July 4

Richard Mellon Scaife died today. If you’re a young person the name might not mean very much, but Scaife was an extraordinarily influential figure in the campaign against Bill Clinton that began when Clinton was a candidate and continued through his presidency. While Scaife was hardly alone in that effort, he was an important part of an enterprise that transformed U.S. politics, and not for the better. When Hillary Clinton half-jokingly put the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” into the vernacular, Scaife was the one she was referring to.

Unlike high-profile billionaires trying to influence politics today such as the Koch Brothers, Scaife put his greatest energy not into persuading the public that Republicans should be elected and that conservative policy ideas were correct but into destroying Bill Clinton personally, even if it required some unusually distasteful means. Scaife funded and helped direct the “Arkansas Project,” which set about to find (and if necessary, sort of invent) dirt on Bill Clinton’s time in Arkansas. Its most direct success was a magazine story about Bill Clinton’s sexual history with women other than his wife, which included a reference to a woman identified only as “Paula,” who turned out to be Paula Jones, who ended up suing Clinton, leading to a deposition in which Monica Lewinsky’s name came up, which led to impeachment.

That’s not to mention all the other charges of varying degrees of nuttiness that were aimed at Clinton, including that he murdered his friend Vince Foster (among other people; some believed Clinton had literally dozens of his political enemies in Arkansas rubbed out) and that he ran a drug-running operation out of a small airport in a town called Mena. What was so different about the Clinton years was not that there was an opposition research effort mounted against him as a candidate (that had happened before) but that even after he was elected, it didn’t stop or even decelerate. The election itself was just one battle in a longer war that could be won if the right personal information were found that could take the president down. While Republicans certainly objected to Clinton’s official actions and tried to make political hay out of them, the primary focus stayed on Clinton’s personal life. That was partly because Clinton was indeed unfaithful to his wife, so there was something there to talk about, but it was also because they believed him to be so personally corrupt that they were sure that’s where the material to undo him would be found.

The endless campaign to destroy Barack Obama is not quite the same; once he won the presidency, the attention of all but the craziest Republicans mostly turned from things like his birth certificate to official actions they objected to. But what remained is the idea that it isn’t enough to work against the president’s policies or try to win the next election; he must be annihilated. There is one reason, and one reason only, that Republicans have not moved to impeach Barack Obama just like they did Bill Clinton. It isn’t that they think he doesn’t deserve it, and it isn’t that they think their ammunition is insufficient. It’s that they know it would be a political disaster. But if that weren’t the case, they would do it in a heartbeat.

For that idea — that presidential elections are just part of a war that should be fought without the constraint of scruples or mercy — we have Richard Mellon Scaife (along with many others who went right along for the ride) to thank. Though politics has changed in many ways since the 1990s, that’s one thing that hasn’t.