Unindicted Co-Conspirator? with Millions to Burn and Suspicion to Match, Richard Scaife Feeds the Right's Fires

By Rothmyer, Karen | The Nation, February 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Unindicted Co-Conspirator? with Millions to Burn and Suspicion to Match, Richard Scaife Feeds the Right's Fires


Rothmyer, Karen, The Nation


"The death of Vincent Foster: I think that's the Rosetta Stone to the whole Clinton Administration," ultraconservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife told a New York Times reporter in 1995. "There are just too many questions that have no answers." Scaife thrives on conspiracy. Lacking close friends, and fascinated throughout his life by tales of media plots and C.I.A. intrigue, he is ready to believe the worst of just about anybody To those who have observed him through the years, there is an amusing irony in seeing Scaife now cast as a central figure in the "right-wing conspiracy" referred to by Hillary Clinton.

"He's the kind of person who looks under his bed every night before he goes to sleep," a longtime family acquaintance and prominent Republican remarked a year or so ago in trying to explain his personality. Some years ago, he hinted to a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that a favorite dog had recently died "under mysterious circumstances." In the same interview, he reported that the most influential book he had read was The Spike (1980), Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss's paranoid fantasy in which a young reporter finds himself cast as a pawn in the Soviet Union's master plot to take over the world.

But unlike conspiracy buffs who have to depend on the Internet for daily updates on such matters as the Trilateral Commission's relationship to the Queen of England, Scaife, 65, can put his millions where his mind is. With effective control of three foundations whose assets total somewhere on the order of $300 million, as well as a private fortune that Forbes estimates at $1 billion, Scaife can also set much of the agenda of political and public debate. "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. "They started more than twenty 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."

The wellsprings of Richard Scaife's paranoia, and his politics, lie in Pittsburgh, where he was born and has lived all his life. ("This is a shot and beer town, that's what the New Yorkers used to say," as one fourth-generation Pittsburgher puts it. "They thought we didn't know what a martini was.") Scaife's father, Alan, was a member of one of the city's blueblood families, but the real money came through Richard's mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife, whom Fortune once calculated to be among the eight richest people in America. Sarah's tongue was as acid as her purse was full, however, causing Scaife's sister, from whom he is estranged, to recall, "She ripped off Father's wings. She put everyone down, although not as much so with Dick. But Father wouldn't let a word be said against her." In Washington, where the family lived during the elder Scaife's World War II service in the O.S.S.--forerunner to the C.I.A.--young Dick, who had already developed a great interest in newspapers, began to pay attention to the workings of government.

It would be years, though, before Scaife began to fashion a life for himself out of these early experiences. First, there was a period of wild parties and nominal efforts at business, intense shyness alternating with bursts of pique. "He did seriously want to be a player in the community and in the Republican Party," said one Republican official. "But one of the problems with Dick is that everything is either black or white; there aren't many gray areas. And he did have a drinking problem. When you're in that condition your judgment isn't so red hot and your performance isn't so good. So people don't reach out to do things like give you appointments.

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