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David Goliath: Sheer size made him a target.

The Rockefeller family seems to possess a gene for a highly developed moral imagination – which is not the same thing, obviously, as being exceptionally moral. John D. Rockefeller’s Protestant virtue only amplified his rapaciousness. But when the bare-knuckled Hyde of the oil fields decided to become Dr. Jekyll, he repurposed his principles, became a philanthropist, and hired a PR man to publicize his good works. His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., quaked beneath the weight of the matchless American fortune with which he was entrusted, as if only the most humorless sense of duty could manage it. He had a breakdown in his early thirties, after which he devoted himself entirely to philanthropy. While not every member of the next generation shared this affliction, the only one who seemed entirely comfortable with the name and its burdens is David – his grandfather’s favorite, as he says early in his Memoirs.

David Rockefeller’s occasional obliviousness to the elephant in the room – in fact, he rode in on the elephant – was undoubtedly an essential defense mechanism, but it also provides some inadvertent comedy. From his stint as an intelligence officer in World War II onward, David Everyman keeps meeting the most interesting people! He’s Zelig, in a private plane.

The struggle to live within his means is played out on an Olympian scale. He titles a section “Making Ends Meet,” and writes that “Peggy found a house on East 65th Street that fit our needs perfectly,” as if it were a little cabin in the woods. Impeccable taste arrives along with some guests for tea when Mrs. Alfred Barr criticizes the old masters they’ve hung and Alfred Barr himself – David’s mother plucked him from a Wellesley College professorship when she helped found the Museum of Modern Art – steps in. Soon, David and Peggy are in possession of a spectacular Renoir.

As chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, he virtually invented the idea of international businessman as rock star – he blazed the trail for Bono – and launched a thousand study groups. He refutes the charge that he was trying to create world government – black helicopters, Li’l Ole David? – though given our current travails, one has to think: Maybe that’s what he should have been trying to do. In the name of “constructive engagement,” his compulsive road-tripping brought him into contact with a murderer’s row of dictators (the Shah, Castro, even Saddam Hussein). And when he enumerates the problems that almost cost him the Chase chairmanship in 1974, one wonders whether his travel was as much a vanity as, say, Nelson’s presidential ambitions. The Rockefellers’ moral gene produced its most unusual flowers in the sixties, as the younger generation searched for ways of renewing the Rockefeller commitment to public service that made sense in the new culture. Abby, his second-eldest, was the poster child for these generational ills. Briefly a Fidel Castro disciple and a member of the Socialist Workers Party, she then became a radical feminist, swearing off dresses and preaching sexual segregation, before settling down to start a company to manufacture a Swedish composting toilet known as the clivus multrum – a highly interesting way of laundering the family fortune.

On the first page of this memoir, describing a family photograph, David notes that Nelson “had managed to situate himself at the exact center of the picture” while he himself lurks off at the side. It’s a potent image for David, who politely picks at Nelson throughout the book. Nelson achieves his fullest dramatic stature when, having been kicked off the presidential ticket by Gerald Ford, he brings his vast, thwarted ambition back to Rockefeller Center’s Room 5600 and attempts to assert his will on this smaller stage. His last days might make a great movie, if Coppola or Scorsese did Protestants – though of course there are reasons why they don’t. (Ever the gentleman, David can’t bring himself to mention openly Nelson’s flagrante delicto demise, though he suggests – ever the optimist – that the world has largely forgotten this indiscretion.)

The idea of stewardship, and David Rockefeller’s competent modesty, can bring to mind the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. There are, of course, many who’ve accused him of being manservant to a wrongheaded and malevolent historical force. (Some of those destroyed a couple of towers he and brother Nelson built.) But David Rockefeller’s great gift, everywhere visible in this earnest memoir, was that with all that power and money, he could ask himself whether he was doing right in the world (and you have to give him credit for asking it and taking it seriously – even if you think he may be more than a tad self-justifying), put his head on the pillow, and drift off to an untroubled sleep.

By David Rockefeller.
Random House; 517 pages; $35.
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