I never spoke to Richard Mellon Scaife, the prominent conservative philanthropist who died on July 4, one day after his eighty-second birthday. But I once was twenty feet from him. Sometime in the late 1980s, I was invited to a picnic Paul Weyrich held at the Wheaton Regional Park in Wheaton, Maryland, for people who like trains. I don’t know why I was invited; it’s possibly because I had a minor job with a pretentious title at Harper’s magazine, and people thought my title meant I was important.
I didn’t have the nerve to actually talk to Scaife and the only thing I remember is that Scaife had a hard time walking. Did he have polio as a child? My writing teacher, Michael Macdonald Mooney, and a favorite history teacher from college, Robert Irrmann, both had polio-related diseases, and Scaife walked the way they did.
(Scaife’s mother, by the way, gave the grant that enabled Dr. Jonas Salk to discover the polio vaccine, as Caitrin Nicol notes in this article from Philanthropy.)
Scaife’s long life as a philanthropist and political actor prompt several thoughts.
(1) There needs to be a book about Scaife and the funding of the Scaife foundations (including the Sarah Scaife, Carthage, Scaife Family, and Allegheny foundations) comparable to John J. Miller’s book about the Olin Foundation. For example, I have not been able to find any estimate of Scaife’s giving more recent than the Washington Post’s 1999 estimate that Scaife gave $340 million to the Right. This number is badly out of date and needs to be updated.
(2) The Washington Post’s 1999 series on Scaife (which begins here) remains the longest look at Scaife’s funding. The Post noted that Scaife’s two largest donations in the 1990s were to the law and economics movement and to the American Legislative Exchange Council. Both groups of grants helped create organizations that made substantial contributions to knowledge.
It’s also clear that one of Scaife’s achievements as a donor is that he was giving to conservative organizations very early. According to the Washington Post, Scaife began giving to the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1963.
His most critical support went to the Heritage Foundation. Joseph Coors has a well-deserved place in Heritage’s history as the donor whose crucial $250,000 grant in 1973 got Heritage off the ground. But Scaife was Heritage’s largest donor in the 1970s. In 1976, he gave Heritage $420,000, which was 42 percent of Heritage’s million-dollar budget. The Post said that a joke circulating at Heritage at the time was that “Coors gives six-packs; Scaife gives cases.”
(3) Scaife was a reclusive donor who did not want to call attention to himself with his gifts. According to the Post, he “turned down many suggestions that various buildings, schools, and professorships be named after him.”
One reason for his reclusiveness involves a mysterious event that occurred in 1999, when police found a fervent leftist named Steve Kangas dead in the men’s room in the Pittsburgh office tower where the Scaife philanthropies are housed. Police ruled Kangas’s death a suicide, but the reasons why Kangas was there remain murky (he apparently didn’t leave a suicide note). Given the number of deranged leftists since then who think that the way to score political points is by murdering conservatives (think of the sicko who stormed the Family Research Council a few years ago), I could well understand Scaife’s desire to keep his profile as low as possible.
(4) Scaife apparently left very little behind to define his ideas and vision. As far as I can tell, the only major interview he gave was to George magazine in 1999. When the Washington Post did their multi-part series on his charities, Scaife issued a very short statement saying that his foundations “supported ideas like limited government, individual rights, and a strong defense.” I don’t know why he became a conservative or what inspired his giving. Scaife would have benefitted his philanthropies and the rest of us if he had left behind more writing about what inspired him as a donor.
In May of this year, after he learned that he had inoperable cancer, Scaife did write three op-eds for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the newspaper he acquired and moved to Pittsburgh. In these columns, he discussed his love of newspapers, his support for a strong national defense, and, most interesting to me, his love of art. In 1981, Scaife recalled, he hired Andy Warhol (who was a Pittsburgh native) to paint a portrait of Andrew Carnegie that Scaife gave to the city’s art museum. He even met Warhol’s protégé, Ultra Violet (“one word to describe her: fun.”)
Grove City College political scientist Paul Kengor has a very good piece about Scaife on the American Spectator’s website in which he discusses extensive conversations that Scaife and he had in the last year of his life. Kengor says that Scaife’s friends were worried that he was an atheist. Scaife explained that he was raised as a Presbyterian but was not a churchgoer. However, he said that he did believe in God and was never an atheist.
(5) We need to know more about Scaife’s donations outside the conservative movement. His mother, Sarah Mellon Scaife, and his sister, Cordelia Scaife May, were ardent population-controllers, but the Washington Post said that Scaife’s contributions to Planned Parenthood and similar organizations tailed off after the 1970s.
One of the three Scaife foundations, the Allegheny Foundation, is devoted to giving to benefit the Pittsburgh area. In 2012 this foundation had $55 million in assets. Its largest gift was $210,000 to the Westmoreland Museum of Art. Scaife also gave a million-dollar gift to the Pittsburgh Boys and Girls Clubs.
Richard Mellon Scaife was a major philanthropist. But there is a great deal more to learn about why he gave, whom he gave to, and the legacy of his giving.
(Note: The Capital Research Center has received grants from the Sarah Scaife and Carthage foundations.)