Bill Clinton is never at a loss for company. When he's not globe-trotting or charming audiences for as much as $400,000 a speech, he's often schmoozing visitors in his suite of offices in Harlem. Last July, the former president sat down with a billionaire impressed with the William J. Clinton Foundation's campaign against AIDS in Africa. The two men chatted amiably over lunch for more than two hours, and the visitor pledged to write Clinton's foundation a generous check. But there was something unusual, if not plain weird, about the meeting. NEWSWEEK has learned that the billionaire so eager to endear himself to the former president was Richard Mellon Scaife—once the Clintons' archenemy and best-known as the man behind a "vast, right-wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton said was out to destroy them.
Scaife was no run-of-the-mill Clinton hater. In the 1990s, the heir to the Mellon banking fortune contributed millions to efforts to dig up dirt on President Clinton. He backed the Clinton-bashing American Spectator magazine, whose muckrakers produced lurid stories about Clinton's alleged financial improprieties and trysts. Scaife also financed a probe called the Arkansas Project that tried, among other things, to show that Clinton, while Arkansas governor, protected drug runners.
The Arkansas Project largely came up empty, and most of the stories were ignored by all but the most avid Clinton antagonists. But one Scaife-backed conspiracy theory got widespread attention. In 1993, White House aide and Clinton friend Vince Foster was found dead of a gunshot wound in a park outside Washington, D.C. Three official investigations concluded the death was a suicide. Yet Scaife dollars helped promote assertions that Foster had been murdered—the not-so-subtle subtext being that the Clintons had something to do with it. Scaife hired Christopher Ruddy, a reporter who doggedly pursued the conspiracy theory in a Scaife newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Though discredited, the story resonated with people who believed Clinton was hiding dark secrets. Scaife and Ruddy later started Newsmax, a Web site and magazine that attacks their enemies and lauds their heroes.
Bill Clinton now finds himself the unlikeliest of Scaife heroes. Last month Ruddy posted a softball interview with Clinton on the Newsmax site (sample question: "What is the best thing about being an ex-president?"). A worshipful cover story followed in the current edition of the magazine. Clinton, it gushed, is "a political and cultural powerhouse" who is "part Merlin and part Midas—a politician with a magical touch."
What is going on here? Scaife declined to comment, but Ruddy tells NEWSWEEK he and Scaife believe Clinton's life since leaving office has been "very laudable," and that he is doing "very important work representing the country when the U.S. is widely resented in the world." He said they never suggested Clinton was involved in Foster's death, and insisted they were not among those hyping alleged Clinton sex scandals, though he acknowledged their work may have encouraged others.
Whatever the reasons for Scaife's change of heart, it's not hard to figure out why the Clintons would embrace a former nemesis. As they prepared for Hillary's presidential run, the Clintons made quiet attempts to disarm, or at least neutralize, some of their most vocal opponents. Last year Hillary accepted an offer from Rupert Murdoch (who always hedges his bets) to host a fund-raiser for her Senate campaign. The New York Times reported that the Clinton camp has also made efforts to open a line of communication to blogger Matt Drudge, who has served as a conduit for anti-Clinton GOP leaks.
Ruddy, who accompanied Scaife to the Clinton lunch, says the peacemaking meeting came about after former New York City mayor Ed Koch offered to put the two together. (Koch declined to comment.) Clinton, pouring on the charm, greeted Scaife like an old friend. "President Clinton believes in redemption and moving forward," says spokeswoman Jennifer Hanley. Ruddy says they talked about Clinton's charitable work and avoided opening old wounds. After receiving the full Bill treatment, Scaife left with a new outlook on the man he had once set out to crush. Scaife isn't ready to sign on to Hillary's campaign—he's still a Republican. But his lawyer, Yale Gutnick, says Bill Clinton and Richard Mellon Scaife are now members of a "mutual admiration society." Cue the apocalypse.