Citizen Scaife



A former Wall Street Journal reporter teaching at the Columbia University School of Journalism, Karen Rothmeyer is the Executive Editor of The Nation. Her research was funded in part by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Here is an updated revelation of “the prime founder of the Media-Savvy New Right.”

This article is abridged from Speak Out Against the New Right edited by Herbert F. Vetter (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982)

A large number of organizations owe their existence to the generosity of one of the richest men in America, Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife, a great-grandson of the founder of the Mellon empire, has made the formation of public opinion both his business and his avocation.

Grants from Scaife charities have contributed to conservative, particularly New Right, causes.

Officials of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, acknowledged that Scaife is a far larger contributor than Joseph Coors, whose name has been the only one mentioned in most press reports on the group. Scaife, who joined with Coors to launch Heritage, gave three times Coors's gift to help meet the current $5.3-million Heritage budget.

Heritage is probably the most media-oriented of the New Right research and policy study groups, producing a steady stream of reports and publications aimed at both policy-makers and the news media.

Scaife himself has never publicly discussed his motivations or goals. Indeed, he has repeatedly declined requests for interviews, as he did in the case of this article.

Richard Scaife rarely speaks to the press. After several unsuccessful efforts to obtain an interview, this reporter decided to make one last attempt in Boston, where Scaife was scheduled to attend the annual meeting of the First Boston Corporation.

Scaife, a company director, did not show up while the meeting was in progress. Reached eventually by telephone as he dined with the other directors at the exclusive Union Club, he hung up the moment he heard the caller's name. A few minutes later he appeared at the top of the Club steps. At the bottom of the stairs, the following exchange occurred:

"Mr. Scaife, could you explain why you give so much money to the New Right?"
"You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here."

Well. The rest of the five-minute interview was conducted at a rapid trot down Park Street, during which Scaife tried to hail a taxi. Scaife volunteered two statements of opinion regarding his questioner's personal appearance—he said she was ugly and that her teeth were "terrible"—and also made the comment that she was engaged in "hatchet journalism." His questioner thanked Scaife for his time.

"Don't look behind you," Scaife offered by way of a good-bye.

Not quite sure what this remark meant, the reporter suggested that if someone were approaching it was probably her mother, whom she had arranged to meet nearby. "She's ugly, too," Scaife said, and strode off.

Scaife’s secretiveness is but one aspect of a complicated personality. A handsome man in the blond, beefy style one associates with southwestern ranchers or oil millionaires, Scaife dresses like a Wall Street executive. His astonishingly blue eyes are his most striking feature. A friend from an early age of J. Edgar Hoover, Scaife is said by those who know him to be fascinated by military and intelligence matters. At the same time, he is so shy and so insecure about his intellectual capacities, according to one business acquaintance, that "he never speaks business without two, three, four people around him."

Certainly money is very much the stuff of which Mellon family history is made. Judge Thomas Mellon, the son of an Irish immigrant farmer who settled in the Pennsylvania countryside, rose to prominence in Pittsburgh during the latter half of the nineteenth century through shrewd real estate investments and a lending business that became the Mellon Bank. In time, the family holdings came to include, in addition to the bank, substantial blocks of stock in Gulf Oil and Alcoa, among other companies. By 1957, when Fortune magazine tried to rank the largest fortunes in America, four Mellons, including Scaife's mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife, were listed among the top eight.

In 1965, when his widowed mother died, Richard Scaife—in his early thirties, married, and the father of the first of two children—had no real career. After flunking out of Yale (he later finished at the University of Pittsburgh), Scaife had followed in the footsteps of his father, a retiring man from a local industrial family, and been given a variety of titles but little real power in several Mellon enterprises. Just looking after his personal affairs could have become a full-time job.

After his mother's death, Scaife began to take an increasingly active role in the family's philanthropic activities. Scaife family entities currently engaged in giving money to charity include the Sarah Scaife Foundation, set up by Scaife's mother; the Allegheny and Carthage Foundations, set up by Scaife; and the Trust for Sarah Mellon Scaife's Grandchildren (who number only Scaife's two, because Cordelia Scaife May has none).

Gulf Oil company stock makes up a large part of the Scaife fortune. If one were to count not just Richard Scaife's personal holdings in Gulf, but also those of the various Scaife charitable entities, the total would probably rank as the second largest holding (after Paul Mellon) in the company. By the same rough yardstick, Scaife and Scaife family entities account for about 6 percent of the stock (all nonvoting) of First Boston Corporation, a major investment banking firm. Scaife was elected to the First Boston board last year. The Mellons and Scaifes as a whole hold about 13 percent of the First Boston stock, an investment second in size only to that of Financiere Credit Suisse.

Scaife, with his money, his interest in politics and the media, and his long-held conservative views, quickly became a key New Right backer. Indeed, the rise of the New Right coincided with a substantial increase in Scaife’s power to assist it.

“The Man Behind the Mask”


Abridged from Salon, April 7, 1998


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 are unwilling to say anything critical about him publicly—that is, if they agree to talk about him at all.

"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."

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).


Audio tapes of Cambridge Forum programs featuring many Speak Out! writers are available for online order.
For more information please visit the Cambridge Forum and the WGBH Forum Network online.


Herbert F. Vetter, D.D., Director
Chuck Howe, Designer
Andrew Drane, Webmaster