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When David was Goliath

Memoirs, David Rockefeller, Random House: 520 pp., $35

October 20, 2002|Peter Collier | Peter Collier is the author, with David Horowitz, of "The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty."

Anyone familiar with the Rockefeller story will probably be surprised to find that David Rockefeller has written his memoirs. Since the depredations of the Standard Oil Trust in the late 19th century -- the family's version of original sin -- the unexamined life has been not only worth living for the Rockefellers but also an absolute necessity. John D. Rockefeller Sr. once tried to defend himself from the attacks that made him America's economic "Evil One" by blurting out, "God gave me my money." After that, he and his heirs gave up trying publicly to justify their wealth and power and lapsed into a silence that has lasted until now.

That 87-year-old David Rockefeller, survivor of this 150-year saga, has set about recollecting his life in tranquillity suggests the family is not the radioactive metaphor it once was in America and, indeed, may have become a little passe. Certainly, times have changed since the 1960s, when the vulgar Marxism of the New Left portrayed the Rockefellers as a sort of executive committee of the ruling class, practicing social control at home through proprietary institutions ranging from the Population Council to the Council on Foreign Relations, while working insidiously abroad to get the U.S. into Latin America, South Africa and Vietnam. All malicious occurrences could be explained with two words: the Rockefellers. On this, the paranoid right agreed with the paranoid left, adding the twist that the family's tentacles stretched into the sinister conspiracies it imagined being propounded behind closed doors by the Bilderbergers and the Trilateral Commission.

But all those C. Wright Millsian analyses of the power elite and the ingeniously nutty diagrams of interlocking directorates with the Rockefeller name at their nexuses are artifacts of the past. Other conspiracy theories have taken hold; a far wealthier class has arisen to supplant the intergenerational ancien regime established by robber baron money. It is at last safe for a Rockefeller to come out of hiding.

In writing about his life, Rockefeller does not attempt to gild his persona. He is saturnine, self-satisfied and obtuse -- all survival traits in this family -- and still very much the cosseted last child whose grand passion as an adolescent was his world-class collection of beetles, to which he added at the rate of 30 species a night at the family's Pocantico Hills Estate in New York's Hudson Valley. He doesn't have much new to say about the iconic John D. Sr., except to insist that he was the old man's favorite grandchild. He insists that he was also the favorite of his mother, Abby Aldrich, who warmed the Rockefellers' chilly Baptist souls and brought Picasso into lives previously very Rembrandt. David does not claim to be the favorite of his father, John D. Jr. ("Mister Junior" to the large Rockefeller staff), a stern man who was often submerged in neurasthenia by the magnitude of the task fate had given him: cleaning the oil stains off the family name.

But David appreciates the pivotal dynastic role that his father played in the family. In spending roughly a billion dollars -- about what the first John D. originally made -- in strategic philanthropy for what he grandly called "the well-being of mankind," the second John D. helped create the institutional world awaiting David and his brothers, John D. III, Nelson, Laurance and Winthrop, when they burst on the postwar scene as the most famous brother act in American life.

David tells us disappointingly little about his youthful relationship with his siblings (who also included a sister, Abby, known as Babs), although he does hint that, at any early age, Nelson made it clear that he at least would fight his way out of the Rockefeller cocoon and become the leader of his generation by challenging Mister Junior and pushing aside elder brother John D. III and all presumptions of primogeniture. It is not that the author is hiding the intimate details of his growing up; the brothers were probably not very intimate, and he was probably not paying attention. In any case, the steady subject of the "Memoirs" is "The Making of David Rockefeller," and its rhetoric is mobilized to dispel the notion that his self-hood and success were assured by his gilt-edged birthright.

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