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Inside Oz

Learning about the politics of big business, and what "an honest day's work" might come to mean.

Inside Oz

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

This series began last year with a request by editor Mindy Belz that I write, four decades later, about the events of 1968. It's continued because numerous readers have asked for more (see links to the previous six articles in this series below). But I didn't realize that the last e­pisode would make my wife Susan a heroine.

Just because we moved to a new city, hospital, and doctor in 1977 when she was 9½ months pregnant with our first child? Just because in that condition she went door-to-door asking about the availability of apartments? Just because, full of spiritual enthusiasm, we moved with our 5-month-old from southern California to an Indianapolis house with a faulty furnace at the beginning of a Midwest winter filled with blizzards?

Well, our financial situation improved in 1978 as I left four jobless months to become a DuPont Company speechwriter in Wilmington, Del.-but that brought its own set of problems. We suddenly moved from no income to a big one, and from an intense church situation to no church: not a good combination for baby Christians in their 20s like Susan and me.

I had a lot to learn about the politics of business. My reason for joining a big company-along with moving from no paycheck to a big one-paralleled my horrific decision six years earlier to join the Communist Party USA, allied as it was with the Soviet Union. Then, I thought it would take a big country to stand up to "American imperialism." Now, I thought we needed big corporations with lots of power to defend free enterprise from academic and media assaults.

DuPont had 120,000 employees around the world but the power was in Delaware, as one DuPont manager's ditty suggested: "You work and grind, in great travail, / To dig out facts-you mustn't fail. / And then you send them, in the mail / To Wilmington. . . . I'd like to see, to say the least / That wondrous Mecca of the East / Where all the big shots live and feast / Dear Wilmington."

I went to work on the eighth floor of the DuPont Building in downtown Wilmington: The CEO and his sidekicks could speedily summon speechwriters to the top dog offices on the ninth floor. Ironically, the headquarters of the Communist Party USA were for many years on the ninth floor of a Union Square building in Manhattan, and terrifying summons to "Appear on the ninth floor, comrade," were common.

Similarly, John W. McCoy II, brother of a former DuPont CEO, had matched the "socialist realist" art of the 1930s with his own mural, "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry." DuPont displayed it at the 1939 New York World's Fair and then moved it to the entrance of the building next to mine. There it presided over "Ulcer Alley," the place where DuPont managers would eat lunch standing up between meetings.

The mural, 13 feet high and 16 feet wide, had three sections, much like the altarpieces of medieval churches. On the left McCoy had depicted a wilderness family, burdened by the hard chores of survival in a pre-industrial age where life was nasty, brutish, and short. In the center stood a three-dimensional shining figure, a god identified as "Chemistry," standing with a book in one hand and a raised beaker in the other. The right panel showed a rapturous family enjoying a leisurely life via the products developed by chemical wizards.

This triptych, capitalism's response to communism's utopian vision, was more grounded in reality than Marx ever was. DuPont had regularly produced innovations ranging from nylons to Teflon, and rising living standards had made almost every American wealthier than most people who had ever lived. I admired DuPont's scientists and engineers, and learned from managers and executives who knew how to ask pointed questions and make decisions.

I particularly learned from Richard Heckert, a senior vice president who went on to become DuPont's CEO. He was an organic chemist who wore 14EEE shoes and in his first major management job had to get DuPont to accept a $100 million dollar loss on Corfam, an imitation leather project. Company chemists thought durable and easily-shined-with-water Corfam shoes would dominate the footwear market, but the shoes stayed stiff after multiple wearings and did not breathe well. Heckert's summary: "We got wrapped up in our own technology."

The root of all kinds of error and sometimes evil is, "We got wrapped up in ____." Given DuPont's many admirable aspects, I got wrapped up in corporate enthusiasm. Susan, asked by young professional women why she wasn't working, got wrapped up in working at a marketing firm for rural artists. We were not wrapped up in any church. We wrapped up 1-year-old Pete each morning-and dropped him off at a daycare home.

But we did avoid "golden handcuffs" by living on half my salary and paying back college loans instead of mortgaging to the max. We bought a small house in an urban neighborhood and stayed with one car, the Chevette without air conditioning or even a radio; I walked two miles to work. Susan stopped working and entered a part-time master's degree program that allowed her to be with Pete just about all of the time-and in 1980 God gave us a second son, David.

I learned a lot writing speeches, even though the final product-once lawyers, economists, engineers, and chemists had treated it the way dogs treat fire hydrants-often had only a nodding acquaintance with lean prose. Sentences like "This group has shown leadership" turned into "Let me say this group has made a good start in catalyzing action for us here on an industry-wide basis." Sentences like "Tax policies should encourage entrepreneurship and investment" turned into "Government must ensure a business climate that encourages entrepreneurial steps to utilize research results, including the priority that must be accorded to investment over short-term consumption."

