It was a steamy hot day in late July. President Carter had just made his Camp David speech on energy; angry Americans were waiting two hours in gasoline lines all over the country and the White House had accused Mobil of being "the most irresponsible oil company in America."
Herbie Schmertz was fuming.
He had just flown down from New York on the private Mobil plane to have a special meeting in his Mobil offices on Connecticut Avenue. He could only spare an hour out of his time to talk -- at the Mayflower coffee shop -- about the state of the nation.
An unemotional man, Mobil's vice president of public affairs had managed to work himself up to the point that he was agitatedly adjusting his starched blue cuffs with his perfectly manicured fingers.
It wasn't just the "irresponsible" line, either.
He was furious about the gas lines. "Last Sunday in East Hampton I had to get up early and wait nearly two hours in line for gas after having nearly gotten killed at George Plimpton's party the night before. I went for three days on my vacation with no driving. I had to use my bike. I was outraged."
He was outraged about Carter and about what he considered a dumb energy policy. Outraged and fed up. So much so, in fact, that he had his eye on another candidate.
John Connally. "I like John Connally," he said . . . "The country would be well served by Connally."
So it was a surprise to many people when Herbie Schmertz announced last week that he was taking a six-week leave of absence from his job at Mobil to work for Teddy Kennedy for free. He will help "find and get in place various media consultants and pollsters, people to do the TV commercials and print advertising."
Here is this big oil company executive taking six weeks of his own vacation time to work free for a man who is against almost everything he and certainly his company stand for.
True, he did work for the Kennedy administration as general counsel of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and he did take a leave of absence from Mobil when Bobby Kennedy ran for president. Still. That was almost 12 years ago and times have changed. So has the energy situation. So has Herb Schmertz.
In those days he was just another former Kennedyite, a little unusual because he was working for an oil company. Today he is the most powerful, most successful public relations man in America.
He has a budget of $21 million a year ( $6 million for issue advertising, $3 1/2 to $4 million to public television, another $4 million to the Mobil Showcase, and $2 or $3 million for a large number of cultural projects).
He has put Mobil Oil on the map. He has instituted the form of "Op-Ed" advertising, taking out space at $3,500 a shot on the page opposite the editorial page of The New York Times for his ads. He even writes some himself, and edits them all. He started the Mobill sponsorship of "Masterpiece Theatre," the Mobil Showcase Network, and National Town Meeting.
He is responsible for bankrolling a large part of the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio, including the "McNeil-Lehrer Report" and their upcoming coverage of next year's conventions.
He even tried to buy the Washington Star for Mobil several years ago and made an offer to buy a small newspaper on Long Island.
He has given Mobil a glistening image, unlike those other companies in the industry. Mobil is the "nice guy" oil company, the "classy" oil company, the "public service oriented" oil company. Brought to you by Herbie Schmertz.
Recently at a cocktail party in New York Schmertz was complimented on his column on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. He graciously accepted the compliment. Nobody seemed to think anything of it. Even though his "column" was an ad. An ad for Mobil Oil.
Somehow the differences have managed to blur with Schmertz.Which is why he is so good at what he does.
Herbie Schmertz is a superflack.
Which is why Teddy Kennedy hired him. Regardless of his views.
Never mind that he lost Oregon for Bobby.
Herb Schmertz has his own network.
Herbie Schmertz is an interesting case.
He is a man who calls himself a liberal yet works for the anathema of liberals, a major oil company. He likes John Connally and Ted Kennedy. He is 49, divorced and lives with a woman he is not married to. He eats at Elaines, the uptown literary mecca in New York, summers in East Hampton on Long Island, hangs out with journalists and writers, yet works with a group of conservative business executives. Oh, yes, he's writing a novel, "Takeover," with another Mobil executive.
Herbie Schmertz. His unlikely name sounds like a character in a Woody Allen movie. What chance have you got if you grow up with a name like that to be anything but a schlemiel. Much less a big oil company executive and a glamorous Kennedy type.
Yet there he is, flying down on the company private plane from New York -- no shuttle for Herbie. And there he is powerbroking with the television and newspaper biggies, and there he is this past weekend up at Hyannis Port with his candidate, Teddy Kennedy.
He orders coffee at the Mayflower coffee shop and sips it slowly. He is composed, unruffled. He doesn't like interviews much, yet having decided to go through with this one he is willing to answer any question posed, if very carefully.
He is not handsome, yet he is well turned out. You can see how he once looked like Herbie Schmertz but you have to look closely. For one thing he has the blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP-y look you would expect of a Wall Street investment banker.
