Episode 5: The “Man” Behind The Curtain
Now that our brief detour to meet Maggie and Bob is over, we return to where we left off in episode #2. Our story begins as a young college student, Zach, comes to the Last Chance Democracy Café for the first time on a lark. To his surprise, he finds himself being pulled into a lengthy discussion with three elderly (and somewhat tipsy) partisans on the subject of economic inequality and its impact on American democracy. Surprisingly, he finds that he’s enjoying himself.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
The “Man” Behind The Curtain
by Steven C. Day
As Bob stomped away, Zach turned to Winston and Horace and said, “I’m surprised the two of you didn’t help tear into that asshole.”
“Don’t blame them,” I interceded. “It’s a house rule. Only one of the wise men is allowed to debate any one conservative at a time. Otherwise, it just gets to be too much of a slaughter.”
“I can see how that could get ugly,” smiled Zach.
“This isn’t the O’Reilly Factor or the Rush Limbaugh Show, after all,” chortled Winston. “We actually let the other side talk.”
“Which can be kind of cruel to them sometimes, given what they’ve got to say,” said Horace.
At this time of night, the lights in The Last Chance Democracy Café are turned down far enough that it can be hard to recognize people sitting only a few tables away. This gives the place a peaceful quality for liberals and a conspiratorial look to conservatives. Needless to say, I’m satisfied on both counts.
Winston, whose physical similarity to Winston Churchill becomes almost spooky in dim lighting, slowly climbed out of his chair and stepped over to the bar to retrieve the African Famine Relief Fund jar. “Put a buck in,” he told Zach in a matter of fact voice.
Zach complied, but looked perplexed.
“Another house rule,” I explained. “Anytime someone uses the word asshole they have to put a buck into the jar.” Then, true to my word, I put a buck into the jar.
“Sorry . . . I didn’t realize you were that worried about cussing in the place,” shrugged Zach, casting a “what about that guy” look at Winston.
I laughed and told him not to worry — that it was just a fund-raising idea for an extremely important cause. I also told him that every now and then I actually go so far as to have the servers go through the café showing people pictures of Jerry Falwell. You’d be amazed how much money that raises.
Winston sat up straight in his chair, usually a sign that something interesting (or at least creatively annoying) is about to happen.
“In honor of our good friend Bob,” he snorted, “let me make the following contribution: Asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole.” Then he promptly deposited a five-dollar bill into the jar.
“Worth every penny,” he said proudly.
Marvin, who was still perched at the bar, reached up to turn on the Bushspeak machine. One of our more popular diversions in the lounge, the BS machine is an electronic message-board that features a new “inspirational message” from George W. Bush every 30 seconds. This was the first one:
Horace, who often finds himself forced into the role of taskmaster due to the decidedly untaskmaster-like quality of the others, reminded everyone of the lateness of the hour.
“We should really get back to the wonderful world of plutocracy,” he said.
Still feeling his oats, Tom took the lead. “Zach, if you had to come up with a list of the most important American conservatives of the last 30 years, who would you include?”
Although Zach could probably have done without another of Tom’s pop quizzes, he gamely played along. He thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t know . . . Ronald Reagan, I guess . . . and George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich.”
“No doubt about it, those are three important conservative names, but let me offer a few others. Do any of these family names ring a bell — Olin, Scaife, Coors, Bradley and Koch?”
Over on the dance floor, a middle-aged couple was now waltzing cheek-to-cheek to the sound of the jukebox, which was actually a little odd, given that the jukebox was playing a selection of Harry Truman’s greatest speeches.
“Well . . . you mentioned the name Coors. Are they the Coors beer people . . . ?” asked Zach tentatively.
“One in the same.”
“Crappy beer,” muttered Winston, whose taste buds were probably being influenced by his politics.
“No, it’s a passable beer,” Horace countered. “It’s the family that’s crappy, politically speaking . . . They have a long history of providing massive financial support to extreme right wing causes.”
“Do you recognize any of the other names?” pressed Tom.
“How about the Kochs (pronounced Cokes), are they . . .”
