The man behind the mask

A profile of billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who has been underwriting various efforts to discredit President Clinton.

By Karen Rothmyer
Published April 7, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Richard Mellon Scaife's eyes are what you notice first: a startling sky blue, they look almost unreal, so intense is their color. For the rest, a handsome countenance, a large frame and a shock of once-blond hair, now white, make up a classic picture of good breeding. Scaife's father came from one of Pittsburgh's blue blood families, its ancestry traced back to medieval England; his mother was a fabulously wealthy Mellon descendant whom Fortune magazine identified in 1957 as one of the eight richest people in America.

And yet, there is about Richard Mellon Scaife a seeming unease with his own person that even friends have commented on through the years. Almost pathologically shy -- he removed his name from Who's Who more than 15 years ago and has since sat for only a handful of interviews -- he is, at the same time, given to a pattern of unpredictable behavior that has continued despite his having stopped his formerly heavy drinking.

"He has a love-hate relationship with a lot of people, including himself," said a former close acquaintance. "He is at once the most wonderful, generous guy and the most hateful and vindictive one." Added another person who has observed Scaife close-up in Pittsburgh, "Whenever he dislikes someone, it's not enough to fire them; they can never work in this town again."

Either because they fear his power or his temper, or because they want something out of him, almost all those who know Scaife, 65, are unwilling to say anything critical about him publicly -- that is, if they agree to talk about him at all. That reluctance, combined with his own penchant for secrecy, has made him the most shadowy figure in the Clinton scandals, even as evidence of his role as a funder of investigations into the Clintons' activities has grown.

The man whom Time magazine, in its latest issue, calls "the ultimate patron" of the Clinton haters has been identified by Salon and the New York Observer as a key funder of the $2.4 million Arkansas Project, a four-year effort organized through the American Spectator magazine to discredit the president. Scaife foundation money, as Salon has reported, has also allegedly been used to pay key Whitewater witness David Hale and to help bankroll Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against Clinton.

In fact, Scaife's part in the Clinton chronicles represents the second time that he has been a secretive major player in efforts to profoundly alter the course of politics and public policy in America. In the 1970s, his money fueled the "New Right" movement that sought to replace the perceived "liberal establishment" in Washington and the media with a new, conservative order.

"The victories we're celebrating today didn't begin last Tuesday," Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner Jr. told a meeting of supporters in 1994 just after the Republican sweep of the House of Representatives. "They started more than 20 years ago when Dick Scaife had the vision to see the need for a conservative intellectual movement in America. These organizations built the intellectual case that was necessary before political leaders like Newt Gingrich could translate their ideas into practical political alternatives."

Gingrich, who was also at the meeting, hailed Scaife as "a good friend and ally for a very long time."

Just where Scaife's political views come from is a mystery to many people, including his only sibling, Cordelia Scaife May, from whom he is estranged. Their mother, Sarah Scaife, was a cold and often sarcastic woman, according to May, but apart from knowing Barry Goldwater, she showed no particular interest in current affairs.

"My father didn't like Roosevelt, but as head of Pittsburgh Coal he sat across from John L. Lewis in labor negotiations and had enormous respect and, I think, liking for him," said May.

Dick Scaife didn't read much while they were growing up, she said, but he did have a great interest in newspapers, especially out-of-town papers, which he collected and displayed on specially made racks at the family's country estate. Reflecting on those years of governesses and formal family dinners, May commented, "I don't remember any laughter in that house."

During World War II, while Richard and Cordelia's father, Alan Scaife, served in Europe in the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA, the Scaife family lived in Washington. Perhaps it was this once-removed brush with intrigue that led to Dick Scaife's growing fascination with conspiracies of all kinds. "He's the kind of person who looks under his bed every night before they go to sleep," said a longtime family acquaintance and prominent Pennsylvania Republican. In the early 1980s, Scaife told a Philadelphia Inquirer interviewer that the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was one of his heroes, and that the most influential book he had read was "The Spike," co-authored by former Newsweek correspondent and Washington Times editor Arnaud de Borchgrave, in which a young reporter finds himself cast as a pawn in the Soviet Union's master plot to take over the world.

It was also in Washington, according to Mellon family biographer Burton Hersh, that young Dick began to pay attention to the workings of government. Scaife told Hersh that he had "made it a kind of hobby to meet as many senators and congressmen as I could."

