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 project—an enterprise that was worthless to the magazine—meant, 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.
The Bait-Shop Junta
In the months after the Scaife pullout, the seriousness of the magazine's financial situation became clearer and clearer. Looking for ways to save money, Eastland put an end to direct-mail advertising, a move that saved the Spectator thousands of dollars but also meant that circulation would fall (which it did, from 200,000 to about 75,000 within three years). Eastland also allowed attrition to reduce the staff. And he cut back on Tyrrell's expenses, persuading the board of directors to force Tyrrell to pay for the portion of his house that The American Spectator Educational Foundation had covered when the magazine moved to Washington. Eastland got rid of the New York apartment and made Tyrrell buy the Mercedes from the magazine. Finally, he cut back on Tyrrell's travel and entertainment budget. Tyrrell, weakened after the fight to oust Burr, had little power to resist.
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 cash—sometimes $40 or $60, sometimes as much as $500—when 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 discrepancies—maybe 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 benefit—and enormous controversy—to 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.
The Continuing Crisis
The Spectator's defenders took some comfort in the Shaheen report; it meant that the Arkansas Project, although stupid, at least had not broken any laws. But whatever relief the staff felt was more than countered by the magazine's worsening financial crisis. By early 2000 Eastland had put in place all the money-saving measures he could. They had all been stopgap measures anyway, designed to keep the magazine alive until a new benefactor came along.
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 finances—about $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 everyone—except Tyrrell, who stayed on, with no control over the magazine he had run for thirty-three years.
Temptation of the Devil
What killed The American Spectator? It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the success it enjoyed in the Troopergate period, rather than establishing the Spectator as the nation's premier conservative magazine, placed it on a path that would end in disaster. The Troopergate article itself, for all its flaws, was a valuable story; vilified though it was by the President's defenders, it was an accurate predictor of the kind of compulsive behavior that Clinton displayed in the White House during his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But Troopergate also fostered the hubristic notion that the Spectator could bring down a President, which encouraged both Tyrrell and Scaife to pour money into the Arkansas Project. Portrayed by the left as a highly effective political dirty-tricks machine, the project in fact bore more resemblance to a Keystone Kops operation, as Henderson and Boynton crisscrossed Arkansas to no discernible effect.
Why couldn't Tyrrell see that the project—which involved nonjournalists and a private detective funded by a third party—was 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 trash—to be discarded the next day, along with everything else.