Head east on US highway 34 from the small Colorado city of Greeley and after about five miles the road passes a community known as Kersey. There are several large animal lots, some with perhaps as many as 100,000 head of cattle. The route bends to the south-east, following the course of the South Platte River, and then after another eight or so miles, there are sign-posts pointing to a road that leads to a ranch located in the river valley, out of sight from the highway. The property is called Eagle's Nest.
This extensive property is owned by the conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz and it was here last summer that the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and a number of his staff spent their now hugely controversial July weekend. Prescott accepted the invitation apparently to discuss aspects of the tycoon's ownership of the Millennium Dome, but also to satisfy a curiosity about a western ranch that he had harboured since he was a young boy growing up in the cowboy-free frontier of South Yorkshire . "I'm curious about it, I saw the cowboy films over my young years, didn't you?" he told a BBC interviewer this week.
Prescott's host at Eagle's Nest prefers western-style clothes with large belt buckles to hold up his jeans rather than a business suit, and his 35,000-acre ranch certainly has a working herd of cattle, but Philip Anschutz is a lot more besides. The 67-year-old is listed by Forbes magazine as the 28th richest person in the US with a net worth of $7.2bn (£3.9bn), while in 2002 Fortune named him as that year's "greediest executive".
But Anschutz is not only a wealthy tycoon who has built a business empire that encompasses everything from railways and ranches to cinemas and sports teams, he has also used this vast wealth and influence to promote his conservative Christian views, to campaign against gay marriage and to fund an organisation that questions Darwin's theory of evolution. His money also pays for another group based in Washington to attack and lobby against liberal elements of the US media and to rail about alleged indecency on television, while his movie production company, the Anschutz Film Group (AFG), has made Christianity-themed films such asThe Chronicles of Narnia, an adaptation of C S Lewis's children's story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Indeed, it was to discuss another movie being produced by Walden Films, a unit of AFG, that the Deputy Prime Minister claimed was an additional reason to take him to Colorado last summer. Walden Films is working on Amazing Grace, a film that will tell the life of William Wilberforce, the 19th-century anti-slavery campaigner from Hull, the city which Mr Prescott has represented as an MP since 1970.
"I admire him for bringing Christianity into the mainstream of everyday life as something that's quite acceptable and normal," Lewis's stepson, Douglas Gresham, a minister who lives in Ireland and who was involved in discussions with Anschutz about the Narnia movie, told the entertainment newspaper Variety. "Movies are a good vehicle for that."
Fair enough, one might say. Anschutz and Prescott may have shared an interest in Wilberforce, and may have enjoyed discussing him over the two and a half hour dinner they shared at Eagle's Nest last summer.But there is so much else about Anschutz that Prescott, New Labour's Old Labour standard-bearer, must presumably have recoiled from. For instance there was his funding in the early Nineties of a group called Colorado for Family Values, which pushed a ballot initiative known as Amendment 2, which wished to overturn state laws protecting gay rights. The measure passed but was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1996.
Anschutz is also involved with the Discovery Institute, a "think-tank" he funds in Seattle which criticises the theory of evolution and argues for the involvement of a "supernatural" actor in the development of living things. Critics accuse it of offering little more than a new spin on creationism, and the institute was recently caught up in a notorious lawsuit about the teaching of creationism in schools.
Then there is the Media Research Council, a Washington-based group that attacks the liberal media and which in 2003 was responsible for half of the complaints received by the Federal Communications Commission about alleged indecency on television. According to the non-profit group Media Transparency, Anschutz also funds a number of other ultra-conservative organisations, including the Institute for American Values, which campaigns for marriage and against single parenting, and Enough is Enough, which campaigns against internet pornography.
Philip Anschutz was born in Great Bend, Kansas, in 1939. His father was a land and oil industry investor. His grandfather, Carl Anschutz, had emigrated from Russia in the 19th century and started a farmer's bank in Kansas. He grew up in the town of Hays, not far from where Republican Senator Bob Dole lived.
Anschutz, who met his wife Nancy when he was just 16, graduated from the University of Kansas and then quickly followed in his father's footsteps, inheriting and expanding his businesses in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. In 1965, he set-up shop in Denver, establishing the Anschutz Corporation and starting operations in the oil business.