Later, there would be boarding school and then Yale, from which he was expelled after a drunken party. He ended up at the University of Pittsburgh, where his father was chairman of the board of trustees. After getting a bachelor's degree in English in 1957, he was put to work first in the Scaife family business and later in Mellon enterprises. Within a few years, both of his parents were dead and Scaife had inherited an enormous fortune whose value is currently estimated by Forbes as about $1 billion (a significant underestimate, according to one reliable source).

But it was clear that Scaife, like his father before him, would never be given any true power within the Mellon banking and industrial empire. So he turned to other pursuits, acquiring a few newspapers, attempting unsuccessfully to buy his way into politics (he gave $1 million to Richard Nixon in 1972 but never got more than a minor appointment from any president) and taking effective control of the trusts and foundations that his mother had established.

Among Scaife's acquaintances at this time were Glenn Campbell, head of the conservative Hoover Institution, and Frank Barnett, a shadowy figure with links to the CIA. With their encouragement, Scaife began directing the vast resources at his disposal -- most particularly the donations of his family's trusts and foundations -- to fight the "Soviet menace." Later, joined by a number of younger conservatives, some with ideas, others with money, Scaife would become the biggest funder of the New Right, spending millions of dollars a year to help establish the Heritage Foundation and a host of other think tanks focused on marketing conservative ideas both to Congress and to the public.

Other Scaife-funded groups dedicated themselves to watchdogging the media, training federal judges in conservative economics and litigating on behalf of causes such as opening up federal lands to oil and gas exploration. At the same time, Scaife gave generously to candidates who believed in these policies, a two-pronged strategy that proved triumphant in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan,

"It seemed to me that he operated very strongly on the strength of
passionate impulse," said James Whelan, editor of the now-defunct Scaife-owned newspaper the Sacramento Union. "My sense of Dick is that there was not a depth of conviction about the causes he supported," said Whelan, who went on to edit the Washington Times. "They were rather strongly felt prejudices -- which isn't necessarily something bad, but not the same as conviction."

Whelan said that he tried to get Scaife to buy a major national news
organization -- something favored by Nixon aides who wanted someone more friendly at the helm of the Washington Post -- but failed owing to what he regards as Scaife's insecurity. "You know insecure people frequently are bullies with those they can bully, but then [in other situations] they will act a bit meek," Whelan said.

Less than a decade after Reagan's election came the fall of the Berlin Wall -- and with it, the right's most powerful ideological raison d'être. In short order, however, culture replaced communism as the great battleground, and Clinton -- the draft-dodging, skirt-chasing, pot-smoking symbol of all that was wrong with America -- became its new Satan. It is no surprise that Scaife's contributions to Clinton-bashing have ranged from underwriting efforts around the conspiracy theories of Vincent Foster's death -- which Scaife called "the Rosetta Stone of the Clinton administration" -- to supporting the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation, which advised Paula Jones and helped find her lawyers at crucial moments. Scaife, whose charitable entities now give away approximately a half million dollars a week, also underwrote projects that included retaining investigators to look into Clinton's alleged drug connections. A life regent of Pepperdine University in Southern California, Scaife donated more than
$1 million for a new public policy school there. The man offered the job as the new school's dean: Kenneth Starr.

Reflecting his continuing obsession that the
republic is in mortal danger, if not from one quarter then another, Scaife told the Heritage celebration in 1994 that "the ideological
conflicts that have swirled about this nation for half a century now show clear signs of breaking into naked ideological warfare."

Such pronouncements might be dismissed as merely the overheated rhetoric of a man with more money than historical or political sense if it weren't for the fact that Scaife has shown that he has the power to bend the nation's agenda to his will. It is only now, with Attorney General Janet Reno considering an investigation into the alleged payments to Whitewater witness Hale, that there seems to be any possibility that light may finally be shed on Scaife's role in this and perhaps other undertakings.

Some years ago, Pat Minarcin, editor of the defunct Pittsburgher magazine, published by Scaife, mused that while the United States operates on a system of checks and balances, "With inherited wealth the very idea of checks and balances is anathema. People who inherit their wealth have got everything they want all their lives. So they don't know about things like responsibility."

Then, in a comment that may yet prove prescient,
Minarcin added, "It's at the heart of what's going to bring Dick down some day."

Karen Rothmyer

Karen Rothmyer is a senior editor at the Nation.

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