“Nope, they have nothing to do with the soda pop . . . or the narcotic, for that matter,” smiled Tom. “It’s a different spelling. They run the biggest privately held oil company in the world out of Wichita, Kansas, where, by the way, they have at times specialized in violating environmental laws and ripping off Indian tribes. Nice guys.”
“I guess then . . . no. I really don’t know anything about any of these people.”
“Few people do,” said Horace.
“Think of these wealthy families as the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz,” continued Horace. “They’re the people who actually pull the levers in right wing politics – they and their money.”
Horace went on to describe how, beginning several decades ago, a small collection of fabulously wealthy families began putting their money where their right wing mouths were. Their goal was nothing less than to remake the American political culture. And in the years that followed, together, they changed this country in fundamental ways. And they’re still going strong today.
“It would be a hell of a success story,” sighed Winston, “if it wasn’t for the fact that this new America they’ve helped to build is less just, less equal, less democratic, less generous and, for the average person, much less secure than the one they helped tear down.”
“I wrote a paper on this for an economics journal,” said Tom.
If you hang out at the Last Chance Democracy Café on Wednesdays, you soon discover that Tom has written a paper on just about every subject imaginable. You also learn that he has a photographic memory, which means he brings a remarkable grasp of the relevant details to almost any discussion.
It’s incredibly annoying.
“Ouch,” screamed Bob from the other end of the lounge. “Watch what you’re doing!” One of the dart players had apparently “missed” the target again, this time hitting Bob in the rump.
“There may be some hope for the Democrats yet,” said Winston. “Their aim seems to be improving.”
Tom pushed ahead. “While the right wing has other sugar daddies to be sure, these families are among the biggest,” he began. “They work quietly, funneling the money through a series of nonprofit foundations. Together, they’ve contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative causes.”
“Did you say hundreds of millions . . . ?” asked Zach in surprise.
“Yup, hundreds of millions. Richard Mellon Scaife, working through three nonprofit foundations, himself has contributed more than $200 million to far right causes.”
“Wow,” said Zach.
“Big wow,” agreed Horace.
It kind of takes your breath away doesn’t it — one man, all by himself, able to plow a full $200 million into far right political advocacy. And in case you’re wondering that much money could easily have fed 10 million starving children for an entire month. But then, what’s the attraction of ending the suffering or even saving the lives of millions of children, when compared to the joy of helping to drag the United States back 100 years into the past?
Winston looked grumpier than usual – and that’s saying something.
He scoffed. “Hell, it’s just money he inherited from mommy and daddy. It isn’t like he had to work for it or something. What does he care? Why not take a couple hundred million of his billions of dollars and use them to buy the American political process as his own personal plaything? What’s he got to lose?”
Tom flicked a piece of lint off Winston’s jacket, then added, “This guy may well have had a greater impact on the American political process than any other man or woman alive today. And yet, the only qualification he’s ever had for that job is the dumb luck of whose sperm and whose egg came together to conceive his squirrelly little ass . . .”
Zach asked why they were so mad at Scaife in particular.
Tom looked stunned.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he thundered. “Haven’t you heard of the Arkansas Project? My God, man, where have you been for the last 10-years?”
Tom’s “bedside manor” deficiency was showing again.
“Tom,” said Horace sternly, “settle down. You’re asking Zach where he’s been the last 10-years? Well, how about grade school, middle school and high school. You remember, don’t you, adolescence, puberty, first dates, sports, college entrance exams? Give the kid a break. He had a few other things on his mind.
I know Zach appreciated Horace going to bat for him, but, to his credit, he quickly rallied to Tom’s defense.
“No . . . Tom’s right,” he said thoughtfully. “I should have been paying more attention to what’s been going on in my country . . . That’s something I’m starting to realize for the first time tonight. So, no, I don’t know what the Arkansas Project was. But I’d like to know.”
So Tom told him. And the story he told, was so audacious — so morally and ethically bankrupt — that even today it’s hard to believe that any of it really happened. But it did — it really did. For all of the gory details, read “The Hunting of the President,” by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Here’s the abridged version: The Arkansas Project was a Scaife financed $2.4 million dirty tricks campaign conducted against President Clinton, carried out under the auspices of the Scaife supported American Spectator Magazine. Its goal was nothing less than to bring down the Clinton presidency by virtually any means necessary.
