One would never guess who attended Dick Scaife’s memorial service on the Pennsylvania countryside last week. Scaife has been referred to as the “father of modern conservatism.” In his lifetime he donated a fortune across a whole range of philanthropic endeavors, from the arts to medical research to politics—conservative politics. His conservative causes were very elevated—sophisticated thinks tanks, professorial chairs, intellectual reviews—but also at times they were very partisan. In the 1990s Scaife was a leading opponent of Bill Clinton, and he frequently drew blood. When Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” she doubtless had him in mind.
Yet at the memorial service, standing there with the conservative chieftains was a lone Democrat, Bill Clinton, yes, the very same. The 42nd President not only put in an appearance but he actually spoke on Dick Scaife’s behalf, saying “Our political differences, our philosophical differences, our religious differences, our racial and ethnic differences, they’re important…They help us to define who we are. But they don’t have to keep us at arm’s length from others.” And he concluded, “I think the counterintuitive friendship we formed is a good symbol of Richard Mellon Scaife’s legacy…. He fought as hard as he could for what he believed, but he never thought he had to be blind or deaf” to reviewing his positions.
Yale Gutnick, Dick’s lawyer, explained both men’s affinity best. Gutnick said they became friends because they “shared a mutual love of America.” After all the battles of the 1990s they came together for the country they loved, Dick giving over $100,000 to Bill’s foundation for the victims of AIDs. Dick was a great philanthropist. Bill is learning. Dick had said that of all the people he wanted to have speak at his funeral he wanted the former president. They had buried the hatchet.
So if philanthropy can bring together Dick Scaife and Bill Clinton in a celebration of America, how does one explain the bitter denunciations of the Brothers Koch, who are at the very pinnacle of philanthropy themselves? This week the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times have both featured pieces about the truly astonishing invective that has been hurled at the Kochs for philanthropic acts that have absolutely nothing to do with politics. The Kochs have separated their support for conservative-libertarian causes, which can be simply educational, and for the tea party, which is obviously more partisan, from their philanthropy of a nonpolitical nature. It has not quieted their critics, not even when the philanthropy was for the arts or for minority education.
Consider David Koch, who lives in New York City. Recently he gave $100 million big ones to the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He has donated $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History and another $100 million to the City Center of Music and Drama. In 2012 he gave $10 million to the Mount Sinai Medical Center and $65 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has also given money to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the American Ballet Theatre, and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Of course, many New Yorkers have been grateful. Yet there are the noisy critics. Two unions called rallies against David Koch’s donations to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, citing the Koch brothers’ opposition to Obamacare. Apparently, the Kochs are not allowed to have ideas on medical policy, if they are going to enjoy the privilege of giving money to medical care.
More recently the brothers gave a $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund, the fund’s fifth largest donation in history. Armstrong Williams tells us in the Washington Times that the grant was greeted with hysteria. Harry Belafonte called it the gift of “white supremacists.” Lee Saunders, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, broke off relations with the United Negro College Fund, and Twitter reverberated with ignorant jeremiads against “UNCF literally sell[ing] ‘their soul to the devil’ accepting checks from the Koch Brothers without knowing their evil history.”
In a day when Bill Clinton and Dick Scaife can smoke the peace pipe, what explains this sort of suncivilized outburst against generous non-political philanthropy? It is irrational and hateful. Yet that is where our politics is heading today. Clinton and Scaife are the exceptions. The response to the Koch brothers is more normative and frankly it worries me.