Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to a banking and oil fortune, who funded conservative causes for 50 years, died of cancer at age 82.
There is hardly a significant conservative organization or cause that was not a beneficiary of Mr. Mellon’s generosity. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “He is nothing less than the financial archangel for the movement’s intellectual underpinnings.”
Decades before David H. and Charles G. Koch bankrolled right-wing causes, Mr. Scaife and Joseph Coors, the beer magnate, were the leading financiers of the conservative crusade of the 1970s and ’80s, seeking to reverse the liberal traditions of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Mr. Scaife (pronounced SKAYF) inherited roughly $500 million in 1965, and with more family bequests and income from trust funds and investments in oil, steel and real estate, he nearly tripled his net worth over his lifetime. But unlike his forebears, who were primarily benefactors of museums, public art collections, education and medicine, he gave hundreds of millions of dollars to promote conservative political causes.
He never ran for public office or gave speeches to promote his political views. Indeed, he was notoriously withdrawn, rarely giving interviews or addressing controversies that regularly engulfed him. He had a longstanding drinking problem, engaged in bitter feuds with relatives, friends and employees, and found his troubled life examined in the news media, despite phalanxes of lawyers, spokesmen and retainers paid to insulate him from endless public fascination with his wealth and power.
But in written answers to questions by The Washington Post in 1999, he said concerns for America motivated him. “I am not a politician, although like most Americans I have some political views,” he said. “Basically I am a private individual who has concerns about his country and who has resources that give me the privilege — and responsibility — to do something to help my country if I can.”
Scaife was an early backer of Barry Goldwater, but eschewed donations to candidates after becoming disillusioned by Richard Nixon. It is then that he switched his focus to funding intellectual conservative endeavors:
But, disillusioned by Watergate and Nixon, he switched his focus from officeholders to ideologies, and his influence in the rise of neoconservatism stemmed primarily from his contributions to think tanks, lobbyists and publications that promoted free-market economics, lower taxes, smaller government and cuts in social welfare programs. Beneficiaries included the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and Judicial Watch.
In another approach, in the 1990s, he poured millions into what critics called a moral crusade against Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, financing investigations by publications, notably the conservative American Spectator and his own Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, that were aimed at discrediting the Clintons.
His liberal critics never understood him, preferring to portray him as a caricature of a right-wing billionaire. But Scaife was no rigid ideologue. He was fairly liberal on social issues: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and in favor of marijuana legalization. And he had the capacity to change:
Most surprisingly, perhaps, this frequent enemy of Democratic politicians — a man who had spearheaded efforts to embarrass the Clinton administration — was reported in 2010 to have become a six-figure contributor to the William J. Clinton Foundation, the ex-president’s charity to work on global improvements.
In 2008, Mr. Scaife also welcomed Mrs. Clinton, at that time a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, to a cordial editorial board meeting in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review offices. By then, the rancor between them appeared to have evaporated.
Bottom line: Scaife was a pioneer in funding conservative causes at a time when donating to the right wasn’t cool. For that, he should be remembered as the father of modern intellectual conservatism who paved the way for the Reagan revolution and the right’s political rise in the 1980s.