Which is a big help working for an oil company. He is really nice in a rather noncommittal way.He knows how to make small talk in between questions. He speaks in a monotone. Even when he says he is outraged about having to wait in gas lines, there is no sign of it in his face. There is absolutely nothing offensive about him. He leaves little impression. People who have met him many times often don't know who he is. Spending time with Herbie Schmertz is like eating a Chinese meal. You feel hungry afterwards.
He is a philosophical hybrid. Sometimes he follows a liberal view, other times a conservative one. There is no telling. He is a modern-day mutant, a political Tangelo, a man of the future, defying ready definition.
His field is that of projecting images to society, beaming out from the TV screen and the pages of newspapers what he would like people to think or to believe. In return people project onto Herb Schmertz what they would like to see or believe . . . dazzling Kennedy-esque glamor boy, hotshot corporate wheeler-dealer, Woody Allen schlemiel or even the sinister James Bond SMERSH-like double agent.
This is why he can maneuver in so many different ideological spheres -- the adman as chameleon. His adaptability, his changeability is not only useful but it is real. He is what he appears to be, to both his liberal and his conservative friends. Nobody who knows him doesn't like him or trust him.
He has an anthropological gift of being able to speak the language of those he deals with. He knows how to talk to media people, which has been very helpful for Mobil and will greatly aid the Kennedy campaign. He understands you must sponsor news programs and place ads in newspapers without demanding editorial input. He knows where to draw the line. He's like an Indian scout for Mobil, somebody who has lived with the tribe and speaks its dialect. He can speak it on unhappy occasions, too. Let a reporter or a TV station tread on Mobil, and Schmertz can discard his pleasant demeanor and reportedly react with legend-making fierceness.
A lot of his liberal friends from the old days call him a sellout. They feel he's been tarnished in some way. Then again, there are those who say he's just being honest.
"He's very outspoken," says head of National Public Radio Frank Mankiewicz, who worked with him in the Kennedy campaign and now deals with him as a sponsor. "He says things people don't want to hear. He says things a lot of us are thinking, that we say privately at the dinner table. He once said he'd never heard of a black backpacker, that environmentalists are people who already have their 2 1/2 acres . . . that you may have to breathe a little dirty air for some people to have a job.
"He's a guy out of the liberal movement who's not afraid to express unpopular views. He's pro business and an economic conservative with a sense of humor. That's very refreshing."
"People say to me, 'Do you think you've sold out?'" says Schmertz. "I really in my own mind have never done anything that's caused me a bad conscience. I was born and raised durig the Depression. We rooted for the Democrats and my grandfather was a local Democratic politician. He was always active in Westchester.As an adult I have always been active politically on behalf of Democratic candidates." The Least Worst
When he was asked this summer if he would take a leave of absence from Mobil to work for Teddy, Herbie Schmertz waffled.
"That's an issue I don't have to answer," he said. "He's said he's not running and I take him at his word." He laughed. "That's a pretty good answer."
Now Teddy is running. And now Herb Schmertz is rethinking some of his earlier statements.
This summer he said that he did not discuss with Kennedy their political differences, particularly on the subject of the oil companies.
"I haven't talked to Teddy about it," he said. "I've almost never had a conversation with Kennedy about oil issues. His public views and my public views are so far apart it wouldn't be worth his time or my time. It wouldn't be worth arguing about.
"Their (the liberals') assumptions are different," he said. They draw different political conclusions for a whole variety of reasons. Teddy's introduction of a moratorium on nuclear power has got to be contrary to solving the energy problem. He believes the risks of nuclear power are worth a moratorium. I believe the risks are different."
But he also held out some hope for Kennedy this summer. "His views will change," he said, "when the needs change. I don't mean politically. Well, actually, I do . . . When social problems become worse, when there is no sufficient housing and schools, when there is larger unemployment, then you'll see a change. The needs change and there is a massive change going on now. When the alternatives are less attractive than what's being offered . . . . it's the same as when my company comes out for rationing, the alternatives are worse -- or price controls, the alternatives are worse. It's the same with politicians. Politicians react to the public. They pick the least worst."
Cynics might say that Schmertz is going to work for Teddy to insure Mobile's good fortune at the White House if Teddy got elected.Connally is certainly not their problem and Jimmy Carter is felt by many energy experts to have done more for the oil companies than any president in history.
And there are cynics too, including some on Kennedy's own staff, who would criticize the senator for bringing in a man whose views are the anathema to so many liberals who support Kennedy. Schmertz explains this by saying, "Well, we're old friends. I worked for both his brothers." And ideology aside, the Kennedy's are known to seek out the best. b
One way for both Schmertz and Kennedy not to have to deal with the problem is not to talk to each other about it. And Schmertz insists that he and Teddy have yet to discuss the issues.
