Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Haves and the Have Nots


A hard transition, this time, Florida to New Hampshire.  Up here a new computer, break-in problems, the residue of a very tough winter.

The issue of wealth distribution in America, the 1/10 of one percent who have so much vs. the rest of us, is coming into focus fast in our troubled politics.  All hail the rise of Elizabeth Warren.  All this is recurrent with us at least since the Gilded Age.  The death last week of the boisterous rentier Richard Mellon Scaife in Pittsburgh reminded me of how much confusion an heir with too much money and very little concern with the truth can stir up whenever he cares to.

A serious alcoholic, Scaife was behind the press campaign to hang the 1993 death of Vince Foster, a long-time Clinton crony, on the president and his wife, who allegedly arranged for Foster's murder.  Scaife had helped fund the Watergate burglars.  As it happens, years earlier I interviewed Scaife at some length while working up the Pittsburgh half of my book The Mellon Family.   Relatives attributed a lot of Scaife's volatility to a fractured skull early in life; drunken hi-jinks got him thrown out of Yale and convulsed his several marriages.  Scaife's public-spirited sister Cordelia had told me that she was convinced that her brother was behind the shooting in her back yard in Ligonier of her husband, Pittsburgh District Attorney Robert Duggan.  Duggan was under investigation for mob connections by Richard Thornburgh, at the time the U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, later the Republican governor.  Thornburgh himself filled in a lot of the details for me.

It was a tale worthy of John O'Hara.  When I brought up Duggan, Richard Scaife rocked back in his chair and filled me in on just how crooked Duggan had been.  Sad as hell, Scaife observed; he and Duggan had been friends at the University of Pittsburgh.  He remembered one night when they had both gone out and gotten pie-eyed and Duggan was so far gone that Scaife had carried him up three floors of his rooming house and put him to bed.  Once he was down Duggan had reached up and embraced Scaife and kissed him on the mouth.

Scaife must have thought about that, because once I was back in New Hampshire he telephoned me and warned me not to print that anecdote about Duggan.  If I did, he growled, his people would take care of me.

"I don't think so,"  I said.

"Yeah?  Why?"

"Because I'm recording this call," I told Scaife.  I included the anecdote in The Mellon Family.

A few months later, when The Mellon Family came out, I was in Pittsburgh doing radio and television publicity for the book. The Pittsburgh newspaper Scaife didn't control printed much of the livelier material in my treatment, which turned into a best-seller locally.  After a hectic day of appearances I got back late to my room at The William Penn and attempted to settle down.  The phone rang.  A husky, Italianate voice delivered the message: We saw you come in.  You ain't going to leave this hotel alive.

I really didn't like those prospects.  I waited until perhaps 2 AM, then stole with my bag down the fire stairs and flagged a cab around the corner for the airport, where I slept for a few hours.  I was the first passenger to board the plane.

What this anecdote illustrates is the fecklessness of permitting the exorbitantly rich  to rummage, armed with billions, through the ante-rooms of American politics, buying and selling candidates and resorting to any means they care to to force their control on the rest of us.  They do that here, and they do that around the world.  We pay the price.

One price all of you should consider paying is $12.95 for a copy of The Hedge Fund -- via Amazon -- which pulls open the way power works in America and demonstrates the way the heedless rich sometimes arrange to foul all our nests, especially their own.  The novel is funny, scary, amorous and -- covertly -- political.  If you like this blog, you will definitely grok on this novel, even in the face of all this shameless self-promotion.  More to come.


Burton Hersh