Here in Pittsburgh, one can almost be perversely proud that a man who leached so much poison into the earth owed his fortune and prominence to the city we call home. Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire philanthropist whose fortune was almost entirely misapplied, died 82 years too late on Independence Day, July 4, 2014.
The “Mellon” in his name came from his mother’s side of the family, whose prominence dates back to the founding of T. Mellon & Sons’ Bank in the 1870s. Mellon would go on to finance many of the coal mines in the area. Further wealth came to the family in 1889, when his son Andrew discovered oil in his backyard in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. At the turn of the last century, Western Pennsylvania was the Dubai of its day — a fossil-fuel-fed confirmation of the maxim “geography is destiny.” This particular destiny would most famously lead to what Hillary Rodham Clinton once termed “a vast right-wing conspiracy” (as if the worst thing this man ever did was attack her husband). It is indeed with great sadness that the Great Panic of 1873 didn’t ruin Mellon’s bank the way that it did over half of Pittsburgh’s nearly 100 others, eventually leading to the civil unrest that the local aristocracy had been fearing for years.
The militia started their sweep in the Irish section of Lawrenceville to push the rioters toward downtown and protect the East End. Tracks were torn up and cars burned. The unemployed, hoboes, and street gangs joined in the riot. Shooting occurred on both sides. By the end of the day, 20 had been killed including the sheriff, with hundreds lying wounded on the sidewalks. Pittsburgh’s Catholic Bishop Tuigg walked the streets giving last rites to the wounded…
Ultimately, according to Skrabec, a great deal of the city — women, children, working men — would join in to take back a small fraction of the wealth that Mellon and his cronies had in turn taken from them over the years. The “normal people,” he as he calls them, “joined the looting as freight cars were opened” and their contents distributed among the looters. Over 100 locomotives, 66 passenger cars, and 1,383 freight cars were destroyed in the uprising, all to the pathetic rallying cry, “Give us bread.”
Richard Mellon Scaife never had to worry about bread, of course. From the outset, he was your prototypical spoiled jackass. It was while a student at Yale that he was first suspended, then expelled in his first year for his drunken antics. According to his sister Cordelia, the expulsion came when he rolled a keg of beer down a set of stairs and broke the legs of another student. She referred to their father as a sub-par businessman, and their mother as “a gutter drunk.”
After his expulsion from Yale, Scaife landed on his feet at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957. Upon his father’s unexpected death the following year, the younger Scaife’s life became a tangle of corporate board positions, trust funds, and philanthropic causes: the typical ways in which the elite of this country exert influence and consolidate wealth. In 1965, Scaife would come to inherit an estimated $500 million.
The most notorious recipient of Scaife’s largesse is the Heritage Foundation, founded four decades ago. “The most recent and famous of the Washington think tanks,” writes Domhoff in Who Rules America?, the foundation “is wrongly thought to reflect current wisdom in the corporate community, when it is actually the product of a few highly conservative men of great inherited wealth.” He cites the ultra-conservative Coors family as “the most important” of the foundation’s backers, with Scaife as a close second.
The term “think tank,” of course, implies thinking — but the Heritage Foundation has always been known as a refuge for partisan hacks. The foundation, Domhoff continues, “makes no effort to hire established experts or build a record of respectability within the academic or policy communities.”
Instead, “it hires young ultraconservatives who are willing to attack all government programs and impugn the motives of all government officials as bureaucratic empire builders.” Ultimately, the Heritage Foundation works as a sleazy, right-wing dating service, matching zealots with “Republican administrations, which need people to carry out their anti-government objectives.”
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Today the nation is experiencing the same kinds of economic contractions that accompanied the founding of the Heritage Foundation, and through the foundation Scaife played no small part in bringing about the death throes of "New Deal liberalism,” as Greg Grandin writes in The Empire’s Workshop. This was the climate in which “probusiness political action committees,” including those indebted to Scaife, “paid scholars and journalists” to churn out the propaganda required to bring about the Conservative Counterrevolution of the Reagan years.
The watchword of those years, of course, was “Vietnam Syndrome.”
