Scaife: Funding Father of the Right
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 2, 1999; Page A1
First of two articles
One August day in 1994, while gossiping about politics over lunch on Nantucket, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh billionaire and patron of conservative causes, made a prediction. "We're going to get Clinton," Joan Bingham, a New York publisher present at the lunch, remembers him saying. "And you'll be much happier," he said to Bingham and another Democrat at the table, "because Al Gore will be president."
Bingham was startled at the time, but in the years since – as Clinton has struggled with an onslaught from political enemies – Scaife's assertion came to seem less and less far-fetched.
Scaife did get involved in numerous anti-Clinton activities. He gave $2.3 million to the American Spectator magazine to dig up dirt on Clinton and supported other conservative groups that harassed the president and his administration. The White House and its allies responded by fingering Scaife as the central figure in "a vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president," as Hillary Rodham Clinton described it. James Carville, Clinton's former campaign aide and rabid defender, called Scaife "the archconservative godfather in [a] heavily funded war against the president."
But people who know him well say that although Scaife is fond of conspiracy theories of many kinds, he is incapable of managing any sort of grand conspiracy himself. And months of reporting produced no evidence of his orchestrating any effort to "get" Clinton beyond his financial support. Indeed, focusing on his role in the crusade against Clinton can obscure the 66-year-old philanthropist's real importance, which is not based on his opposition or support for any individual politicians (though he once gave Richard M. Nixon $1 million). His biggest contribution has been to help fund the creation of the modern conservative movement in America.
By compiling a computerized record of nearly all his contributions over the last four decades, The Washington Post found that Scaife and his family's charitable entities have given at least $340 million to conservative causes and institutions – about $620 million in current dollars, adjusted for inflation. The total of Scaife's giving – to conservatives as well as many other beneficiaries – exceeds $600 million, or $1.4 billion in current dollars, much more than any previous estimate.
In the world of big-time philanthropy, there are many bigger givers. The Ford Foundation gave away $491 million in 1998 alone. But by concentrating his giving on a specific ideological objective for nearly 40 years, and making most of his grants with no strings attached, Scaife's philanthropy has had a disproportionate impact on the rise of the right, perhaps the biggest story in American politics in the last quarter of the 20th century.
His money has established or sustained activist think tanks that have created and marketed conservative ideas from welfare reform to enhanced missile defense; public interest law firms that have won important court cases on affirmative action, property rights and how to conduct the national census; organizations and publications that have nurtured conservatism on American campuses; academic institutions that have employed and promoted the work of conservative intellectuals; watchdog groups that have critiqued and harassed media organizations, and many more.
Together these groups constitute a conservative intellectual infrastructure that provided ideas and human talent that helped Ronald Reagan initiate a new Republican era in 1980, and helped Newt Gingrich initiate another one in 1994. Conservative ideas once dismissed as flaky or extreme moved into the mainstream, and as the liberal National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy concluded in a recent report, "The long-standing conservative crusade to discredit government as a vehicle for societal progress has come to fruition as never before."
The ideas behind this success did not come from Scaife. Even the conservative activists who know him best say he rarely offers his own ideas or opinions, and most of those who get money from him have no personal relations with him or don't know him at all.
"I don't see anything resembling a grand strategy about the man," said James Whelan, who was editor of the Sacramento Union when Scaife owned it and later became editor of the Washington Times. "In general he sees certain villains in American life and society and thinks he should do everything he can to attack them and bring them down."
Scaife declined to be interviewed for this story, but in written answers to questions about his motivation, he said: "Our funding is based on our support of ideas like limited government, individual rights and a strong defense."
As for himself, he added: "I am 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."
If Scaife's explanations seem vague, his achievement is not. Besides acting on his own visceral reactions, Scaife has backed people he admired and institutions he favored with lots of money, without ever telling them what to do. He has done this consistently, patiently, over four decades.
Frank Shakespeare, director of the U.S. Information Agency in the first Nixon administration and Scaife's colleague for years on the board of the Heritage Foundation, summarized the accomplishment: "Dick Scaife has made a real difference in his country – and has had an impact on the larger world."
A Philanthropic Heir
Embraces 'the War of Ideas'
To make his mark on history, Scaife had to overcome long odds. In his youth he seemed star-crossed, even to many of his friends. He grew up in a household dominated by his mother's alcoholism, in a family whose members specialized in "making each other totally miserable," in the rueful words of his sister, Cordelia Scaife May.
At 9 he spent a year in bed after his skull was fractured by a horse. Yale University suspended him for drunken pranks, then kicked him out entirely before he could complete his freshman year. At 22 he caused a car accident that almost killed him and injured five members of one family, who won a large legal settlement. He had a drinking problem most of his adult life, finally getting on the wagon in the early 1990s. He has feuded bitterly with friends, employees and relatives. He has no relations with his daughter, and hasn't spoken to his sister for 25 years.
