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The Worst Scandal Was Lack of Imagination : FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES The Bechtel Story The Most Secret Corporation and How It Engineered the World by Laton McCartney (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 273 pp.)

May 08, 1988|Walter Russell Mead | Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin)

From San Francisco to Saudi Arabia, the Bechtel Group Inc. has left its mark around the world. Yet the privately owned Bechtel Group is one of the country's most mysterious operations--or was, until the publication of Laton McCartney's critical and controversial "Friends in High Places."

Those who believe that "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" describe life at the top of America's corporate pyramids will find a picture here that makes the most far-fetched TV plots look dull. One Bechtel executive was torn to pieces by an angry mob; another, kidnaped, survived two days in the trunk of a Mercedes that had been driven over the edge of a cliff but caught on an obstacle half way down. Wheeling and dealing from Beirut to the Bohemian Grove, Bechtel executives fought off Arab and Jewish nationalists, angry senators, bitter business rivals, and furious consumer groups to build the world's largest construction and engineering firm.

As McCartney tells it, Bechtel can make Ewing Oil look like a model corporate citizen. Even the most jaded will gasp at revelations of Bechtel's ties with the CIA, its scandal-plagued relations with the Export-Import Bank and its even more scandalous involvement with the nuclear power industry. All but the truly bigoted will be depressed by the accounts of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist attitudes and practices that over the years created serious legal and public relations problems for the company.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given this background, the Reagan Administration at times resembled a meeting of the Bechtel Alumni Assn. Caspar Weinberger left his post as general counsel for Bechtel to head up the Defense Department; George Shultz was president of the Bechtel Group before going to State. As McCartney points out, the revolving door between government and Bechtel works the other way, too. Two presidents of the Export-Import Bank approved numerous government-funded loans for Bechtel customers before leaving government for posts at Bechtel.

Juicy though these and other revelations may be, there is something unsatisfying about "Friends in High Places." The documentation for some of the juicier charges is thinner than one might wish. McCartney seems to have gotten some of his dates and facts confused, even wrong. At times, he seems to hector his target as if any stick will do to beat Bechtel.

Poor Bechtel sometimes seems damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. No major corporation could undertake foreign operations on Bechtel's scale without some cooperation from the U.S. government--and few companies could refuse a government request that, in return, they provide cover for intelligence agents. Given the enormous scope of Bechtel's operations in global trouble spots--a $20-billion industrial development in Saudi Arabia, for example--it could only proceed with assurances that its relations with both Saudi and American governments were good. Where, exactly, is the line between right and wrong?

In modern America, both government and business are so big that they must work together if either is to succeed. Liberals who call for a national industrial policy are actually calling for closer cooperation between business and government--at home and abroad. Many liberal critics of American business point to the success of Japan Inc. and say that to become competitive, the United States needs a MITI to coordinate industrial development. Yet those same critics are quick to assail any evidence of existing cooperation as collusion.

"Friends in High Places" is a substantive, if flawed, piece of reporting, covering an enormous amount of ground in prose that is clear, interesting, and eminently readable. But McCartney doesn't get us inside the engineers' minds; we don't understand the challenges they overcame, or the innovative techniques they developed--all the features of the work that to Bechtel's engineers and executives constitute the real story of their careers.

Because we miss the romance of Bechtel, we miss the real tragedy: that so much energy and skill should ultimately have come to so little good. The white elephants Bechtel scattered across the American landscape--particularly the nuclear power plants that threaten to bankrupt some of the country's largest utility systems--are monuments to wasted talent and misdirected resources.

Enormous drive, immense financial resources, technical grandeur--and limited vision. These were the virtues and the vices of Bechtel's leadership, as they were of so many American leaders who ran the country, and the world, in the generation after 1945. Our postwar problems have not been, as McCartney sometimes seems to suggest, procedural, but substantive. Our problem was not that business and government cooperated, but they so often cooperated for such narrow interests and to so little purpose.

In the future, we will need the Bechtels and the Boeings, the IBMs and the ITTs. The corporate leadership of the United States and our political leadership will need to be on good, even intimate terms. Skilled professionals will be in great demand in business and government, and will move from one to the other in the course of their careers. What we need, and what somehow both our corporate and political systems have failed to produce, is the kind of leadership that can harness the immense resources of America's public and private sectors to the task of building a more prosperous America in a more secure world.

"Friends in High Places," an achievement of lasting value, tells us what happens when America's leaders go wrong. What we need now is a book that will help them go right.

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