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Billionaire conservative activist Richard Mellon Scaife dies

By Jeremy Diamond, CNN
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scaife was heir to the banking, oil and aluminum fortunes of the Mellon family
  • He funded conservative causes with his estimated $1.4 billion fortune
  • Scaife funded investigations into President Bill Clinton around the time of his impeachment
  • Philanthropy didn't give him as great a sense of accomplishment as did newspapers

Washington (CNN) -- Richard Mellon Scaife, the billionaire publisher and banking heir who financed conservative causes that included attempts to discredit Bill Clinton while he was president, has died.

He was 82.

Scaife's death on Friday followed his disclosure less than two months ago that he had terminal cancer, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, one of his newspapers.

He was heir to the banking, oil and aluminum fortunes of the Mellon family and used his estimated $1.4 billion wealth to underwrite conservative crusades and groups that included the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Republican leaders mourned him.

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"RIP Dick Scaife. Great newspaperman. Set the highest standard. True patriot for first principles we honor today. Prayers for his family," House Speaker John Boehner tweeted.

During his time supporting presidential campaigns, Scaife first backed Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona who lost to Lyndon Johnson in a 1964 landslide.

Scaife would later spend more than $1 million to re-elect Richard Nixon to the White House before becoming a staunch backer of Ronald Reagan nearly a decade later.

Scaife did not always toe the line on every front of the conservative movement. He broke with the Republican Party on abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage and the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

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But the deeply private Scaife became a more widely known figure in 1998, when he became the face of what Hillary Clinton, first lady at the time, called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" bankrolling investigations into her husband around the time of his impeachment. He denied involvement.

Scaife's regard for the Clintons apparently shifted years later when he reportedly donated $100,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative after having lunch with the former President. And in 2008, Scaife's newspaper even endorsed Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid.

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped lead the 90s-era charge to impeach Clinton, praised Scaife's patriotism.

"Richard Scaife was a remarkable patriot, philanthropist and conservative activist," Gingrich tweeted on Friday. "His passing today is a great loss to America."

Scaife purchased the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 1969 and, while he used the paper's editorial pages as a bullhorn for his political views, the newspaper's staff attested to the mogul's love of newspapers.

"He loved newspapering more than anyone I've known," Frank Craig, the newspaper's editor, said in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's obituary. "No one on the staff took more pride in breaking important stories or winning major awards than he did. Many of his ideas and news tips produced some of our best coverage."

In the column announcing his untreatable cancer, Scaife wrote about his philanthropy and said none of the causes he supported "gave me as great a sense of accomplishment as the newspapers."

While he supported a number of causes and institutions, Scaife also reportedly struggled with alcoholism for years and several family issues that pushed him into the headlines, including a contentious divorce with his second wife, which was finalized in 2012, according to media reports.

Before inheriting his family's fortune, Scaife attended Yale University, but was expelled in his freshmen year when he rolled a beer keg down a flight of stairs and broke a classmate's legs, according to a 1999 Washington Post article.

Scaife is survived by two children and two grandchildren.

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