In this pursuit, Scaife’s money was used to . . .
. . . employ investigators to dig up dirt on Clinton and in particular to prop-up conspiracy theories that Clinton was somehow behind the death of Vincent Foster, a close presidential friend and aide. Scaife also underwrote the hiring of private investigators to probe silly allegations that Clinton had been connected to a drug running operation while Governor of Arkansas. And his money regularly found its way into the coffers of organizations like the Landmark Legal Foundation, which provided legal advice to Paula Jones. Many of the so-called Clinton scandals, none of which — with the exception of one blow job — ever proved to be true, were creations of the Scaife money machine.
“It worked about like this,” said Horace. “The American Spectator, the Drudge Report or some other ethically impaired outlet would come out with an article making yet another scandalous accusation against Clinton . . .”
“Something along the lines that he had sexually molested Margaret Thatcher’s house slippers,” said Winston sneeringly.
“Or that he was actually DB Cooper,” smiled Tom.
“. . . then within a few hours,” continued Horace, “Rush Limbaugh would be reading the article over the air to his millions of addled but adoring fans. By the next morning, journalistic giants like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the New York Post would be running the story and soon thereafter the usual collection of right wing pucks . . . I mean pundits, like Ann Coulter, would hit the cable TV circuit. . . .”
“Ah, yes, Anorexic Ann,” crowed Winston. “Now there’s one peach of a gal. Definite take home to mom type.”
“If your mom’s Eva Braun,” said Tom.
“. . . and then finally,” Horace fought on, “after all the Coulters and the Limbaughs had done their worst, the respectable media, so called, would pick up the story thereby giving the whole pack of lies an appearance of legitimacy. Of course, eventually it would all prove to be groundless. But by then the damage had been done . . . which was, of course, the idea all along. And there in the background, every step of the way, stood the shadowy figure of Richard Scaife with his oceans of money.”
“You don’t need a PhD in psychology to figure out what makes little Dickie Scaife tick,” said Winston. “He’s a spoiled brat. And so when the country elected someone president he didn’t like, he did what all spoiled brats do when they don’t get their way: He threw a temper-tantrum . . . The problem is, when a billionaire throws a tantrum, people get hurt.”
Then a moment later, Winston added, “And another thing you don’t need a PhD in psychology to figure out is that after talking about Scaife for this long, I need a drink. Where the hell is that waitress . . .”
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
February 17th, 2006 at 11:06 am
Zach seems to represent the 98% of the U.S. citizenry that hasn’t been paying attention (or worse, been in denial) for the last 5 years- but are they really starting to notice the lack of Emperor’s clothing and becoming willing to stand up for change or are they just getting confused & even more frightened, thus being even more susceptible to the expert manipulations of persons like Scaife & Co.? We’ll see in November.
I must disagree on one point- Coors is *not* a passable beer. It is passable only as urine.
February 17th, 2006 at 12:56 pm
Pete Coors came and spoke at my alma mater (Loras College, Dubuque IA) once. What an asshole (dollar is in the mail, Steve). And his beer is worse than Rolling Rock.
Anyway, this was my junior year, so let’s see… it would’ve been 1997 or 98, and even then, with as little as I knew about him and his family’s idealologies, he made my stomach turn. He gave off an air of palpable arrogance and elitism. Even for a such tiny, very conservative Catholic college, I was embarassed that we had invited him to come speak.
February 17th, 2006 at 11:00 pm
You are so right about the effect FOX, Limbaugh, O’Lielly and the others have had on our society. Some people have believed nothing but lies for so long that they no longer have the skills to separate truth from fiction or fantasy from reality. At the same time I’ve noticed that the hard core bushco people I know, no longer defend him with the certitude they once had. Maybe even his choir is losing faith. And thanks, It never hurts to remind us of what slimeballs like Scaife, Olin and Norquist are capable of, lest they weaken us all just enough to drown us in a bathtub.