John deButts has lost his dog, Lucky. Up and ran off a few weeks back, off through 87 acres of pasture and maples and oaks toward the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond deButts' estate.
John deButts has lost his leg, too. That happened a little over a year ago. He was at a hunt meet near Upperville when he fell down and couldn't get up. No circulation. There was nothing else the doctor out in Winchester could do, and now much of his time is spent in a wheelchair.
And John deButts has lost his company. No ordinary company -- the biggest corporation in the world, shattered.
When you sit with him in the glass-enclosed porch behind the three-story mansion he built from Virginia field stones, you sense that it is not any one of these losses by itself, but rather their combination, that is the cause of a certain weariness in his voice. And when you comment, on this melancholy afternoon, that the view from his glass porch atop Oak Field knoll will be lovely when the snow falls -- "It is . . . all year round" -- you sense that the seasons are passing slowly for John Dulany deButts, and that the weight of the loss he feels grows heavier as they do.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. When deButts retired as chairman of mighty American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in 1979, he was a man who seemed ready to burst out of his 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound frame. He was AT&T's most forceful chairman since the 1920s. He walked and talked like a conquering general recently returned from war.
Which in many ways, he was. When deButts took over the world's biggest company in 1972, AT&T had sunk to one of the lowest ebbs in its century of existence. Ma Bell was the butt of jokes and the object of strikes and organized protest. Basic telephone service, the heart and soul of the company, was abysmal in major cities such as New York, Houston and New Orleans. And morale among its 1 million employes was disintegrating into malaise and dissension.
In seven years, deButts turned it all around. He flew about the country giving pep talks to his troops about Bell System history. He told his top managers to stop worrying about short-term profits and start concentrating on improving what he called "pots" -- plain old telephone service. When he retired, profits had risen to historic levels, the company's burdensome debt had fallen away, and service was better than it had ever been in AT&T's history.
But deButts also left AT&T a legacy of a different kind -- a five-year-old government antitrust suit. When his handpicked successor, Charles L. Brown, settled that suit on Jan. 8, 1982, he agreed to break up the company that deButts had worked so hard to reinvigorate. One year ago tomorrow, on Jan. 1, 1984, the deed was done. That day, life at deButts' Oak Field estate, west of Middleburg and in the midst of Virginia's wealthiest hunt country, changed irrevocably.
It would be fair to say that few of deButts' hundreds of adversaries in Washington during the '70s -- congressmen, government lawyers, consumer activists, lobbyists for AT&T's burgeoning competitors -- have lost any sleep worrying about what became of AT&T's once proud and powerful chairman. In a decade dominated by the politics of Watergate and the economics of deregulation, deButts was a stark, arrogant symbol of an old and passing order. He was an unabashed monopolist who introduced legislation exempting AT&T from the antitrust laws and then marshaled his company's awesome political power to lobby for his agenda. While his company's profits climbed, he proclaimed his devotion to the "public interest." While rival companies clamored for a chance to offer new and cheaper products, deButts declared that competition in the phone business was unhealthy.
In the end, few listened because they didn't believe the leader of the largest corporation in the world could act out of anything but self-interest.
So it may be difficult for his adversaries to appreciate the pain deButts feels when, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he tells the story of what happened when his nearby cousin tried to get a new phone installed in his barn earlier this year.
"He had a helluva time, between C&P and AT&T over who was going to do what. He just wasn't getting to first base. So I called Chuck Marshall [AT&T's vice chairman] and asked him, 'For God's sake, can't you get somebody down here who can take care of this guy's problem?' Well, they did. And my cousin told me he got a bill for over $5,000 for installation. I nearly dropped my teeth. We never charged anybody that much to install telephones. I even had the company go back and check to be sure it was right.
"It's ridiculous. And it really hurts me because I've been so used to saying, 'O.K., Mr. Customer, if that's what you want, that's what you're going to get.' "
Press deButts on what effect the breakup of the Bell System, where deButts began working at 23, has had on these last years of his life and the retired chairman approaches tears. His eyes cast downward, he says slowly and with finality, "It hurts to think that what the Bell System was good for for a hundred years has now been taken away."
From his chair in his glass-enclosed porch, or from the window in his office on the third floor of the house, John deButts can see a long way. He can see three other deButts farms, owned by cousins and uncles. He can see the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the face of one ridge, he can see a tightly secured government compound -- entrance to a tunnel that furrows deep into the mountain, where the president of the United States and his senior advisers might hide in the event of nuclear war. On some weekend afternoons, he can see the red-coated members of the Piedmont Hunt Club galloping across his land in hot pursuit of a desperate fox.
Here, then, in Virginia's somber Old Country, is where corporate generals come to fade away.
"We've traveled enough," says his wife Trudie as evening descends over the estate. "We've been all over the world . . . The only thing I miss around here is, well, there's really not that much to do, you know?"
"You don't go from being on the road all the time to just sitting overnight," deButts adds. "You have to kind of get used to it, to adjust to it. I think the main thing about retirement is that you have something to do to keep your interest up. This place is mine, and the cattle. I love it, and it keeps me occupied. Plus, continuing on the boards. DeButts stepped down from AT&T's board of directors in 1981 but remains on several others. But now I'm phasing out of those. I have to get off two of them next year because of age he will be 70 in April and a couple of years later, I have to get off two more."
