For a family whose economic power peaked a long time ago, the Rockefellers have been in the news a lot lately—in both good ways and bad. The negative press comes courtesy of author Steve Weinberg, whose well-received new book—Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller—looks at both the oil tycoon and the pioneering investigative journalist who exposed the unsavory aspects of his business practices.
The publicity given to Weinberg’s book reminds those who associate the Rockefeller name these days mainly with a respected foundation and a liberal U.S. Senator from West Virginia that it was long reviled because of Standard Oil’s ruthless conquest of its competitors. Long after Tarbell’s book on Standard Oil was published in 1904, the Rockefeller name was associated with the worst features of capitalism. Labor activists blamed a Rockefeller-controlled company for the infamous Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when wives and children of striking workers were killed by the Colorado state militia. In the late 1960s, the New Left condemned the Rockefeller-controlled Chase Manhattan bank for oppressing the people of Latin America.
Now it seems that the Rockefellers are trying to burnish their reputation. David Rockefeller, the 92-year-old former chairman of Chase Manhattan, just announced a gift of $100 million to his alma mater Harvard University (as if it needed the money). Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, daughter of David Rockefeller, submitted a shareholder resolution for next month’s annual meeting of Exxon Mobil (which descends from the Standard Oil Trust) calling on the company to establish a task force to examine the consequences of global warming.
And today, the Financial Times reports that members of the Rockefeller Family plan to press for corporate governance reforms at Exxon Mobil, including a requirement that the chairman of the board be independent of management. The Rockefellers, whose combined holdings in Exxon are not large enough to be disclosed by the company, are dubious agents for change at a corporation that in many ways carries on the harmful practices that made their family fabulously rich. Today’s Ida Tarbells are better suited for the job.