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Mr. Big

<i> Richard Parker is an economist and senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University</i>

Who, except for the historians, should care about the era of John D. Rockefeller Sr., J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie today? After all, how could that time (and they) be anything but dimly relevant to our own?

History, to be important, must be relevant, and we face, a full century later, what is a vastly different world on the eve of a new millennium--one no longer defined by the horse and buggy or the belching factories of America’s early industrial era or, more mundanely, by daily encounters with men wearing top hats and walrus mustaches or women in corsets and bustles and twirling parasols.

Our America, at the dusk of the 20th century, is unlike America at its dawn: We are being reshaped by a new global economy, unprecedented technological change, a communications revolution, the need to redefine a government we no longer trust, a reckless and sensational press, the disease of money-corrupting politics, a workaday world of endless hours and searing corporate competitiveness and, of course, a wildly expansive stock market offering riches to those willing to ride a Wall Street they once feared or ignored.

Of course, this is all rank nonsense and bloviation. The very idea that the era of Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie is so deeply dissimilar from ours--and therefore has nothing to teach us--denies our history. Almost every single attribute and crisis we call our own, whether we ascribe it to late modernity or early post-modernity, was vibrantly alive and present--and profoundly recognized and debated--at the dawn of this century.

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Look at the the impact of our newly global economy. A century ago, the share of foreign trade in U.S. GNP was as large as it is today--and was as relentlessly remaking the American economy. Our incredible technological change? Who among us, outside Silicon Valley, considers electricity, the lightbulb, the telephone, the aircraft, the automobile, the X-ray, organic chemistry, and the discovery of microorganisms and the theory of relativity all minor (or somehow less awesomely miraculous) compared to the “unprecedented” technological era we call our own?

One could proceed down the checklist--our distrust of government and the corrupting role of money in politics; immigration, race, wealth inequality; an appalling education system; ruthless competition; and a relentless pageant of reform movements on which their opponents blame the end of morality and civilization--and find ourselves turning anxiously to the White House for leadership, only to discover not William Clinton but William McKinley as its occupant.

Ron Chernow’s “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.” is an illuminating and detailed gateway into that earlier but far-from-distant world, constructed not as the period’s history, but as the biography of one of its singular figures (and, perhaps more important, singular forces and icons). “Titan” is the latest in a series that Chernow seems to be cultivating, having already written a National Book Award-winning biography of J.P. Morgan and his empire, as well as a history of the slightly less well-known but only slightly less influential family of financiers, the Warburgs. If, indeed, the pattern continues, Chernow’s life of Andrew Carnegie can’t be far behind.

Rockefeller, of course, has hardly escaped earlier notice (either in his lifetime or since). It has been about 50 years since Allan Nevins produced his two-volume benchmark “Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist.” Chernow argues not only that the time has come for a newer study, but that he can bring new information to the table.

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Thanks to the cooperation of Rockefeller’s descendants, Chernow was given access to 1,700 pages of previously unpublished, commissioned interviews conducted with Rockefeller by William Inglis, a New York newspaperman, between 1917 and 1920. As Chernow tells us, “as I pored over this. . .transcript, I was astonished: Rockefeller, stereotyped as taciturn and empty, turned out to be analytic, articulate, even fiery: he was also quite funny, with a dry Midwestern wit. This wasn’t someone I had encountered in any biography.” It gave him, Chernow says, access to the “music of Rockefeller’s mind.”

Over 35 chapters and 700 pages, “Titan” details not only the music of Rockefeller’s mind, but his enormous--and world-changing--actions and the responses they produced. We also learn that Rockefeller descended from French Huguenots who first fled to Germany and then, in the 1720s, to Pennsylvania. Rockefeller’s grandfather married into a Massachusetts family of Puritan descent only to produce a son (John D.'s father) who, as itinerant scalawag and philanderer, offers Chernow ample Freudian opportunities for explaining--by complex dint of reaction and shame--Rockefeller’s own immense public probity and teetotaling devotion to the Baptist Church.

Rockefeller built America’s first great petroleum-based empire from humble beginnings as a Cleveland merchant shortly after the Civil War. By the early 1900s, Standard Oil and its associated companies controlled 90% of U.S. petroleum refining and pumped a third of its crude oil, operated the nation’s second-largest steel mill, owned or leased thousands of railcars, barges and ships, and mined a substantial portion of the country’s coal and iron ore reserves. Newspapers and legislators (even occasionally entire legislatures) were bought with alarming impunity and regularity, the better to assure this vast empire’s success. In an era before the income tax, only steel magnate Andrew Carnegie came close to challenging Rockefeller’s title as “the world’s richest man.”

But Chernow isn’t simply a psycho-historian: In often excruciating detail, he plays the role of conscientious business historian, documenting and untangling Rockefeller’s myriad dealings over decades. He judiciously weighs prices paid against charges of gross underpayment, and gives frequent examples of situations in which Rockefeller seemed to pay generously for his competitors’ companies, mineral rights and stock holdings in order to make the deal.

