The Paula Gordon Show
A New Gilded Age?

Ron Chernow

      . . . is a biographer and historian, author of Titan, The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Chernow's first book, The House of Morgan, won the National Book Award as well as the Ambassador Award for that yearÔs best study of American culture. He frames RockefellerÔs career as the focal point for an early debate and a springboard for a renewed one about the proper role of government in the economy.


We live in an age of the entrepreneur-founder -- high tech, the Internet, biotech and Wall Street start-ups, telecommunications and innovations in entertainment and media -- with entrepreneurs amassing major new fortunes based on new technologies and industries. But its not the first time. John D. Rockefeller led the way. He was the world's first billionaire who practically created the 20th century.

      National Book Award winner Ron Chernow has written the first biography of Rockefeller in almost half a century, using archival materials never before available. Chernow rolls back some of the legendary secrecy that shrouded one of America's great enigmatic characters, with insights that set the stage for a renewed and current debate on the role of government in today's similar economy.

      Contradiction defines Rockefeller. He was the most ferocious businessman of his era. At the same time, he was our most visionary philanthropist who, along with Andrew Carnegie, created not only the modern corporation, but today's hugely important non-profit world. While the world hated Rockefeller, his employees loved him and his consensus-focused management style is now a standard.

      Rockefeller espoused what he called cooperation and the rest of the world called monopoly. Individualism, he believed, was dead. Chernow portrays Rockefeller's character as a kind of witch's brew of Puritan obsessions and a certainty that God was on his side, a certainty that made Rockefeller not only tenacious but dangerous.

      But nothing about Rockefeller was simple. In addition to shaping the form multinational businesses have taken in the 20th century, Rockefeller was the first to apply science to business. And his impact on philanthropy is incalculable -- he created the very concept of a "foundation" as well as founding and funding the University of Chicago and Spelman College and the major medical research institution which bears his name.

      In the Gilded Age, according to Chernow, new technologies led to new fortunes and people faced quandaries we face today: What is a healthy level of concentration in industry? What constitutes fair business practices? What's the proper degree of government intervention in the economy? What are the obligations of people who amass great fortunes? Today these issues may be abstract. But what happens, Chernow asks, if things become contentious as they did in AmericaÔs dramatically polarized society 100 years ago? Curiously enough, John D. Rockefeller may have one more role to play in the shaping of America, if we chose to learn from his life and times.


[This Program was recorded July 30, 1998, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Ron Chernow gives Paula Gordon and Bill Russell a sense of the scope of the life of John Rockefeller, Sr. Rockefeller lived nearly a century, created the world's largest business empire as well as the biggest philanthropic empire on earth. But RockefellerÔs essential secrecy had left him virtually absent from his own biographies. Chernow shows Rockefeller to be articulate, analytic, and very aware of himself as an historical personage with an intense and active inner life that nobody had known anything about until now.


Conversation 2

Chernow describes how deeply ingrained secrecy was in John D. Rockefeller, Sr. He tells of the bizarre family into which Rockefeller was born, contrasting his rascally, bigamist father to his sober Baptist mother. Chernow notes that small 19th century towns were a long way from todayÔs sentimental myths about them. He speaks to the contradictions at the heart of John D., a man who was both the most ferocious businessman of the era and at the same time the most visionary philanthropist. He compares Bill Gates to Rockefeller, noting Rockefeller had funded Spelman College while in his 40's and in his 50's, created the University of Chicago.


Conversation 3

John D. Rockefeller was an ardent abolitionist, already in business before the Civil War. Chernow describes how shrewdness, luck and opportunities associated with that war served Rockefeller well. Chernow observes that when others thought oil was a flash in the pan, Rockefeller distinguished himself with a religious conviction that the infant petroleum industry could be an enduring, major industry. Chernow also reminds us that Rockefeller was the first to apply science to business and that his Standard Oil foreshadowed the multinational businesses of the 20th century.


Conversation 4

Chernow contrasts Rockefeller's quintessentially 19th century personality to his astonishingly modern ways of doing business and philanthropy. Rockefeller, along with Andrew Carnegie, created not only the modern corporation, also but the modern non-profit world, both of which we now take for granted. Chernow contrasts Rockefeller to Carnegie, describing the early days of Rockefeller's University of Chicago. In addition to the good Rockefeller did, Chernow describes the evil, noting that Rockefeller's unshakable certitude that God was on his side made him dangerously immune to criticism. Chernow hearkens back to the 1860's when Rockefeller despairs of free market capitalism. Although the world came to look on Rockefeller as a villain, he saw himself as a virtuous man who practically converted Standard Oil into an annex of the Baptist Church.


Conversation 5

Rockefeller's management style prefigured the 20th century. Chernow describes it, showing Rockefeller as a shrewd combination of founder and custodian whose employees loved him when the world hated him. Chernow contrasts the 1890s to the 1990s when we are again in an age of the entrepreneur-founder. He describes where the Industrial Age and the Information Age parallel each other. Chernow speculates that Rockefeller -- no stranger to greed himself -- would have found today's executive salaries and golden parachutes "obscene." Chernow comments on how Rockefeller's personality changed over time but his bedrock principles about money were obsessively consistent.


Conversation 6

Chernow suggests some of the questions he thinks today's readers are trying to answer in a renewed interest in Rockefellers life and time. As new technologies once again lead to new fortunes, Chernow points out how similar Gilded Age social problems were to today's. Unlike then, he notes how we are now in a time unparalleled in American history with businessmen lionized and subjected to very little criticism Chernow, who has written a number of books about people with great wealth, explains why he has no burning desire to be one of them.



Ron Chernow has done us all a service in making more clear the roots of today's economic environment. We thank him for reminding us of the lessons learned then, in the hope that we won't have to learn all of them anew.

Related Links:

Ron Chernow's biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., is called Titan. It is published by Random House.

David Cannadine's biography of Andrew Mellon (Mellon, An American Life) and David Nasaw's biography of Andrew Carnegie (Andrew Carnegie) are fit complements to Titan.

Many of Kevin Phillips later books looked at the corrupting relationship between big money and govenment.  His Bad Money show the consequences.

In Corpocracy, Robert Monks shows how bad corporate governance is destroying American capitalism.

The "unholy" relationship between religion, money and government is scarcely new.  Jared Diamond has charaterized religion as "the handmaiden of kleptocracy' from the earliest days of what we call civilization.

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