the Spectator solely as a journalistic enterprise. Since the early days in Bloomington, Tyrrell had envisioned The Alternative as an adjunct to a political movement. They had their party, we had ours. They had their magazine, we had ours. Years later his letters to Ronald Reagan ("we shall continue the good fight with you") suggested that his views had not changed. Still more years later, as he began the Arkansas Project, he felt the same way.
As for Ron Burr and the others who worked on the business side of the magazine, the Troopergate triumph promised to bring nearly limitless growth. Subscribers were signing up and money was rolling in, and for a moment it appeared that the Spectator might defy the law of gravity that governs small political magazines. Who could argue with that kind of success? "What happened to it was the temptation of the devil," says a conservative who was long associated with the magazine. "There was this dream of worldly financial success that no magazine of its kind has ever or will ever achieve. And it was destroyed by it."
On Monday, July 16, when George Gilder's movers arrived at the Spectator's Arlington office, there wasn't much left to take. They packed up computers and a few pieces of furniture, but threw everything else into an enormous pile for the garbage men to pick up. They threw away original illustrations by Elliott Banfield. They threw away dozens of bound volumes of the Spectator's past issues. And they tossed the old papier-mâché Mencken, dressed in his original black suit, onto a pile of trashto be discarded the next day, along with everything else.
I have every American Spectator mag since Jan '93. One of my favorites is the Sept '95 edition, when James Ring Adams first educated me about the Riady connection and the coming campaign finance scandal.... TAS was so far ahead of the mainstream media it was sad.
I've been sad to see the magazine go.
Is it much of a stretch from this to say that the Clinton Administration used the Justice Department to put a publication critical of it out of business?
And to hear Byron York tell it, you'd think this was a bad thing. He's almost as bad as David Brock.
Is it much of a stretch to say that the Clinton Administration used certain national newspapers to try to put a website critical of it out of business? ;-)
I'll admit my David Brock comment was over the line. I don't know what this says about me, but the topic of this thread is a rather emotional one for me and I let my feelings get the better of me.
I don't retract all of my criticism of York.It does seem as if he's blaming TAS's Clinton coverage for it's demise, when that was its crowning glory. There is a touch of "oh I'm not like those Clinton-hating nuts" in his article. It's almost as if he was trying to win the Strange New Respect award.
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