Today he says, "There's a tacit understanding that we have different opinions. Teddy knows my views about this. My views are a matter of public record. Teddy's will be an open campaign and an open administration. We'll never solve the problems of this nation unless different views get a change to be expressed."
This summer Herb Schmertz's candidate was John Connally. "I like Connally," he said. "I think Connally in some respects carries on some of the traditions I respect in Democratic policies. Domestically he is the legitimate inheritor of what LBJ stood for. But he was driven away from the party by the McGovern campaign. Connally was a Democrat for Nixon durig the McGovern campaign. The country," says Schmertz, "would be well served by Connally. Connally has the same vision of the United States that De Gaulle had of France. He generates a feeling of the greatness of this country. The public wants to have that. Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy did. I don't think Richard Nixon did. Only Connally and Kennedy do now. Not Carter. A campaign between Teddy and Connally would provide the country with a very interesting policy debate."
Now he says he was so laudatory about Connally this summer because "at that point Teddy was saying he wasn't running. We were looking at a field sans Teddy.
"Now that Teddy's in the race," he says," and the situation with the president has deteriorated in terms of the need for leadership, it's a very different picture. At this point Ted Kennedy is the best hope for getting the country back on the track . . . but that's not to say there aren't certain things I admire about John Connally. . . ."
And what, he is asked today, if Kennedy didn't get the nomination and Connally did. Would he work for Connally? He repeats his earlier litany with a laugh. "That's an issue I don't have to answer."
He is working for Kennedy now he says because "Kennedy has a better chance of working with Congress, he can bring in disparate groups, he understands the relationship between the legislative and the executive.
"Carter never understood the legislative process, never learned how to work with Congress. Connally would have enormous difficulty doing that, too."
And whereas this summer he felt Connally to be the legitimate inheritor of what LBJ stood for, today he feels "Teddy is the legitimate legatee of the liberal party."
So he can work for Teddy without compromising his conservative values. Or even his liberal values for that matter. The Arrogant Interview
When Schmertz was first offered a job by Mobil in the area of labor he agreed to an interview, never thinking really, that he would go to work for them.
"I had an arrogant view of the oil companies then," he says. "I thought they wouldn't hire Jewish people or Democrats.
"But here I was all these things and here was a company that never discussed these things. They were never even an issue . . . so after I thought about this I picked up the phone and called them and said, 'If you're still interested in me, I'm still interested.'"
Schmertz says he thought these terrible things about oil companies because "they were the basic beliefs of the groups I traveled with. And here it was shattered before my very eyes."
He went to work for Mobil and then Bobby announced. "I immediately got involved in Kennedy's campaign in '68 and took a leave of absence from Mobil. iSince then we've hired a couple of Kennedy people. Tim Hanan, for one and he took a leave of absence to work for Abe Beame's campaign. Tim also travels with the senator sometimes."
It was Tim Hanan, Teddy's old college buddy, who first brought Schmertz into the Kennedy camp, and it was Schmertz who later brought Hanan to Mobil. "Bringing Tim to Mobil," says one old Kennedy hand, "was like bringing a giant Rolodex."
Schmertz says he believes economic growth is what has made this country. "My liberal politics came to a parting of the ways during the McGovern campaign. I don't go along with all these kneejerk liberal versus conservative positions like abortion, ERA and nuclear energy."
Herb Schmertz realizes that the liberal view is that all oil companies are bad . . . . even Mobil. And he has an answer to that one ready too.
"Historically in this country," he says, "big oil money has financed reactionary and conservative candidates. And there's no question that independent oil men are clearly putting significant amounts of money into conservative causes. So the liberals tended to lump all oil people in the same categories.
"Historically," he says, "the oil companies have been very secretive. Until the last three or four years they relied on Congress, on a small number of legislators to take care of their interests, LBJ and Bob Kerr."
Schmertz, naturally, does not think the oil companies are bad, and he believes people think they are for one reason.
"Because of what you read in the papers and what the president says. We're a good target. We're defenseless. There's no way to handle that attack. When emotions are high they go back to the McCarthy line and the people attacked are essentially defenseless. There's no way to rebut that. Essentially no way. People say the energy crisis is all a conspriacy of the oil companies. Well, let's assume there is a conspiracy. How many people would have to be in on it? Maybe 500,000. You're telling me the government couldn't find out.It's illogical and emotional. I don't know how to deal with it . . . There's no way I can adequately handle the statement that everything they say is a lie.