Today, Anschutz's business interests are as vast as his wealth is huge. His empire includes sports teams - he owns the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team and DC United soccer team, among more than 10 such outfits - a cinema chain, oil, railroads, telecommunications and numerous newspapers including the San Francisco Examiner, and the Clarity Media Group, which holds the franchise for the Examiner series of daily freesheets in more than 60 US cities.
Despite all of this money and his various homes and ranches in Wyoming and Palm Springs, Anschutz still prefers a relatively modest personal lifestyle. In addition to his penchant for western-style clothes he likes to drive himself to work in a second-hand Lexus and to stop off at the local 7-11 for coffee. Though he regularly has lunch in a private dining club in Denver, located at the top two floors of a 38-storey tower in a part of the city known as the "Wall Street of the Rockies", he will also sometimes simply buy a hotdog from a cart in the street. He also enjoys shooting, squash and running, having completed several marathons. "He's not flashy," the president of the Anschutz Corporation, Craig Slater, once told the Rocky Mountain News.
These details are all, necessarily, somewhat second-hand: Mr Anschutz has not given an interview since 1974. Indeed, should you trail through the mountain of newspaper cuttings that have been written about this private man with a powerful public clout, the only direct quote you will discover is a comment he made years ago about a 1968 fire at one of his oilfields.
"It's important to have your back to the wall," he said. "It makes you think outside the box." Such a philosophy has served this social conservative well. Even in the potential disaster created by the oilfield fire, when he was facing potential bankruptcy, Anschutz managed to recover by buying another oil driller's rights in exchange for assuming all his liabilities.
It also happened that Universal Studios just happened to be filming Hellfighters, a movie which starred John Wayne as the oilfield hero Paul "Red" Adair. Anschutz struck a deal with Universal to allow them to film his burning oil well for $100,000, a nice sum that was sufficient to allow him to hire the real Red Adair to put out the blaze and to eventually turn a tidy profit.
Such ups and downs are not uncommon in the business world, though Anschutz's rise has been steady and largely seamless. His only really setback appears to have come in 1987, when a tumble in energy prices led him to have to lay-off half of his employees. He even cut off the free soft drinks and snacks.
But he was not to be held back for long. By the early Nineties, Anschutz was in a position to purchase Eagle's Nest, previously owned by the Colorado beer magnate and politician Peter Coors. The ranch, surrounded by cottonwood trees irrigated by the nearby river and complete with its own golf course, is presumably also the home to much of Anschutz's extensive art collection - said to be one the best collections of Western art in existence. It reportedly includes works by George Catlin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Marion Russell.
There is much about Anschutz of which one can make only an educated guess, but some things are clear. One is his willingness to spend the wealth he has amassed to further his social interests and to back political candidates he approves of. But he also does much traditional philanthropy.
While it is estimated he or his interests have donated more than $700,000 to Republican Party candidates - he was personally was named a "Pioneer" by the Bush-Cheney campaign of 2000 for collecting more than $100,000 in donations - he has contributed to non-political causes. In Colorado, for instance, he donated $50m for cancer care, and last year he was ranked No 33 on Business Week's list of Most Generous Philanthropists.
All of this makes one ponder more and more about that fateful weekend last summer. Did Prescott get to view the collection of landscapes; did he get to look at a steer or to see a working cowboy, was his curiosity sated? As he left Eagle's Nest and headed back to Denver International Airport, he and his aides driving west on US highway 34, through the towns of Kersey and Greeley and with the splendour of the Colorado landscape all around him, did he have any idea of who he had really been with?
A Life in Brief
BORN 1939, in Great Bend, Kansas, to Fred 'Fritz', an investor in ranches and oil exploration, and Marian Pfister Anschutz.
EDUCATION high school in Wichita, Kansas; graduated, in 1961, from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, with a BS economics; dropped out of the University of Virginia law school.
FAMILY wife Nancy; two daughters,
CAREER He began as an oil explorer and hit a large oil deposit in Gillette, Wyoming. From there he built up a vast range of businesses which are overseen by the Anschutz Film Group, Anschutz Entertainment and Anschutz Corporation that range from ranches to oil to film production to telecommunication, newspapers and sports teams. Owner of the Dome and the London Arena. Philanthropist and funder of conservative causes.
HE SAYS "It's important to have your back to the wall. It makes you think outside the box." - About a 1968 oilfield fire that threatened to bankrupt him.
THEY SAY "He's not flashy." - Craig Slater, president of the Anschutz Corporation.
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