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Hammer and Tongs : THE DARK SIDE OF POWER: The Real Armand Hammer, By Carl Blumay with Harry Edwards (Simon & Schuster: $25; 473 pp.)

November 22, 1992|Robert Scheer | Scheer is a Times national political correspondent

So now we know that Armand Hammer, the late chairman of the Occidental Petroleum Co., would do anything to get richer, had close ties to various generations of Soviet leaders, had an eye for women and could be mean toward his associates. I thought we already knew all that. How often can you tell the story of Hammer meeting with Lenin and cornering the Bolshevik pencil market?

Ah yes, the publisher might respond, but we have new details--intimate ones. In what is now an accepted act of betrayal, one of Hammer's apparently slighted minions has stepped forward with an "insider's view" of one of the more perplexing and exciting industrialists of our day. If you're preoccupied with Hammer because he once bilked you in a deal or you never did like his cozying up to the Bolsheviks or Kadafi or Nixon, then this clumsily constructed kitchen sink of a book might prove slightly salacious.

On the other hand, why would you believe any of it? Carl Blumay, Hammer's former PR man and the book's principal author, concedes that his 25-year career with the Oxy chairman consisted largely of lying. This is the man who crafted the public image of Hammer as philanthropist, industrialist and citizen of the world, an image that he now seeks to destroy. Talk about having it both ways.

He even claims to have bribed an unnamed state legislator in the service of his leader. Why should he now be trusted? No new documentation is offered to verify this unrelentingly negative view of Hammer, and all we are left with is the memory of a flunky who has already profited considerably from a professional life of mendacity.

The publisher's blurb on the jacket proclaims that this book could not have been written while Hammer was alive. Why not? Is it that Hammer might have sued for libel? But if the book is truthful and the information supplied documentable, why not publish when the man is alive to defend himself? Indeed, if Hammer is the scurrilous character described in these pages, why did Blumay continue to work for him for a quarter century? He clearly never liked or respected the man, yet he was his flack--the man who sold Hammer to the rest of us.

This was not just a single PR campaign, one job among many; Blumay, by his own account, sacrificed his 30-year marriage because of the long hours he devoted to Armand Hammer. Now he expects us to accept, without evidence other than that provided by his own memory, an opposite view?

That is the true value of this book: to reveal just how shoddy is the PR business as conducted by people like Blumay and how closely media manipulation is linked with business success. We learn a great deal about the charade but not the substance. As this book indicates, Hammer played everything too close to the vest for his flack to really know what was going on. I am afraid his big secrets have died with him.

Take the most sensational of the book's claims, that Hammer was "an agent of influence" for the KGB. The evidence? That Hammer's brother Victor once told the author that his family had served as "PR spokesmen for the Bolshevik Government." When did Victor say this? Was it recorded, or a signed statement? And from the context, Victor was referring to the years when Lenin was alive and the KGB wasn't yet in existence. And if the author knew all along that his very influential boss was a KGB agent, didn't he have a responsibility to blow the whistle instead of doing his darndest for a quarter of a century to cover up?

If this is to be a spy story, how disappointing also to discover on page after plodding page that this KGB agent actually was a pure capitalist preoccupied with feathering his own nest. Hammer bilked the Soviets, and if they got much in return it is not evidenced here.

What is indicated by the evidence here, despite a determined effort to picture every action of Hammer's in the worst light, is the conclusion that Hammer was a brilliant capitalist. How else to view his acquisition and exploitation of the incredibly profitable Libyan oil concession in the teeth of fierce competition from the Big Seven oil companies and his own board at Occidental? His move into Libya was described as "Hammer's folly" and he had to withstand a revolt by his own board of directors after months of digging dry holes, but he held on and then struck oil--lots of it.

We are left to believe, again without any hard evidence, that Hammer bribed his way into Libya. Are we supposed to be shocked? Is there an oil company that did not bribe its way in the Mideast?

This book does not actually uncover major scandalous wrongdoing on Hammer's part. What it does is reverse the spin that the author had previously put on Hammer's activities. So, for instance, the discovery of oil is now evidence of chicanery rather than boldness.

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