Wednesday, October 23, 2002

David Rockefeller in miniature. (Originally posted 10/21/02 at 10 a.m.) It would take me 30 seconds -- tops -- to tell you everything I know about David Rockefeller. So it's possible that David Brooks's review of Rockefeller's Memoirs, in this week's New York Times Book Review, is off in some crucial way that I missed. But I doubt it. Brooks is simply too smart to let that happen. So I offer it up today as a near-perfect example of economy (Brooks's essay is just 1500 words), style, moral argument, and understanding in summarizing the life of a man whose name everyone knows and yet who remains almost a complete mystery to the general public.

1. Style. After laying out Rockefeller's early years, Brooks describes him at his height, as a key player in international affairs, mostly because he was the Man Who Was Always There. There's a subtle brilliance to Brooks's assessment of Rockefeller, in which he simultaneously professes admiration and gentle mockery. Many writers would kill (Not me! I abhor violence) to be able to craft a passage such as this:

Over time Rockefeller transformed himself into the leading corporate statesman of his day. Wherever there were panel discussions, evenly spaced bottles of mineral water and worthy discourses on the need for increased international dialogue, Rockefeller was there. He was there at the creation of the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Society, the Pesenti Group. He served as chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. His ability to endure tedium must be unmatched in all human history.

2. Moral argument. In Brooks's view, Rockefeller is a good man who's managed to do a lot of bad, cutting deals with some of the world's worst tyrants -- the Shah of Iran, Mao Zedong, the Soviet leadership -- while their victims were dying in the streets or rotting in prison. Rockefeller sees himself as a progressive realist, but his realism in too many cases overtook his idealism. "While the forces of democracy squared off with the forces of authoritarianism, Rockefeller was perpetually in the room with whoever happened to be in power," Brooks writes.

3. Understanding. What ever happened to the Protestant Establishment that Rockefeller epitomized? How could it hold such sway until the 1960s and '70s and then virtually disappear without a trace? Brooks attributes it directly to the Rockefellers' own progressive instincts, their embrace of the new. Rockefeller's children rejected the idea of a Protestant Establishment -- one child, Brooks notes, even bankrolled the Real Paper, an alternative newspaper that competed with the Boston Phoenix for a time in the 1970s. The Establishment didn't collapse. It just faded away.

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