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A Tale of Two Magnates

John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Bill Gates Have Much in Common, Author Says, but Microsoft Chief Comes Up Short as Philanthropist

July 01, 1998|LINTON WEEKS | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — There is, in the National Portrait Gallery, a paleplaster bust of a sag-shouldered man with snaky eyes, sunken cheeks and straitened lips. If the sculpture weren't labeled, you might never guess that this wizened little guy was John D. Rockefeller Sr.--the ruthless 19th century American kerosene king who made millions and built an oil-refining monopoly by conspiring with railroads, quashing the competition, bribing government officials and skirting the law.

To Ron Chernow, author of the just-published "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.," the statue doesn't capture the fullness of Rockefeller. It was fashioned after Rockefeller retired, Chernow explains, when the robber baron's health was failing, his hair had fallen out and he was wearing a wig.

In Chernow's mind, Rockefeller will always remain a handsome young entrepreneurial juggernaut. Fiercely determined, maniacally driven, perpetually scheming, yes, but also congenial, generous and deeply complicated.

Like Bill Gates.

The comparison between Rockefeller--the country's richest man at the turn of the 20th century--and Gates--the richest at the turn of the 21st--is inevitable, says Chernow, but not one the author anticipated during his five years of research and writing. When the earliest reviewers of "Titan" began connecting the dots, Chernow was more than willing to play along. In fact, he relishes the similarities between Rockefeller and Gates, while also noting some differences.

Sitting in the shade of the gallery's courtyard, Chernow, 49, is easygoing and somewhat self-deprecating. He fesses up that he made it through Yale without taking a single history course. At Cambridge University in England, he earned a master's degree in English. In 1990 he won National Book Award for his study of J.P. Morgan, "The House of Morgan."

Chernow has never met Gates. Of course, he never met Rockefeller either. The parallels, he says, are compelling.

The searing similarity at the moment is that Rockefeller's Standard Oil was deemed a monopoly and busted up by the government. In May, the Justice Department lodged antitrust complaints against Microsoft, declaring that the Redmond, Wash.-based company is using its Windows operating system, which runs in 90% of all personal computers, to dominate user access to the Internet. In the Industrial Age, Standard Oil controlled about 90% of the world's oil supplies.

"You can't bypass Gates," Chernow points out, "the way you couldn't bypass Standard Oil."

As happened with Rockefeller, Chernow says, there is growing public sentiment toward Gates that "this man has too much power."

Rockefeller believed, and Gates believes, that gargantuan profits are deserved when one takes gargantuan risks. The late 19th century railroad companies were skittish about investing in technologically advanced tank cars, for instance. Rockefeller owned 5,000 of them and leased them to the railroads. Gates is investing $2.6 billion in research.

Able to amass piles and piles of money, Rockefeller gave money away. So does Gates.

Greg Shaw, a Microsoft spokesman, begs to differ with Chernow. The comparisons between Rockefeller and Gates are "not quite fair," he says. "It's true that these are two American companies facing antitrust issues. The biggest difference is that intellectual property is not a scarce natural resource, whereas petroleum is. The barriers to entry in the software industry are quite low."

One thing is sure: Each magnate helped define, and redefine, the era he lived in. "Gates has the same missionary zeal that Rockefeller did," Chernow says, "a messianic faith in himself."

Refining Business

Loosed on the world in 1839, John Davison Rockefeller Sr. was the son of William Avery "Big Bill" Rockefeller, a slick-as-elixir mountebank, and Eliza, a devout Baptist churchwoman. While John was growing up in Cleveland, his traveling-salesman father was seldom at home. Big Bill often pretended to be deaf and mute when hawking his snake oils and herbal remedies. He pretended in other ways, too. In fact, the old man was living two lives; he had another name and another family in another town.

From his mother, young John inherited a soul-deep religious streak and a steely resolve. From his father, a conniving nature and a mania for money. When he was in school, Rockefeller bragged to a classmate that he would someday be worth $100,000.

After taking a three-month course at a commercial college, Rockefeller embarked on a legendary weeks-long job hunt and was delighted to be hired as a low-level accountant in a produce commission house. He was a hustler. In post-Civil War America, the oil fields of western Pennsylvania were booming. Rockefeller persuaded his employer to buy into a refining enterprise. By the time he was 27, Rockefeller owned the whole shebang.

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