DeButts can't see her, but Trudie, his wife of 45 years, is pointing at her husband's missing leg. "He's so used to going all the time and this thing of slowing down is a little hard for him."
"I can't hunt quail," he explains, "because you have to follow the dogs on foot and I can't do that . . . I can't run the big tractors like I used to, which I used to enjoy doing."
"He has trouble walking," adds Trudie, who helps her husband dress each morning.
"You just have to accept it. That's the way you're going to be for the rest of your life," deButts says.
"He just had a wonderful attitude," Trudie concludes. "That's what helped him."
To be sure, there are plenty of distractions for the landed gentry of Fauquier County. There is Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville ("the Mellons gave it to the community, and it's really too handsome for the little community it's in," Trudie says) where John deButts is warden and Trudie is active in the women's auxiliary. There is the little bank in Marshall, where he is a member of the board of directors. "The only thing that bothers him is that when he sees some of these people, he knows how much they owe," Trudie laughs. There are the usual charities, fashion shows, hunt clubs and family gatherings. And there is the Fauquier County Philosophical Society, of which John deButts is the youngest member by a decade. This group of five or six convenes every Friday afternoon at Oak Field for several hours of vociferous penny-ante poker.
But mostly for deButts there is the inexorable rhythm of rural life -- the fences to mend, the ponds to inspect, the cattle to feed. And there is time to sit on the porch, and there is time to think. The subject of the breakup of AT&T comes up "all the time," Trudie says. "But what can you do?"
Gazing out from his porch at twilight, John deButts knows the answer.
"Many of us thought that sooner or later this would happen, but we always assumed it would be later," says William Lindholm, AT&T's retired president and deButts' friend and colleague of 30 years. "I can't blame people for [the breakup]. It's pretty hard to get anyone to defend a multibillion-dollar business. I [don't] feel that strongly about it. I always had a view that change is inevitable and for the most part good."
Change has indeed come, inevitably, to Oak Field estate. But it is not, for the most part, good.
The question of whom deButts blames for the destruction of his company, and tangentially, the sullying of his own reputation as AT&T's chairman, is met with something less than sentimentality out at Oak Field. Washington -- the entire system, its bureaucratic polyglot and its competing interests and splintered centers of power -- is the villain.
"John used to say, 'I never can get to the people I want to talk to. I talk to these little pipsqueaks . . . and they don't know what's going on,' " recalls Trudie. "It used to frustrate him so."
But while deButts lays most of the blame for the breakup to Washington in the abstract, he has not forgotten the names and faces of the men and women who stood up against him. If deButts takes any satisfaction from the fate of the company he devoted his life to, it is in his own strong conviction that those who opposed him were wrong, and that now his opponents must face their day of reckoning. Chief among them is Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the late '70s quashed much of the telecommunications legislation deButts supported.
"I saw him earlier this year at a function in Washington," deButts begins with some bitterness. "And he said, 'John, I just can't believe what's happening to telephone service.'
"I said, 'Well, Fritz, damn it, you were in on it.'
"And he said, 'Well, why didn't you tell us about this? Why did you let it happen?'
"And I said, 'Fritz Hollings, I testified before your committee for two hours. Sittin' right in front of you. And I told you what was going to happen. I predicted an increase in rates. I predicted a degradation of service. Why didn't you listen? Didn't you hear me?'
"He said, 'Well, what can we do about it? Can we put it back together?'
"I almost laughed in his face. I said, 'No, Fritz, there's no way you can undo this thing.' But now there's a guy who was chairman of the committee! And I testified before him. Matter of fact he even complimented me on my testimony."
(A spokesman for Hollings said the senator does not recall such a conversation with deButts.)
There are those within and without AT&T's corporate inner circle who speculate privately that John deButts would have fought the breakup of the Bell System until his dying breath, that he would never have accepted a Draconian settlement of the government antitrust suit no matter how bad things looked for the company. Unstated in such speculation is the idea that deButts must deeply resent the bold settlement decision of his successor, Charles Brown, and that he must regret his recommendation to AT&T's board of directors at a 1978 private dinner in Manhattan that Brown succeed him as chairman.
If there is any truth to that speculation, deButts has never confirmed it. Indeed, how could he? Living on his estate deep in the Virginia countryside, he is already isolated. To the contrary, deButts maintains that he would have made the same decision Brown did if confronted by the same circumstances. "Charlie called me before he agreed to it. We talked about it. And I agreed with him that we didn't have much choice."
Brown himself, who agreed to the settlement because he believed it would free AT&T from what he called the "three-ring circus" of government policy-making, says that deButts understood why it became necessary to shatter the Bell System. "One thing about John is that he is very pragmatic," Brown insists. "I had kept him well informed. And as far as I know, he supported the decision and said he would have made it himself."
As for what effect the breakup had on his mentor and predecessor, Brown says only, "I don't think the effect on John was any sort of primary consideration [for me] and I don't believe he would want it to be one."
The war over AT&T's telecommunications monopoly is finished now, and Brown and his company's adversaries are busy with the reconstruction of a lasting peace. However successful they are, though, it will probably be too little and too late for John deButts.