Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh philanthropist and reclusive heir to the Mellon banking fortune, whose support for right-wing causes laid the foundations for America’s modern conservative movement and fueled the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, died Friday at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 82.
His death was confirmed by his lawyer, H. Yale Gutnick. Scaife had announced recently in a front-page article in The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a newspaper he owned, that he had an untreatable form of cancer.
Decades before David and Charles Koch bankrolled right-wing causes, 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.
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, 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 to promote conservative political causes.
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He never ran for public office or gave speeches to promote his political views. Indeed, he was notoriously withdrawn, rarely giving interviews or addressing the controversies that regularly engulfed him.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 press and online, 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.”
He had the caricatured look of a jovial billionaire touting “family values” in America: a real-life Citizen Kane with red cheeks, white hair, blue eyes and a wide smile for the cameras. Friends called him intuitive but not intellectual. He told Vanity Fair his favorite TV show was “The Simpsons,” and his favorite book was John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra,” about a rich young Pennsylvanian bent on self-destruction.
In his first foray into national politics, in 1964, Scaife backed Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, R-Ariz., who lost his presidential bid in a landslide. In 1972, Scaife gave $1 million to the re-election war chest of President Richard M. Nixon, including $45,000 to a secret fund linked to the Watergate scandal. And in the 1980s, Scaife ardently supported Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
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 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.
They accused the Clintons of fraud in the Whitewater case, a failed real estate venture in the 1970s and ’80s, when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in liaisons with Paula Jones in Little Rock and Monica Lewinsky in the White House. They also charged that Vincent W. Foster Jr., a White House counsel and former law partner of Hillary Clinton, had been murdered in 1993 in a Whitewater cover-up. Several investigations found that Foster had committed suicide.
The accusations, which prompted Hillary Clinton to say on national television that her husband was the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” troubled the administration for most of its tenure. They led to the convictions of 15 people in criminal cases, the appointment of a special prosecutor and the president’s impeachment by the House on perjury and obstruction of justice charges and his acquittal by the Senate, both by largely partisan votes.
During the Whitewater hearings in 1998, it was disclosed that the special prosecutor, Kenneth W. Starr, had accepted a job as dean of the public policy school at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He reversed his decision after the Justice Department said it might be a conflict of interest because Scaife was a Pepperdine regent and a major donor to the university and its public policy chair.
Scaife gave millions to “nonpolitical” campus, community and church organizations that promoted conservative causes; and to “public interest” law firms and “consumer” and “environmental” groups that actually promoted business interests. Critics say liberal groups have long acted with similar deceptions. He also gave to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Carnegie Institute, the National Gallery of Art, museums, hospitals, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Planned Parenthood.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton, then a Democratic senator from New York running for president, met Scaife and editors and reporters of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for an interview. The newspaper endorsed her, and Scaife, in a commentary, said: “I have a very different impression of Hillary Clinton today. And it’s a very favorable one indeed.”
Richard Mellon Scaife was born in Pittsburgh on July 3, 1932, one of two children of Alan Magee Scaife and Sarah Cordelia Mellon Scaife. His father was the scion of a Pittsburgh steel family, and his mother was the daughter of Richard B. Mellon, who made fortunes in banking and oil, and a niece of Andrew W. Mellon, the treasury secretary in the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover administrations.
Richard, known as Dickie, and his sister, Cordelia, grew up on the family estate, Penguin Court, in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. He suffered a fractured skull in a horse-riding accident when he was 9, and spent a year in bed, mostly reading newspapers. Congressmen and senators were frequent guests in his home, and he developed an early interest in politics.
He graduated from Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. But at Yale he was suspended for drunken pranks, then expelled in his first year. He later attended the University of Pittsburgh, where his father was chairman of the trustees, and in 1957 graduated with a degree in English.
In 1956, he married Frances L. Gilmore. They had two children, Jennie and David, and were divorced in 1991. Later that year, he married his longtime companion, Margaret Ritchie Battle. They were separated in 2005 under a settlement that awarded her $725,000 a month from her husband’s fortune, then estimated at $1.4 billion. They divorced in 2012.
Survivors include his daughter and son and two grandchildren.
After his father died in 1958, Scaife took his seats on corporate boards but was given little to do in the family business, which was controlled by his uncle, R.K. Mellon. His mother, who backed medical and environmental causes, family planning and charities for the poor and disabled, encouraged his interest in philanthropy. He distributed money through the Sarah Scaife, Carthage and Allegheny Foundations.
In the 1970s, Scaife bought several newspapers, including The Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. He spent lavishly to turn it into a metropolitan paper marketed as The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette remained the city’s dominant newspaper, but Scaife cared primarily about winning readers over to his conservative views.