By Paul G. Kengor
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The American Spectator.
I was saddened to wake up the morning of July 4 and learn that Richard Mellon Scaife, Pittsburgh billionaire, conservative philanthropist extraordinaire, and spearhead of Hillary Clinton’s ominous “vast right-wing conspiracy,” died at age 82. How appropriate that this patriot bid goodbye on July 4. It’s fitting, too, that his death comes within a year of the deaths of his two principal lieutenants at his foundation, Dan McMichael and Dick Larry. Together, these three men established numerous conservative programs, institutions, and even individuals. They made a huge impact.
I got to know Dick Scaife pretty well. About three or four years ago, he read my book Dupes. It’s a lengthy account of how the communist movement has long hoodwinked and exploited American leftists—many of whom Dick Scaife had battled and loathed. Scaife loved it. It was the last full book that he read. I learned that he was recommending the book to his friends. Soon enough, I learned he wanted to meet with me.
We met at his nice but modest home in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh. I was taken aback to encounter a sick, weakened man who seemed to be on his deathbed even then. He had trouble with his voice, his breathing, his hearing. I had to speak loud. Nonetheless, we got along. Both of us were lifelong Pittsburghers, born at the same hospital just down the road in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. The big difference, we laughed, was that Scaife’s relations funded the hospital. His relationships and experiences with our common places were always a little different. We both vacationed in Nantucket, for instance, though he had a big house there with a cook and his own private air transportation.
For whatever reason, Dick Scaife liked me. He lived the history and names that I researched and was writing about. He enjoyed reminiscing and sharing information on them. At the end of that first meeting, this supposedly calloused man that many detested asked me in a gentle, sweet way if I would please continue to visit him. I did. These were often long meetings, and it was never easy to leave. He wanted to keep talking. The conversations were usually enlightening, enjoyable, entertaining. We’d talk about his upbringing, his wild youth, his drinking days, his parents, a scandalous remembrance here or there, his encounters with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy Jr. (who he thought was a tremendous young man of great potential), and even the Clintons—who he actually personally liked, though he certainly rejected their politics. Like other close older friends of mine who recently died, he was very concerned and dispirited by the direction of the country he loved, and seriously disappointed in Americans for twice electing Barack Obama. He didn’t think Americans would ever vote for a president so far to the left.
Here are a few remembrances worth highlighting:
Dick Scaife was deeply proud of his family. He adored his mother and father. Dick became so interested in politics, and especially the Cold War, because of his father’s work for the OSS confronting communists during World War II. That brought Dick Scaife into politics. He gave money to the likes of the Heritage Foundation and Hoover Institution precisely because of this battle.
Dick Scaife funded a remarkable breadth of organizations. One was The American Spectator. There’s a perception that his support of The American Spectator caused him problems he regretted and for which he was bitter. I heard no such thing. He glowed when he talked about The American Spectator and Bob Tyrrell. He likewise had nothing but kind words for Dick Larry, the chief liaison in the Spectator relationship. When I handed him the latest copy of the Spectator a few months ago, he got a giant grin.
Dick appreciated being thanked by those he supported. He once told me about a certain Pittsburgh group he wrote a check to—a non-political one. (He gave huge sums to non-political things as well.) “You know what?” he asked me. “They never thanked me. So screw them!” He never wrote them another check.
I would ask from time to time what accomplishment he was most proud of. It was unquestionably his newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Off the top of his head, he could rattle off the precise circulation numbers for the daily and weekend editions, particularly vis-à-vis his main competitor, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He managed to significantly increase the circulation of the Tribune-Review at a time when print newspapers moved in the exact opposite direction.
During these get-togethers, I often found myself almost in the role of confessor, with Mr. Scaife volunteering a lot of private information. He was candid, and I wasn’t afraid of asking him about certain controversies. What did I have to lose? He was, after all, deep down inside, just another person, plagued with frailties, insecurities, and weaknesses like the rest of us.
Conservative friends and associates who learned of my relationship with Scaife (I didn’t tell many people) usually brought up two things: For one, they knew he was a big pro-choicer on the abortion issue, having supported Planned Parenthood in the past. They knew I was just the opposite. The subject did come up, and Dick told me flatly, “I’m in favor of abortion.”
The other elephant in the room was his faith. He was widely believed to be an atheist. “Talk to Dick Scaife about God, Paul,” friends urged me. “This man is a walking scandal. He has led an immoral life. He has some serious sins on his soul, and he doesn’t believe in God.”
One day, we did talk religion. It came up the way it needed to, naturally, with no pushing or preaching. I scribbled down what he said in the book I was holding. I jotted down every word.
It was February 21, 2013, a Thursday afternoon. We met around 3:00, our regular time. In fact, only now, at this moment, does it occur to me that that time happens to be the hour of divine mercy, as we say in the Catholic Church.
He told me with no hesitation whatsoever that he was not an atheist. I asked him point-blank. He said he didn’t go to church, hadn’t in years. Yet, he said that although he was not very religious, “I certainly believe in God and Jesus.” He added: “The older I get, the more religious I become. I’m definitely not an atheist.”
The subject came up because we were talking about the great Andrew Mellon—the late uncle of whom he was enormously proud—and the Mellon family presence in the Shadyside and East Liberty area of Pittsburgh. He told me that East Liberty Presbyterian is known as “the Mellon church,” because of all the money the Mellons pumped in. He told me his father was Episcopalian and mother was Presbyterian, “as were all the Mellons.” When Dick was 18, he was given the choice of being Episcopalian or Presbyterian. He chose Presbyterian.
Scaife told me that he even served on the board of the East Liberty Presbyterian church, though he said the meetings were terribly boring and he always fell asleep, especially if he had been drinking at dinner beforehand. He bolted the church when the new pastor, Charles P. Robshaw, “came out in favor of Fidel Castro.”
I cannot confirm whether Robshaw was pro-Castro, but if one thing really upset Dick Scaife, it was people on the Religious Left who were sympathetic to or duped by atheistic-totalitarian communists. And so, with that, Dick bolted and never went back to the church.
But the big picture is this: Dick Scaife told me he was not an atheist. This is something that will not be discussed in obituaries of the man, but it is most definitely something on the minds of many who knew him.
And in the end, when it comes down to it, despite everything else Dick Scaife supported with his billions, this truly is what matters most. A mere 82 years is nothing compared to eternity.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.