Unlike the very real cancer, skin disease, and birth defects caused by Agent Orange, Vietnam Syndrome was a fake malady, a catchphrase dreamed up by one of the Gipper’s speechwriters and quickly adopted by the conservative movement in an effort to shame America into whipping the war machine back into action.
In an effort to combat this fictitious affliction, Grandin writes that “corporate foundations and individual capitalists” such as Scaife would “bankroll an ever metastasizing number of committees, coalitions, institutes, councils, journals, and magazines that, while each treating specific symptoms—SALT II, the Panama Canal treaty, the MX missile system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, Cuba, South Africa, Rhodesia, Israel, Taiwan, Central America.”
Sometimes exerting influence takes the form of a loss-leader. As of 2010, Rupert Murdoch was losing $50 million a year on the New York Post, Philip Anschutz lost around $5 million a year on The Weekly Standard, and before his death in 2012, self-proclaimed Billionaire Messiah Sun Myung Moon lost $2 to $3 billion on The Washington Times. As for Scaife, it came out during his most recent divorce proceedings that he lost $2 to $3 million a year publishing the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
In fact, the reason that we know a great deal about Scaife’s private life at all is due to the fact that he filed for divorce from his second wife in 2007 (there was no prenup). Prior to filing the papers, tales of odd behavior by both Richard and his then-wife, Margaret (known as “Ritchie”) would be leaked sporadically by the local media.
Mere days after Christmas 2005, Ritchie was arrested and charged with defiant trespass for trying to bust her way into her husband’s mansion in Pittsburgh — she was reportedly pounding on doors and peeking through the windows of the residence, located in what The Washington Post called “the moneyed section of town called Shadyside.” (For some reason, the couple kept separate residences; a Woody Allen / Mia Farrow arrangement, if you will.) A few months later, Ritchie was back at her husband’s mansion, allegedly stealing a pet she had previously given him as a gift. She must have been one hell of a scrapper, because she ended up with the animal, while Richard's chief of security, housekeeper, and secretary ended up in the hospital with minor scrapes and bruises. Afterwards, Scaife is said to have planted the following sign in his front yard: “Wife and dog missing — reward for dog.”
While Scaife was the owner of the city’s number two newspaper, he had no qualms about striking a blow for censorship when the city’s number one newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published an article on the break-up. It seems that his divorce record, which was supposed to have been sealed by the county, was posted to the website of the Allegheny County prothonotary. In response, Scaife’s lawyers filed court papers demanding the P-G return all documents related to the divorce. Instead of complying, the newspaper posted the documents in their entirety on its website.
Richard Mellon Scaife’s sins were many — at least the public ones, while his private life was a mess. But his lasting legacy will not boil down to any one action, whether it be bankrolling the conservative intellectual infrastructure behind the victories of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and the rise of the neocons or trying his damnedest to unseat a democratically elected President of the United States. In the end, Scaife will be remembered as one of the key figures in the re-imagining of American Politics as a zero-sum battle between ideologies.
“With political victory,” Scaife addressed the Heritage Foundation at a rally following the Republican congressional victories of 1994,“ the ideological conflicts that have swirled about this nation for half a century now show clear signs of breaking into naked ideological warfare in which the very foundation of our republic are threatened.”
Scaife was notoriously media-shy and never once sought office. But from the dearth of published stories on the Oz-like character we can be sure that his ideology was fed by a well of deep-seated rage. In 1981, when Karen Rothmeyer of The Nation asked Scaife why he supported so many right-wing causes, he offered this reply: “You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here.” Eighteen years later, The Washington Post would report that “although Scaife is fond of conspiracy theories of many kinds, he is incapable of managing any sort of grand conspiracy himself.” But with as much money as he had, he didn’t need to have the imagination or intelligence or the cunning to conspire with anyone. All he needed was a checkbook. He let the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Judicial Watch, the Cato Institute, FreedomWorks, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), American Spectator, NewsMax, the Hoover Institution, and many, many others do the dirty work — work which will sadly continue long after his body’s been placed in the cold, hard ground.
This story first appeared in CounterPunch in July 2014