Scaife inherited his philanthropic role from his mother. She had established trusts and foundations whose earnings, under the tax law, had to be given away. She began encouraging her son to participate in family philanthropy after his father died suddenly in 1958.
Sarah Scaife's causes were family planning, the poor and the disabled, hospitals, environmental causes and various good works in and around Pittsburgh. Her most famous gifts, in the late 1940s, were to the University of Pittsburgh – $35,000 to equip a virus research lab. In that lab, Jonas Salk discovered his polio vaccine.
The available recorded history of Scaife's donations to conservative causes in the database assembled by The Post begins in 1962 with small grants of $25,000 or less to groups with educational missions on conservative themes – the American Bar Association's Fund for Public Education for "education against communism," for example.
Over the next two years he ventured a little further into the conservative world, making donations to the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University and the brand-new Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 1963 he began supporting the American Enterprise Institute.
The events of 1964 were a turning point for Scaife, and for American conservatives. Scaife was an alternate to the Republican Convention that chose Arizona Sen. Barry M. Goldwater as the party's presidential nominee, and he became an active contributor and supporter. He escorted Goldwater on the Scaife family airplane to California in July 1964 to attend the Bohemian Grove retreat, a boozy and confidential gathering of conservative, mostly wealthy men.
Confounded by Goldwater's devastating defeat that November, many conservatives concluded that they could only win an election in the future by matching their enemy's firepower. It was time, as a Scaife associate of that era put it, to wage "the war of ideas." Scaife enthusiastically adopted this view.
"We saw what the Democrats were doing and decided to do the mirror image, but do it better," this Scaife associate said. "In those days [the early 1970s] you had the American Civil Liberties Union, the government-supported legal corporations [neighborhood legal services programs], a strong Democratic Party with strong labor support, the Brookings Institution, the New York Times and Washington Post and all these other people on the left – and nobody on the right." The idea was to correct that imbalance. "And the first idea was to copy what works."
This sort of thinking went far beyond Scaife's office in Pittsburgh. He was riding a wave at the same time he contributed to it. Former congressman Vin Weber, an early and active member of the "movement conservative" Republican faction on Capitol Hill, recalled that "people on the right were absolutely convinced that there was a vast, left-wing conspiracy" that had to be mimicked and countered with new conservative organizations that were "philosophically sound, technologically proficient and movement-oriented." This became a mantra for the new conservative activists.
Sarah Scaife died in 1965, and her son then had a freer hand to reorient the family giving. By 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected president, Scaife's conservative interests had come to dominate the foundations' giving. Just more than half of the $18 million in grants that year went to conservative recipients. By 1980, the year Ronald Reagan defeated Carter, conservative groups were awarded $13 million of about $18 million in Scaife grants. Conservative interests have continued to predominate in Scaife's philanthropy ever since.
While Scaife's money supported individual institutions, his office in Pittsburgh encouraged the evolution of a new community of activists on the right. One longtime recipient of Scaife's support recalled a meeting convened in California in 1973 by Richard M. Larry, Scaife's longtime chief aide, where his beneficiaries could meet one another. A person who attended the California meeting said he was delighted to find people there he'd never heard of – a new peer group on the right.
The Heritage Foundation became an important part of the right's community-building efforts. Scaife first contributed to Heritage in 1974. Soon afterward, using money from Scaife, Heritage established its resource bank, a compilation of conservative organizations, which from 1982 was published in the Directory of Public Policy Organizations, a guide to the new right-wing establishment. The current edition lists 300 groups; 111 have received grants from Scaife, 76 of them in 1998.
Heritage, organized by former staff assistants to Republican lawmakers whose goal was to influence both Congress and the news media with a stream of brief, meaty position papers on issues of the day, became Scaife's favorite beneficiary. When it began to make a mark in the mid-1970s, Joseph Coors, the beer magnate, was commonly credited as its chief financial patron. Coors did put up the first $250,000. But within two years, according to Heritage officials, Scaife had given more than twice as much, and he has kept on giving ever since – more than $23 million in all, or about $34 million in inflation-adjusted, current dollars. At Heritage the joke was, "Coors gives six-packs; Scaife gives cases."
With Scaife's early contributions, Heritage could thrive. In 1976, Heritage's third year of operation, Scaife gave $420,000, or 42 percent of the foundation's total income of $1,008,557. This early support was "absolutely critical," said the president of the foundation, Edwin J. Feulner Jr.
Scaife continues to give generously to Heritage – $1.3 million in 1998. But Heritage took in $43 million last year, so his gift represented just 3 percent of its income.
Continued on Page Two
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company