I also learned that my strategy of defending free markets by supporting big corporations was naïve, since some leading executives were sold on a big government/big business alliance. DuPont lobbyists rarely opposed new government regulations; instead, they suggested new regulations that would hurt DuPont less than they would DuPont's smaller competitors. DuPont's biggest think tank contributions went to the liberal Brookings Institution.

I tried to break some of the molds and had some small successes. Some DuPont dollars started flowing to the young Heritage Foundation and to another free-market organization that became the Manhattan Institute. A small issue analysis program I started brought in conservative brainy guys like Amherst pro­fessor Hadley Arkes. (The local NAACP chapter vetoed my attempt to invite Thomas Sowell.) I criticized DuPont contributions to Planned Parenthood: DuPont had more freedom of discussion than I've seen at Yale, Princeton, the University of Michigan, or the University of Texas.

Near the end of 1981 I had been a Christian for five years and at DuPont for 3½. Executives offered a promotion that could move me from speechwriting toward an upper management track: I would become the DuPont official responsible for managing press and public interaction on all safety and health concerns at DuPont plants around the world. It was customary to say YES immediately when opportunity knocked so loudly. But, affecting humility, I asked to take a couple of days to dive into memos from my predecessors to see whether I was up to the task.

One memo from 1974 told of how DuPont had bamboozled a New York Times reporter concerning a big problem at a DuPont plant in New Jersey: The reporter had been nosing around and asking why hundreds of employees there had come down with bladder cancer after being exposed to dangerous chemicals. It was already known, inside DuPont and outside, that employee exposure to a particular compound no longer used was the culprit-but management did not want the details on the front pages. Furthermore, two chemicals still used at the plant, under controlled conditions, were on OSHA's list of potential carcinogens, and DuPont did not want publicity that might increase public concern.

The memo outlined a two-part strategy to make the reporter and her editors believe they were onto a noncontroversial story, not one still filled with conflict. First, managers would meet with union leaders and "refresh" their memories. Second, an outgoing union president with a tumor who was "not satisfied with the way he is being treated" would apparently get some satisfaction.

A follow-up memo written by one DuPont public-relations staffer to four others noted that the outgoing union president had told the reporter that he "really appreciated the way the company had provided medical exams and care and had accepted expenses." Union leaders, after the interview, listened in on calls the reporter was making and reported those calls to DuPont management.

Another memo rejoiced that the reporter had not been sharp enough to ask the most "trenchant" questions: "What is the latency period? How many new cases can be expected in five, 10, or 20 years? Why did DuPont continue to manufacture beta for more than 20 years after it knew of its carcinogenicity?" The company spokesman was prepared for a question about whether DuPont had paid $50,000 in "hush money" to keep the story of carcinogens at the plant from emerging much earlier. He planned to say, "We don't pay 'hush money.' The company did give $50,000 to the Damon Runyan Center Fund just as we have given funds to many other worthy activities." But the reporter never asked.

The story eventually did surface in the Times, but barely: What could have been a front-page piece was buried on page 37. That was in some ways a good thing: Liberal bias had already made the Times untrustworthy. But this time important facts went unreported: A DuPont manager had done good damage control.

And that would be my job, if I accepted it. Reasons to accept were substantial, and they weren't only monetary and career-enhancing. The New York Times was an enemy. So what if I would do cover-ups from time to time? Maybe the Times deserved to be fooled, if that's what it took to undermine its propaganda. Whose side was I on, anyway?

By the end of 1981 Susan and I had joined an Orthodox Presbyterian church, but (probably my fault) I knew of no one in it who could give me good advice on a subject like this. At DuPont, one associate told me that he offered "fact accuracy" along with professional manipulation of impression: "I don't lie. There's a fine line sometimes, but I've never had data in front of me and read off the wrong numbers to a reporter." Another was more blunt: "You have to let [top executives] know you'll . . . cover up for them . . . Doing whatever it takes to get the job done-all in an honest day's work."

Bladder cancer for DuPont was largely in the past, but did I want to be a master manipulator if another problem arose? And one news item: I learned that my father, who worked during World War II in a factory making warship boilers, had come down himself with bladder cancer.

My mother wrote about how he was handling radiation treatments: "He could hardly walk. On Monday he had to be at the hospital for his first treatment and would not consider an ambulance to get us there. First, he tried two canes, which didn't work, so he decided to use the crutches which he used last year. Using crutches with a sore shoulder is hardly the answer, but that's how he made the steps here at home. . . . He refused to get into a wheel chair at the emergency area of the hospital."

CEO-to-be Heckert had said, "We got wrapped up in our own technology." Would I be wrapped up in my own career? But turning down a promotion at DuPont was professionally suicidal.

To be continued . . .

Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.