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Book Review: 'Private Empire,' by Steve Coll

Book Review: 'Private Empire,' by Steve Coll
Photograph by Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a startling scene early in Steve Coll’s Private Empire in which Lee Raymond, then the chief executive of ExxonMobil, speaks with offhanded candor about where his loyalties lie. Asked by an industry colleague if his company might consider building more refineries domestically, the better to protect the U.S. from potential gasoline shortages and security crises, Raymond shrugs off the question. “I’m not a U.S. company,” Raymond says, “and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.”

As objectivist statements of rational self-interest go, that one’s a lulu—up there with Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society.” You’d expect a Big Oil chieftan to be ruthlessly profit-minded, but to the point of putting profits ahead of country? Nevertheless, Coll writes, Raymond “saw no contradiction” in this stance: “He did indeed regard himself as a very patriotic American and a political conservative, but he was also fully prepared to state publicly that he had fiduciary responsibilities.”