Rockefeller's Nemesis

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Reviewed by Michael Kazin
Sunday, April 27, 2008


The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell And John D. Rockefeller

By Steve Weinberg

Norton. 304 pp. $25.95

It's a story that ought to thrill any investigative reporter: Bright young Ida Tarbell grew up in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania, the daughter of an independent contractor. There she witnessed John D. Rockefeller gradually building Standard Oil by crushing his competitors -- including her own father -- with a brilliant grasp of the market, timely political deals, industrial espionage and sheer intimidation. After college, she left her home state to become one of America's first serious female journalists, writing best-selling biographies of Napoleon and Lincoln and living for a few years in Paris.

But she couldn't get the thin-lipped titan of petroleum off her mind. With the support of her crusading editor, S.S. McClure, Tarbell spent several years digging through obscure court records and interviewing Standard Oil officials. Finally, from 1902-04, she published a series of articles in McClure's magazine exposing the Rockefeller method in all its cruel efficiency. In 1911, the Supreme Court, based on evidence culled largely from her work, ruled that the mighty trust must be broken up, and the titan's reputation never recovered. A lone reporter's sense of right, it would seem, triumphed over one of the mightiest corporations in the land.

Alas, the more one knows about this oft-told story, the less romantic it appears. Rockefeller was no more -- or less -- evil than Andrew Carnegie, Gustavus Swift, the DuPonts or the other industrial barons of his time who made an obscene amount of money by producing vital goods at low cost (thanks, in part, to their brutal suppression of unions). And the dramatic dissolution of Standard Oil did nothing to help small oil producers compete with the leviathans. Companies that now bear the names Mobil and Exxon soon evolved from the state-level firms Standard put together to comply with the Court's ruling. By 1911, Rockefeller wasn't even running the business anymore. Then 72, he spent his days playing golf and giving money away. The breakup of Standard Oil roughly doubled the value of his stock and made him the richest man in the world. Ida Tarbell lived for another third of a century. But she never again wrote anything nearly as significant.

One may interpret the tale as an anticlimactic drama or as a populist tragedy -- a lesson in how one very big business managed to survive assaults by its reform-minded opponents. Oddly, Steve Weinberg, who worked as an investigative reporter before entering academia, chooses to downplay the muckraking narrative itself. Instead, he offers a modest, if reliable, dual biography of Tarbell and Rockefeller. Along the way, he drops few hints as to why, a century ago, most citizens agreed with Theodore Roosevelt that John D. Rockefeller was one of those "malefactors of great wealth" whose power threatened the future of American democracy itself. Only late in the book does Weinberg get around to discussing Tarbell's pathbreaking, painstaking research.

He does make clear that the woman whom Rockefeller dubbed "Miss Tar Barrel" was a remarkable journalist. At a time when most reporters conducted a few quick interviews before rushing to their typewriters, she searched through every available written document, from the letter files of Rockefeller's competitors to decades-old local newspapers and the records of the tycoon's Baptist congregation. With the aid of Mark Twain, she also managed to get inside the headquarters of Standard Oil to grill one of Rockefeller's top executives, Henry Rogers. To ward off any hint of ethical laxity, "Tarbell would not accept even the glass of milk offered by Rogers . . . unless she could pay for it." And her descriptive ability occasionally rose to the level of a Theodore Dreiser or a Frank Norris, the masters of naturalist fiction. "Eyes more useful for a man of Mr. Rockefeller's practices could hardly be conceived," Tarbell wrote after first encountering the man himself. "They are small and intent and steady, and they are as expressionless as a wall. They see everything and reveal nothing." Unfortunately, Weinberg's own prose is dotted with sports clichés about journalism's "best lineup" and a reporter who was "a team player." He should have let Tarbell speak more for herself.

Tarbell had the gift of being able to balance moral outrage with a sense of irony. She knew how difficult it would be to root out the hypocrisy of a thoroughly "commercial people." Her readers admitted the accuracy of her charges against Rockefeller's empire. But many dismissed their significance, declaring, "It's business." Tarbell observed, "Frequently the defender of the practice falls back on the Christian doctrine of charity, and points out that we are erring mortals and must allow for each other's weaknesses! -- an excuse which, if carried to its legitimate conclusion, would leave our businessmen weeping on one another's shoulders over human frailty, while they picked one another's pockets." Amen. ·

Michael Kazin's most recent book is "A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan." He teaches U.S. history at Georgetown University.

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