BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Long before the billionaire Koch Brothers and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson began polluting the American political landscape with obscene amounts of money, decades before the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, years before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth mobilized a platoon of millionaire financiers to put the kibosh on John Kerry's presidential campaign, and before folks like Rex Sinquefield were bound and determined to have their money loom large over the legislative process in the states, there was Richard Mellon Scaife.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Scaife and his family were among the top donors to a myriad of right-wing organizations and causes. Back in the day it didn't take long before researchers following the money behind the conservative movement ran headlong into the Scaife clan.
Scaife, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based heir to the Mellon banking fortune, was a man on a multi-pronged mission. He succeeded in helping build the powerful conservative infrastructure that essentially paved the way for the way for the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the rise of the Religious Right and the institutionalization of such right-wing powerhouses as the Heritage Foundation.
According to The New York Times, Scaife "inherited roughly $500 million in 1965, and with more family bequests and income from trust funds and investments in oil, steel and real estate, nearly tripled his net worth over his lifetime. But unlike his forebears, who were primarily benefactors of museums, public art collections, education and medicine, he gave hundreds of millions to promote conservative political causes."
In 2008, Bruce Wilson, a co-founder of Talk2Action, wrote: "The industrial fortune heir and owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune- Review provided the lion's share of the initial funding which created the Heritage Foundation and has given key funding to The American Spectator, the pro-war Neoconservative Foundation For The Defense Of Democracies, the Heartland Institute, the Institute On Religion and Democracy, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the Free Congress Foundation."
Scaife was a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy, which oversees the U.S. Information Agency during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. At the time of his death, Scaife was serving as vice chairman of the Heritage Foundation Board of Trustees.
The Tribune-Review pointed out that "Many of the nation's leading conservatives considered him to be the man who sustained the Republican Party after its crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election and the Watergate scandal in 1972. His support for and promotion of a conservative agenda led to Ronald Reagan's election as president in 1980 and the nation's turn toward the principles those two men shared."
The man who The New York Times characterized as having a predilection for being "reclusive," and "never ran for public office or gave speeches to promote his political views," wasn't shy about his ideological druthers, nor his hostility for, and obsession with, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Another of Scaife's lifelong battles was aimed at ripping apart America's social safety net, and destroying gains won by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Veteran researcher Frederick Clarkson told me in an email that Scaife "was the 800 pound gorilla of conservative philanthropy. Without his massive infusions of cash, many of today's established institutions would be smaller and less influential, if they existed at all."
Clarkson, the author of the author of the invaluable Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and a co-founder of Talk2Action.org, allowed that Scaife "was also one of the movement's dirty secrets. The official obituaries have been properly polite about it, but in fairness, he also largely got away with concealing his personal hypocrisies behind a billionaire's capacity to preserve his privacy. For a movement that promoted the values of hard work, free enterprise and family values, he lived primarily off his trust funds, and made his mark by redirecting family controlled foundations into conservative political projects. He was also a twice-divorced philanderer who, as The New York Times' obituary politely put it, had 'a longstanding drinking problem.'"
The New York Times also pointed out that despite his penchant for privacy, the family values touting billionaire had numerous personal issues including "bitter feuds with his relatives, friends and employees."
In 1999, Scaife told The Washington Post that he was "not a politician, although like most Americans I have some political views. Basically I am a private individual who has concerns about his country and who has resources that give me the privilege — and responsibility — to do something to help my country if I can."
In an e-mail exchange, Rob Levine, the creator of Media Transparency, a website that tracked the funding of right-wing organizations, campaigns and causes, told me that he had never heard of Richard Mellon Scaife until he "began to research the funding of the conservative movement in 1997 after discovering the topic while researching a local right wing think tank."
Levine discovered "that Scaife's foundations comprised one of the four 'Big Sisters' foundations taking a supply-side approach to changing the nation's politics. (The other three were the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, and the Coors Foundation.) Without Scaife's money, we might not have the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and many other pillars of the conservative movement.
"In retrospect," Levine pointed out, "Scaife and the others were wildly successful in changing not just the politics of the United States, but also the way we think about crucial issues in our lives from government regulation to the concept of freedom.
"Today we don't think or hear much about Scaife or Coors, but their legacy lives on through their foundations and their successors, which today include foundations created by the heirs of Walmart (the Walton Family Foundation) and Bill Gates. The wealth generated by the boom years of the 90s and the beginning of this century gave rise to dozens of other right wing foundations that carry on the Scaife legacy. While liberals have begun to create organizations to compete with those created by the conservatives (notably the Center for American Progress and Media Matters for America), the progressive creations don't begin to approach the conservatives in number or in ideological and political focus.
"Just one fact makes this point," Levine added, "conservatives, including Scaife, launched a legal organization called the Federalist Society in the 1980s to turn the US courts into a conservative tool. Thirty years later a near-controlling block of Federalist Society judges dominate the US Supreme Court - justices Antonin Scalia, John G. Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are all members. Those justices need just one more vote – which they often get – to shift American society to the right. From Bush v. Gore to the recent Hobby Lobby and Women's Health Clinic rulings the Federalist Society has been a huge success for the conservatives. Richard Mellon Scaife may be dead, but his legacy will be with us for years if not decades to come."