ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to remember now an influential figure and financier of the American conservative movement. Richard Mellon Scaife has died. He was a Pittsburgh newspaper publisher and philanthropist. He used his billions to bankroll numerous right-wing causes. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The name Richard Mellon Scaife may not ring a bell for many political conservatives today.
RICHARD VIGUERIE: Richard Scaife, through his generosity, through his media outlets, was very much below the radar.
WANG: But veteran activist and fundraiser Richard Viguerie says the conservative movement owes a great debt to Scaife, heir to the Mellon banking and oil fortune. Viguerie says Scaife leveraged his wealth to promote conservative and libertarian ideas, like insuring individual liberty and limited government.
VIGUERIE: When I got involved in the conservative movement in the early '60s, we were like the tree that fell in the forest. Few people knew of our causes, our organizations, our candidates, our issues.
WANG: That was until Viguerie pioneered direct-mail political fundraising, and Scaife, along with a few others, began chipping in the big bucks. In other words, Richards Scaife played the role of the Koch Brothers before the Koch Brothers. Again, Richard Viguerie.
VIGUERIE: In many ways, his generosity was a little different than the Koch's in that he gave generously to conservative organizations without any interest of directing, controlling their activities.
WANG: In the 1990s, though, Scaife's name did emerge prominently from behind the political scenes when he funded efforts to publicize scandals plaguing the Clinton White House. Speaking to NPR in 1998, Matthew Freeman, formerly of the liberal group People for the American Way, compared Scaife to the hub of a bicycle wheel one that targeted President Bill Clinton through Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and impeachment.
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MATTHEW FREEMAN: The whole series of spokes coming from him - spokes made of gold because it's money flying along those spokes - to organizations around the rim of the wheel. Whether they coordinate or not, they come up with a whole range of sleazy stories that they put out and have used to try to discredit and even to try to bring down this president.
WANG: In his later years, Scaife did a 180 on the Clintons. He wrote in 2008 about his very favorable impression of Hillary Clinton, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, one of 30 newspapers Scaife owned, endorsed her.
CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: To understand Dick you have to understand his newspapers. And Dick's rosebud actually was newspapers. As a child, he would read all of the daily newspapers his parents would bring home.
WANG: That's Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media, who once worked for Scaife as a reporter. In May, Scaife wrote a column in the Tribune Review revealing his cancer diagnosis and calling his newspapers his most valuable legacy. But, Ruddy says, Scaife should be remembered as the financier of American conservatives.
RUDDY: There's no question that without Dick Scaife there would not be a modern conservative movement today.
WANG: Richard Mellon Scaife died at home today, just one day after turning 82. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.