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It Isn't Easy to Be a Billionaire : SAM WALTON: Made in America, My Story By Sam Walton with John Huey , (Doubleday: $22.50; 262 pp)

July 12, 1992|Donald Katz | Katz is the author of "Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Post-War America," just published by HarperCollins, and of "The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears" (Viking)

"I realize this may sound boring to most of you," Walton proclaims in a rare moment of insight, "but," he continues, more typically, "one of my best items ever was a mattress pad called a Bedmate. I think I picked this one up one day . . ."

. . . and on and on, item after item, town after town, employee after employee.

I assume it was John Huey who thought to intersperse Sam's musings with miniature oral histories drawn from various business associates and family members. What is revealed of Sam Walton in his book usually derives from the juxtaposition of his own voice with that of others. On page 144, for instance, Sam claims that the game of golf was "a little too country club" for his tastes. But in the next paragraph, Helen Walton reveals that Sam's lack of mastery of the game while still in the army caused him to break a club against a tree, throw the other clubs to the ground, and quit the game for good. The next paragraph has Sam noting that "for some reason" he liked to play the game he did master--tennis--under the noonday sun. The paragraph after that, a quote from one George Billingsley, a tennis partner, notes that Sam played at noon because he wouldn't dream of taking a Wal-Mart employee away from work at any other time.

In bits and pieces, the witnesses help assemble a portrait of a good ol' boy business wizard, a man unruined by wealth, and--perhaps above all else--a control freak extraordinaire.

Some employees get drunk at a company picnic, and Sam bans alcohol from similar events for good ("They were never quite the same after that," observes a witness). Walton tries to retire during the 1970s, but he just can't let go (his return inspiring the exodus of a third of his officer corps). Walton tells employees to raise their right hands and say, "From this day forward, I solemnly promise and declare that every time a customer comes within ten feet of me, I will smile, look him in the eye, and greet him. So help me Sam."

Sam ran the show ("I've pretty much gotten my own way for the whole run.") and intends to continue to do so from beyond the mortal coil. After holding forth upon the ostentatious foolishness of those who flaunt their personal wealth, he states, "One of the real reasons I'm writing this book is so my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will read it years from now and know this: If you start any of the foolishness, I'll come back and haunt you. So don't even think about it."

So help them Sam.

Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have Walton's own perceptions and those of his colleagues, friends, and family as the basis of a real biography? Then the man and the mammoth economic institutions he wrought might have come to life. What was it like, I wondered while plodding through this tract, for a true entrepreneur like Walton to watch the company he fathered grow beyond his physical and intellectual grasp--beyond his own comprehension? In later years, Walton became a kind of totem at Wal-Mart, showing up at stores with his pick-up truck and bird dogs and feed cap, grinning and greeting and being the cartoon Sam the organization needed him to be.

But all we have here are the transcripts, not the book.

Whenever I read another book full of self-serving myths and unexplored self-observations that has been rendered readable by a professional writer, I have two recurrent thoughts. The first is thank goodness for the Securities and Exchange Commission, for without the scant material truths that agency requires of our public companies every three months, the chance to own a writer instead of talking to a fair and objective one might mean that we would learn nothing of these companies and their leaders at all. The second thought is more personal: What in the world will I do when no public figure feels enough loyalty to history or the purposes of independent journalism to take my phone call? What will we all do then?

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