The reviewer is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and a staff writer for The Post.
At the start, a bias to confess. I am pro-business -- with an asterisk. I am for businesses that market safe, honest and useful products from factories and shops that are not dangerous work sites. I am for businesses run by executives who obey laws against bribery, price-fixing and deceptive advertising. I am for businessmen who believe that corporate crime is as much a menace to the nation, and perhaps more, than street crime -- because civil trust is involved.
With this kind of enthusiasm running wild in me, I came to Robert L. Shook's account of 10 chief executive officers sure that my positive feelings for business would be reinforced. The CEOs chosen by Shook are the biggest of the big: Robert A. Beck of Prudential, Charles L. Brown of AT&T, Richard J. Ferris of United Airlines, Reginald H. Jones of GE, Ralph Lazarus of Federated Department Stores, Jerry McAfee of Gulf, David W. Mitchell of Avon, Thomas A. Murphy of GM, James D. Robinson III of American Express and Irving S. Shapiro of du Pont.
Instead of reinforcement, what Shook offers is flackery so gushy that even the men he writes about must be squirming. He is a fawner. His Big Ten are sugarized as men of vision, integrity, intellect and, of course, giants who have retained the common touch that doesn't let them forget all the little people they met on the climb to the top. As an example of what Shook calls this "down-to-earth compassion," he tells about Jones of GE. When the minister of his local church died, the board chairman "made a point of discovering what he could do to really help. And that weekend he spent with the widow helping her fill out income tax forms."
Tracking a loophole or two for a mourning parson's widow is part of the financial skill that "Reg," as Shook calls Jones, brings to the board room. When GE wasn't going anywhere in the computer field, Jones personally worked on the deal to sell the GE computer division to Honeywell. "In fact," Shook writes, "Reg's work on that transaction was masterful and knowledgeable, and $240 million of the loss was recouped."
As Shook scoots from one corporation to the next, a sameness of whining thought is heard. At AT&T in New York, "Charlie" Brown says that "by the time various agencies regulate equal opportunity, safety, health and so on, you have to wonder whether business is left with enough control to do its job." At Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh, McAfee says "somehow we've got to clear out the regulatory quagmire. Not only the oil industry but all American industry is operating under every kind of environmental and social restriction today." In Wilmington, Del., Irving Shapiro tells Shook that "One of my predecessors, Crawford Greenewalt, said it best: 'In the United States we indict a businessman under the anti-trust laws for doing the things that in Great Britain he would be knighted for.' "
That's as close as readers will get to even a suggestion of criminality in the board rooms. The absence of any meaningful discussion of corporate ethics -- or the lack of it, this being an era of unprecedented board-room and white-collar crime -- is a laziness even more offensive than Shook's sycophancy. Each of the ten here is a member of the Business Roundtable, the voice of American corporate power that in only a few years has displayed a smoothness never achieved by the strident and clumsy National Chamber of Commerce. It was this smoothness that helped the Roundtable -- with Jones, Murphy and Shapiro in leadership positions -- weaken or eliminate a large number of provisions against corporate crime in the drafts of the federal criminal code revisions.
About the only unpleasantness faintly suggested by Shook and his patrons is that occasionally a wife or child may be something less than blissful about the latest family relocation imposed by the corporation. The Ferris family moved 10 times in 10 years. Beck's oldest son went to 14 schools by the end of the 12th grade. In one year, Brown bought or sold houses five times. But the wives are portrayed as accepting their gypsyhood. Ferris calls his "a real trouper." McAfee believes that "a supportive wife is about as indispensable as anything I know of." Only Brown has what passes for a moment of introspection: "My wife, of course, has taken the worst of the beating. She became very good at absorbing the difficulties of moving into a new city; still, I'm sure it was a strain on her and the boy."
Who "the boy" is we don't know. Perhaps to interview someone other than the Great One would be to risk a speck of dust on the glossiness of this picture. It might also risk distancing Shook from the tone of homage set more than 50 years ago in a long and deservedly forgotten book, "United States Steel: A Corporation With a Soul." To the final lines, Shook says that his 10 are "far-seeing leaders who seek to provide us with a better world. It is reassuring to know that big business is run by conscientious and capable men more than equal to the challenge."
I can't imagine the National Chamber of Commerce, even in its most self-serving urges, putting out truckle like this. Shook, in his over-reaching, is actually anti-business. He offers caricatures. He accepts the poses. He spouts the line. Unwittingly, he arouses disbelief, which is the prevailing attitude about big business. Industry's captains deserve better. The lack of balance from their supposed friends is as harmful as the lack of perception from their enemies.