"I only hope," he says, "that over a period of time, having an impact is to continue to convince government officials that intellectually what you're doing is accurate, fair and honest."
Herb Schmertz's views on the oil companies are totally expected, completely following the line of all the other oil companies. The one difference being that Mobil has not come out for decontrol on present production, only on future production. For this Carter labeled Mobil "the most irresponsible oil company in America." Which is probably just one more reason Herb Schmertz is working to unseat Carter despite Kennedy's views on the oil companies.
Herb Schmertz believes in incentives, for increased production, in no windfall profits tax, in nuclear power with safety, in developing synthetic fuels, in gasoline rationing if necessary, in cutting our dependency on foreign oil, dismantling the allocation system, steam generators, and in improving our relationship with oil exporting countries.
"We've not done a very good job in that area. The United States regularly does things to make the situation worse by compounding the problem."
This is all code for we're not sucking up to the Saudis enough.
It also puts an interesting light on Herb Schmertz, nice Jewish boy from Yonkers.
Schmertz says his being Jewish has had no effect on his views or on others' views of him in his capacity as an oil company executive and publicist.
"No effect at all. I do believe that Israel as a country should and must surive and prosper and all the rest. I also believe they must and should negotiate, recognizing the legitimate aspirations of other people of the area. They're not the only ones with legitimate aspirations." The Media Master
One of Schmertz's secrets is that many of his friends are in the media. This makes him valuable to Mobil as well as to Teddy Kennedy. He doesn't spend much time or even like to be with people from oil companies.
"Not particularly," he admits bluntly, "No, I spend more time with press people than I do with oil people. I spend time with TV people, people in the theater, some political people. People in the oil company are different." t
Are they suspicious of him because of the company he keeps? "Maybe."
But then, he says, "Mobil is looked upon generally as being different from the rest of the industry. Different and unpredictable. They see us as more aggressive, more willing to speak out, face the opposition head on, publicly."
Herb Schmertz is, you might say, the Henry Kissinger of the oil companies. His behavior is reminiscent of the old days when Kissinger worked for Nixon and was seen constantly in the company of the Georgetown liberal inner sanctum.
"I don't know that that's really true," he'll demur. "But it is true that socially I spend time with people who characterize themselves as not favorable to big oil companies. Even where I live, Riverside Drive, is not exactly a hotbed of oil company executives."
Even his life style is iconoclastic -- for an oil company executive. He lives with a woman, Susan Burley, who is involved in an entrepreneurial project putting together a board game called "Business."
He's just finished a novel for Simon and Schuster which will be published in a few weeks. "It's not a very good book," he says. "But it was fun." He wrote it on weekends and vacations with Mobil's head of corporate planning.
He's even planning another novel. "I lost Oregon for Bobby," he smiles without apology. "I'm going to put that in my next novel." New Deal Beliefs
For a long time Herb Schmertz never really thought of himself as a business person. He thought of himself as a labor person and when he first came to Mobil he was head of Mobil's Ships and Transportation Co. It was there he had the opportunity to learn about business. From there he went on to become Mobil's flack and from there that he finally began to think of himself as a business type. "I do now," he concedes. "I'm on the board. The nature of a successful P.R. now requires that you know as much about the business end of what you're involved in as the line managers do. Otherwise, you're just a door opener or a flack."
So here is this political mutant, this latter-day sophist in the catbird seat. Ask him if he's still a liberal or if he's a neo conservative as he is often described and he just bursts out laughing.
"I would love the ability to understand any of those terms. If people want to categorize me, that's fine . . . I'd like to think that my politics haven't changed. I'd like to think I hold the same beliefs I was brought up with in the New Deal."
He does have his own categorization of those who call themselves liberal, however.
"They don't believe in a materialistic society," he says, "but what they're actually saying is that the portion of society which never achieved materialistic wealth should never achieve it. That's when by liberalism rears its ugly head. If somebody in a beautiful house in Santa Barbara protests the oil rigs off shore because it is ruining the environment thereby ruining their view, then let them go down to Harlem and look at rats. If it comes to a choice between the environment of Alaska or Watts, then I'll take Watts to improve. I'll take health in the Hough slum in Cleveland to the environment of the North Slope. I think it will take an enormous amount of energy to eliminate the social problems in this country, to clean up the rivers, to have economic growth.
"It's all very well to picket Con-Ed Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the oil companies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and go off to East Hampton on Saturday and Sunday. But I've never met a black environmentalist. That's why people get so upset with me. My views on energy are consistent with the liberal views I was raised on.
"In many respects," he says without a trace of irony, "the environmentalists are the reactionaries and I'm the liberal, I'm the radical."