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Hoist Up the Old John D. (Dec. 9, 1998)

Years ago I persuaded Andrew Kopkind to help me drive a 1962 Imperial LeBaron from Coral Gables to Vermont. We had not been many hours on the road before Andrew’s skills in using his credit card were pressed into service as, one after the other, all the tires disintegrated. Then, as we passed through Ormond Beach, the transmission gave out. We found a shop that would do the job, but Frank, the proprietor, indicated that it would take two days. At the Ormond Beach Motel we joined the oldsters playing shuffleboard. Andrew tried to run away, but I soon caught up with him in nearby Daytona Beach, gazing morosely at painted sand sculptures of the Pietà, the beach’s prime attraction at that time.

It didn’t take us long to discover that John D. Rockefeller Sr. had passed his declining years at his mansion in Ormond Beach, finally running out of fuel in 1937, at the age of 98. The local bookshops carried affectionate memoirs about “Good Neighbor John.” One could appreciate instantly how successful Rockefeller’s PR man, Ivy Lee, had been in rehabbing the mightiest and most ruthless monopolist in American history and in winching the Rockefeller name out of the mud after the Ludlow massacre.

The other day when they posted the banns for the impending remarriage of Exxon and Mobil, formerly Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of New York, centerpieces of John D.’s great trust, I thought of those days in Ormond Beach, bathed in the afterglow of the old man’s long sunset. How he would have relished the respectful tone of all the commentaries addressing this largest corporate merger, the union of 21 billion barrels in joint reserves and 8.8 million barrels in daily sales. No ugly talk about Big Oil marred the earnest tributes. Few, apart from Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, paused to mourn the heralded firing of at least 9,000, and maybe as many as 20,000 workers, or to alert people that the mission of big oil companies has always been to restrict supply and jack up prices.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the oilmen cowered under the lash of populist indignation. Only a decade before Andrew and I communed with John D.’s spirit in Ormond Beach, the Senate seriously considered an amendment that would have broken up the country’s twenty largest oil companies. This was in 1975, in the aftershock of a “gas crisis,” hence price hike. The amendment, sponsored by James Abourezk of South Dakota, failed by only nine votes. (Jim, I should note, later succeeded with a bill to create the special prosecutor.)

Alarmed by such manifestations of public disapproval, the oil industry threw itself anew into the effort to persuade people that when it comes to unstinting self-sacrifice in the public interest, Big Oil is up there with Dorothy Day. Mobil began renting the bottom right corner of the New York Times Op-Ed page. These were the days when PBS had only just begun to offer itself as a showcase for America’s corporations and — this will sound quaint to the younger crowd — there were those who expressed disquiet at the Times so blithely blazoning Mobil’s ads on its opinion page.

With a few hiccups after such unfortunate episodes as the Exxon Valdez spill and the Texaco race-slur saga, it’s all worked! Oil Companies ’R’ Us. Everywhere you look. The National Audubon Society even has two oilmen on its board (a past president and a sitting CEO), and leases out natural gas rights on its Rainey bird sanctuary in the marshes of coastal Louisiana.

And how quickly the political mood shifted. In 1976 candidate Jimmy Carter felt it necessary to shore up liberal support by indicating his strong interest in public control of the nation’s energy resources. There were plenty of blueprints floating around Washington for national energy corporations and the like. Carter even had the White House outfitted with solar panels and energy-saving equipment. The anti-oil constituency was strong enough for that prudent man to feel he was safe in taking this symbolic step. A few years later, upon entering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Ronald Reagan tore out all the solar equipment.

The Reagan/Bush years were predictably wonderful for the big oil companies; the Clinton years, more wonderful still. In Alaska, Interior Secretary Babbitt has thrown open the National Petroleum Reserve to Arco and British Petroleum. In Afghanistan, the CIA hunkers down with Unocal to help the company as it dickers with the Taliban about its pipeline. Brazen underpayment of royalties to the US Treasury for leases on public land was forgiven the oil companies in the latest appropriations bill passed by Congress. 

So can we expect fierce scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission on the Exxon-Mobil merger? Certainly not.

And yet, despite Big Oil’s costly campaigns, people don’t like oil companies. The natural impulse of the citizenry, told that all of a sudden gas is scarce and prices must rise, is to invoke the tankers bulging with oil floating offshore. Even the most vehement Saddam haters will cheerfully go along with the notion that the US-led embargo of Iraq has mostly to do with oil companies trying, albeit without any success, to hold oil prices up. John D. plowed a furrow of mistrust in the national soul too deep for manicuring.

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