Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Man Behind the Curtain: Richard Mellon Scaife - and $200 Million of His Money - Is the Man Behind the Conservative Revolution

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

The Man Behind the Curtain: Richard Mellon Scaife - and $200 Million of His Money - Is the Man Behind the Conservative Revolution

Article excerpt

Oil and banking heir Richard Mellon Scaife comes from a long line of philanthropists. Granduncle Andrew donated his extensive art collection to the American people, and built the National Gallery in Washington to house it. Mother Sarah favored health care and education. As for Richard, he has continued the family tradition -- with a twist. Scaife is one of the biggest, and in all likelihood the biggest, financier of right-wing causes in America.

Much of the money Scaife inherited from his Mellon ancestors has gone to the campaigns of individual politicians. But Scaife has gotten the biggest bang for his buck by using his vast personal fortune, estimated at about $870 million, to promote conservative thought.

Scaife is certainly not the only one behind the rise of the conservative movement, but he has been a key figure. Over the past 30 years, Scaife has disbursed over $200 million to right wing causes through his three foundations, the Carthage Foundation, the Allegheny Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. Name a major right-wing institution and the odds are that Scaife is a principal funder. In 1995 alone Scaife gave out a total of about $20 million to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation (over $1.5 million), the American Enterprise Institute ($465,000), the CATO Institute ($100,000), the Manhattan Institute ($125,000), and the Center for Strategic and International Studies ($485,000). He supported conservative media outlets such as National Empowerment Television, run by Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation ($720,000) and The American Spectator ($700,000) -- the folks who brought us David Brock's attack on Anita Hill and the Troopergate stories. Scaife also promotes conservative thought on college campuses through organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc. ($325,000 in 1996), which funds conservative student newspapers. He's the man behind groups like the Landmark Legal Foundation ($275,000 in 1995), which files ethics complaints against Democrats in Congress, and helps defend Republicans. And Scaife is the main backer of the media machine that disseminates videos and articles on Clinton "conspiracies" like the "murder" of Vince Foster. The articles themselves often originate in The Tribune-Review, a newspaper Scaife publishes in his hometown of Pittsburgh and neighboring Greensburg.

While less immediate than the pay-off from direct political involvement, the result of Scaife's funding campaign has been far more profound. "Scaife played an absolutely fundamental role in the development of the New Right," says Thomas Ferguson, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies the conservative movement. Slowly but surely, Scaife helped create a new political and intellectual establishment which has, in turn, increasingly shifted American politics toward a repudiation of the New Deal and the Great Society. Regardless of the status of Republicans' political fortunes, the success of Scaife's effort is clear: When a Democratic president feels compelled to declare in his State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over," and when the debate focuses not on whether, but on how to dismantle the welfare system, there can be no doubt that conservatives have gained significant ground in the battle over the nation's agenda. And it is not much of of an exaggeration to say that the story of their rise is the story of Scaife's funding strategy.

Mellon Man

Despite his tremendous power, most Americans would have a hard time picking Scaife out of a lineup, let alone describing his views. And Scaife clearly wants to keep it that way. He shuns the public eye and almost never speaks to reporters. (He declined to be interviewed for this article) Many of his acquaintances are equally cagey: Scaife's reputation for reclusiveness is surpassed only by his reputation for vindictiveness. Those who have crossed him say they've paid the price. …

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