A Parting Shot at Richard Mellon Scaife

by

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…

Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr., The World’s Richest Neighborhood

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, according to The New York Times obit, that “he was suspended for drunken pranks, then expelled in his first year.” 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. As The Washington Post reports, 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 might be 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, Domhoff continues, “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.”

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, according to Peter Dale Scott (American War Machine), 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 pre-nup). 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 his chief of security, his housekeeper, and his 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 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 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 (according to The Washington Post) 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.

Joseph Flatley lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached through his website.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal