Bill Clinton eulogizes former foe Richard Mellon Scaife

In this file photo, former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the 20th International AIDS Conference at The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on July 23, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.

Graham Denholm, Getty Images

Former President Bill Clinton paid tribute on Saturday to a man who was once among his fiercest critics, lauding the late Richard Mellon Scaife's commitment to conservative causes and reflecting on the improbable friendship he eventually forged with the media baron.

"If someone had asked me the day I left the White House what's the single most unlikely thing I would ever do, this would rank high on the list," Clinton quipped during a gathering at Scaife's boyhood home, according to the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Scaife, who passed away July 4, was an active financier of conservative activists and think tanks during the 1980s and 1990s. His constellation of conservative groups played a role in many of the controversies during Clinton's presidency, including Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and the death of White House Deputy Council Vince Foster.

Recently released papers from Clinton's presidential library identified Scaife as the "Wizard of Oz" behind the conspiracy theory about Foster's death, which held that the Clintons were somehow responsible.

"Scaife uses the $800 million Mellon fortune which he inherited to fund a virtual empire of right wing newspapers and foundations," explained an overview from Clinton's White House. "These newspapers and foundations, in turn, propagate Scaife's extremist views."

Despite the sustained animosity throughout his presidency, Clinton would ultimately build a friendship with Scaife after he left office. After a 2007 meeting in New York mediated by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Scaife donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, and the two onetime foes laid down their arms.

"Our differences are important. 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," Clinton said on Saturday, according to the Tribune-Review. "But they don't have to keep us at arm's length from others."

"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 changing his mind, Clinton added.

Scaife even came out swinging on behalf of Hillary Clinton's own White House bid in 2008. He wrote an opinion piece praising her record, and the Tribune-Review endorsed her primary bid after she sat for a meeting with the paper's reporters and editors.

"You need to know that she treasures that column and that experience," Clinton told the audience at the memorial, which was packed with Scaife's former employees.