The Power and the Privilege

By Robert J. Dowling


By David Rockefeller

Random House -- 517pp -- $35

During his half-century career, David Rockefeller became America's preeminent banker-statesman. As chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, he presided over an empire that stretched from São Paulo to Moscow. He carried missives for Presidents, negotiated with potentates, befriended the exiled Shah of Iran when no one else would, and possessed an electronic Rolodex with the names and numbers of 100,000 important people. Out of a sense of civic commitment, he took the lead in developing modern Wall Street, Battery Park City, and the World Trade Center. He was every bit as public a figure as his politician brother Nelson, and internationally better known. But except for David by William Hoffman, a thinly disguised 1971 hatchet job on him, he has never been the subject of a book.

Now, Rockefeller's 500-page autobiography, Memoirs, gives us an inside look at the man and his complex career. There's no dirt-dishing or score-settling here. Nelson's scandalous death in the arms of a young assistant, for example, gets passed off as an "unfortunate episode." In most ways, however, this is a revealing, forthright account of how a young man bearing the Rockefeller mantle of power, privilege, and responsibility came of age as America itself was becoming a dominant world power.

Born in 1915, Rockefeller inherited his sharply etched "Aldrich nose" from his mother. From his father, he learned humility. He knew his family was rich, but despite such privileges as a 90-room "cottage" at Seal Harbor, Me., he often didn't feel so prosperous. Along with four of his five brothers, he was sent to a modest New York day school. Later, while at Harvard College, David got a letter from his father warning that he might have to "work for a living."

At 19, he suddenly inherited $16 million ($216 million in today's money). The abrupt windfall--one of seven family trust funds--was arranged by his father to avoid the Roosevelt Administration's confiscatory federal estate taxes. Smart lawyers sheltered the family fortune so well that it still showers funds on successive generations. But the lawyers also made sure heirs didn't get their hands on any real money for years. David's initial income of $2,400 a year left him sometimes feeling "broke." Once, when he asked his father for more, he got a check for $400--accompanied by a stern letter.

Youngest of the five brothers, David was the only one to earn a PhD. His professors were a pantheon of the economics elite: Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard; Marxist Harold Laski, libertarian Friedrich von Hayek, and Lionel Robbins at the London School of Economics; and Frank Knight and Jacob Viner at the University of Chicago. In 1940, he landed his first job, drafting replies to letters sent to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia at a salary of $1 per year. Then, told by his mother to do his duty, he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army and went on to set up a World War II intelligence network in Algeria.

After the war, he returned to New York and Chase, where his uncle, Winthrop Aldrich, was chairman. It took the younger Rockefeller 23 years to become chairman, in 1969. His rival was George Champion, a crusty credit man who had a barely disguised disdain for the young scion. And Champion often won. The board back-burnered David's plans for making Chase a global bank. Meanwhile, crosstown rival National City--today's Citibank--was slapping up offices abroad and pioneering new products at home. When David finally got his chance in the late 1960s, he brought all of the clout of Rockefeller Inc.--including his first-name acquaintance with world leaders--to marshal an overseas push, rolling out some 63 branches in a decade. He writes of the special triumph in seeing astonished Muscovites turn out to see the "Rockefeller Bank" open a branch in Russia. Sadly, he admits, it never made money.

But his life was hardly all business. Beginning in the 1950s, David was to claim a place among the postwar Establishment that ran America and much of the world. Many of the leaders, from John J. McCloy to McGeorge Bundy, were Rockefeller family associates. Others, such as Henry Kissinger, were on retainer. Europe and Japan were viewed as market opportunities rather than as rivals. There were no corporate raiders, and profit maximization wasn't yet part of the boardroom vocabulary. Within this club, a CEO didn't just run his company, he could afford to be patron, civic leader, and roving ambassador.

Treating Chase as if it were on auto-pilot ultimately led to trouble. By the early 1970s, Chase's real estate lending, bond losses, and massive computer woes had landed it on the Comptroller of the Currency's problem-bank list. Citi was there, too, but its prognosis was better. So while juggling numerous other duties, David Rockefeller also had to rescue his own bank. "My timidity," he admits, led to many of the problems. Once focused, he managed a turnaround in just over four years. By the time the next blast of competition hit the big banks, during the 1980s, he was long retired. One can only guess at what he made of the banking carve-ups of the 1990s. There is no mention in the book of what is now J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM ).

You can often see David Rockefeller, at 87, walking across Rockefeller Center for his early workout at a public gym. He's a solitary figure in suit and tie, gracious enough to nod if one notices him. As he says, it has been a full life.

Dowling covered the Rockefeller era from Washington, New York, and Europe.

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