By J.F. McKenna
Being born on or near the Fourth of July is widely considered a good omen for any American. Making his July 4 exit from life’s stage was particularly fitting for Richard Mellon Scaife—Pittsburgh publisher, celebrated philanthropist and conservative philosopher. Scaife, who died one day after his 82nd birthday, was the extraordinary fellow from down the road, the citizen who meant it when he spoke of “limited government, individual rights and a strong defense.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which Scaife acquired in 1969 and from which he charted the course of Trib Total Media, needed a special section of its Sunday edition to squeeze in the many tributes to the Ligonier, Pa., native. Ironically, the most-telling picture of the man came not from others but from one of his recent columns:
Even today, when so many kinds of media offer endless information, newspapers are unique and invaluable: They provide the most substantive, trustworthy reporting from the most experienced, reliable writers and editors;they consistently break more of the important stories, investigate more of the critical issues, and expose more of the secrets that we need to know. Newspapers, more than any other medium, keep a watchful eye on government at all levels, on business and technology, medicine and science, and other aspects of our lives.
Certainly sentiments one would expect from a spiritual descendant of our Founding Fathers. Not sentiments one would particularly expect from an heir to the redoubtable Mellon family fortune.
Like the nation itself, Scaife represents the exceptional case.
A shy person whose family name remains linked to Alcoa, banking and Gulf Oil, a Yale flunk-out who earned a degree in British history, a libertarian newspaperman who suffered no illusions that ours is a dangerous world, a generous citizen who saw value in encouraging the arts for this generation and future generations—that was Richard Scaife.
“By the time the 1950s ended, Mr. Scaife had also viewed and opposed a liberal shift taking place in the country, which included a stronger government role apparent in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations,” wrote the rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He supported the ultra-conservative Mr. Goldwater’s failed presidential bid and the successful presidential campaigns afterward of Richard Nixon, to whom he gave $1 million in 1972. More relevant to his local roots, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1990s to spur creation of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, which became a conservative voice on Western Pennsylvania issues long dominated by liberal or centrist Democrats.”
Likewise, Scaife was an original money-man behind the conservative Heritage Foundation. The foundation president’s Jim DeMint and founder Edwin Feulner described Scaife as a “man of vision as well as conviction,” adding:
“Dick Scaife was instrumental in creating a new breed of public policy institute in Washington that many deemed ‘risky,’ even ‘ill conceived.’ Dick’s steadfast support since 1973 allowed Heritage to become not only a permanent institution in Washington, but a permanent player in the public debate.”
Yet, as a savvy newsman, Scaife recognized the value of genuine content over mere labels. In its obituary of Scaife, the Post-Gazette noted that the philanthropist “was reported in 2010 to have become a six-figure contributor to the William J. Clinton Foundation, the ex-president’s charity to work on global improvements.”
Not long ago, Scaife announced publicly that he had untreatable cancer. Weeks later, the man with two deadlines was writing about the world’s future—from Pittsburgh to Prague and from Cleveland to Chengdu. One of his legacies was this warning to all.
“If we’ve learned anything in the Obama years, and with every president in my lifetime, it is that trying to appease our enemies does not succeed,” Scaife wrote. “Appeasement killed 60 million people in World War II;millions more have died or suffered terribly because of it in the decades since.
“I hope the next president we elect understands the threats…as resolutely as Ronald Reagan did. And I hope the next president realizes that appeasement—particularly of a nation like Russia or a leader like Putin—is one of the gravest threats of all.”
Rest in peace, extraordinary fellow from down the road.
J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. The Cleveland native and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .