Monday, 27 March 2017


My obit of David Rockefeller is up at the Guardian online and should be in the paper paper soon; you can link to it here. It is pretty much as written, and being written for a British audience and at a relatively small word length, it had to eschew depth of many of the fascinating details of his life. I would also have loved to use the quote, a masterpiece of understatement, about why he became the first, and still, only Rockefeller, to write a memoir: "well, it just occurred to me that I had led a rather interesting life". But the NYTimes used it to close their obit.

Understatement is a part of the idea of noblesse oblige which David Rockefeller I think tried very hard to exemplify. Certainly the privilege into which he was born was immense. I would have liked to contrast his influence on American policy with that of the modern billionaires who fund think-tanks, lobbying groups, universities, and politicians; I am reading Jane Mayer's Dirty Money at the moment and suffice it to say the Koch brothers are no Rockefellers. The consistent focus of their philanthropy on their own narrow self-interest is a real contrast with the Rockefellers and their foundations or influence groups. I found a quote about David's avoidance of tax avoidance which would have put that whole discussion into quick focus.

This is not to say the Rockefellers did not move in their own (or their class') interest: but the overarching theme was that they would benefit from the greater success around them, with building rather than controlling world markets, with keeping New York City and its social systems functioning, rather than destroying them. The Chase HQ in lower Manhattan was build partly to help stimulate the city's economy. David had been criticised for the lower profits generated by Chase's overseas expansion, this was part of the story omitted from my copy; when the bank recovered from the New York crisis he had also turned those overseas investments into larger profits. When he left as CEO, it was far healthier than when he started, so the benefits were mutual. But it's inescapable that although the Rockefellers and Chase were part of government, they felt government was a positive' they were not looking to create a governmental vacuum, a rich man's anarchy, in which their wealth would give them even more power.

Even so, I made the case briefly for their influence. The Guardian for some reason decided David had run the Council for Foreign Relations' think tank which bears his name; but he joined the organisation in 1941, became a director after the war, was a director for 36 years and its chairman for 15 years: the CFR is far more than a think-tank. A small note omitted from my copy was that Rockefeller founded the Trilateral Commission because the even-more-secretive Bilberburg Group would not admit the Japanese. Noting that Rockefeller Center was sold to Mitsubishi is actually an illustration how those deep government contacts work.

William Paley, the CBS chairman who went in with Nelson and David to buy the Gertrude Stein collection, was like Rockefeller someone who worked with intelligence during the war, and his ties to the intelligence community in the post-war era have been subject to almost as much investigation as the Rockefellers'. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of researching David was to see the way he, and John J McCloy, were so central to America's rebuilding in Europe in the immediate post war era.

I would have liked more space to cover both David's childhood, and also the relative disengagement of the next generation of Rockefellers from the direct sort of involvement of his. They are mostly involved in the family's philanthropies, though one daughter, Abby, was a noted rebel, and was involved in left-wing and women's liberation causes.

It should seem obvious, so I left out saying it bluntly, but David's talent saw him engage in what was probably the most important of the tasks taken on by the Rockefeller brothers. More important than Nelson's vice-presidency, or even his governorship of New York. Running Rockefeller, Inc.

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