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We are given equally detailed accounts of Rockefeller’s personal and family life: the list of Christmas gifts, the tensions between the children (especially after John D. Jr. was put in charge of the enormous “allowances” on which they survived as adults), his authentic and enduring love for his wife--we’re even served often-charming portrayals of John D. Sr.'s love of bicycling and golf. Apparently, the world’s richest man, widely viewed as a relentlessly humorless skinflint and ruthless corporate mastermind, loved performing stunts on his bicycle even into his 60s, “often jumping onto the seat as someone held the bike or holding an umbrella as he rode with no hands.” Never a skillful golfer, we’re told he often played six hours a day, and as he prepared to duff his way across the golf course, “he hummed hymns or popular songs, told humorous anecdotes, or even read short poems of his own composition.”

We also see Rockefeller the philanthropist, and the pattern and motivations (sometimes simple and sincere, sometimes not) that inspired him. Rockefeller clearly believed in a Protestant deity of old-fashioned rigors and virtues and was ever-opposed to the debilitating effects of drink, tobacco and dance. But he was also touched by more modern conceptions of God’s plan for us--of the need for higher education, medical research and public parks. He was even convinced (at a time when American racism ran brutal and strong) of the need for aid to Southern black colleges and for the applied research and treatment of diseases such as hookworm that scourged the lives of millions in the region, black and white alike.

Chernow’s gift is for providing us with an immense, almost baroque detailing of a complex human life. By the book’s end, for example, we can appreciate why, after meeting Rockefeller, Harvard philosopher William James could write his brother Henry that here was “a man 10 stories deep, and to me quite unfathomable . . . superficially suggestive of naught but goodness and conscientiousness, yet accused of being the greatest villain in business whom our country has produced.”

But it is in handling the very accusation of villainy--the measure of the man’s impact on his world, not his private passions or character--that this book seems strangely, almost hauntingly, bereft.

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Chernow doesn’t exactly omit the reasons why such an accusation came to be leveled against his subject; for example, he devotes an entire chapter to the brutal 1913 “Ludlow Massacre,” in which an encampment of 20,000 strikers evicted from their homes at a Rockefeller-controlled Colorado coal mine were indiscriminately and repeatedly machine-gunned by the state militia, and their tent colony torched, resulting in the deaths of numerous strikers, as well as more than a dozen women and children who suffocated in the blaze.

But Chernow is at pains to tell us that who fired the first shots is unknown, that the arsonists hadn’t known the women and children were there--and that the entire affair was especially stressful for John D. Jr., who served as family point-man during the strike, and who blamed the miners for the death of their wives and children by “recklessly” insisting on their rights to a union. If the strikers themselves were pained, we know it only implicitly, because Chernow never shares their voices with us--although their testimony was amply documented both by the press and subsequent (and excoriating) government hearings.

Similarly, we learn that Rockefeller systematically used his fortune to bribe politicians and the press alike, starting early in his career, and that force (often armed and brutal) was never quite absent when the hardest deals were made, often befalling not just workers but also small business competitors.

But Chernow’s recognition of why “villainy” attracted itself to the name Rockefeller is all too often delivered passingly and with little patient reflection, as when he notes the downfall of a crusading Ohio attorney general who incurred the wrath of his fellow Republican, Sen. Joseph Foraker, for challenging the Rockefeller empire. In a one-sentence parenthesis, Chernow mentions that Foraker received in one year alone more than $44,000 in “lobbying fees” from Rockefeller, but drops the matter and rushes on to tell us in lengthy detail how such crusaders’ attacks forced the Rockefeller empire to rethink its legal and organizational structure.

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Yet it was precisely such examples of immense corruption--of a corporation unlimited by any force or fear--that lie at the heart of why Rockefeller was not merely famous, but infamous, to his generation. When in 1903 muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell set out to document the vast scope of Rockefeller’s power and wealth--and the often deplorable, illegal and immoral foundations on which they were based--she shrewdly gave readers a work entitled “The History of Standard Oil,” not “The Life of John D. Rockefeller.”

Tarbell realized that it was the history of an immense new institution, and its deeply troubling place as exemplar of a vast new era in American democratic and economic history, that ultimately should interest her readers, not Rockefeller the man. When, eight years later, the Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, it likewise based its decision on 23 volumes of evidence totaling 12,000 pages that documented none of John D.'s cycling or golfing idiosyncrasies, but rather focused on his trust’s powerful, anticompetitive and illegal business dealings, its (sometimes-murderous) suppression and harassment of workers and competitors alike, as well as its systematic use of his fortune to buy political outcomes and press coverage.

Times and tastes, of course, change--and Chernow explicitly locates his biography as consciously “balanced” between the “radical” Tarbell’s and the more “conservative” Nevins’, his two most illustrious predecessors. He derides both authors for focusing on Rockefeller’s empire and its powers as “one-sided” and “old-fashioned,” whereas his own modern strategy is partly “post-Freudian,” meant neither to “demonize” nor “canonize” the man.

Yet if we step back from “Titan” for a moment and remind ourselves how similar our problems and challenges today are to those faced by Rockefeller’s generation, we might wonder whether we’d wish that our own lives and struggles--our collective dreams and aspirations not only for ourselves but for America--were presented to our descendants as background to some intimate biography of Bill Gates, George Soros or Michael Milken. Chernow has made his own choice with “Titan"--readers will ultimately have to make their own.

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