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From the Archives: The World According to David Rockefeller

by William G. Shepherd Photographed by Arnold Newman
Thursday, November 30, 2017
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This article was originally published in AVENUE’s Summer 1981 issue.


Some weeks ago, David Rockefeller retired, at age 65, from the Chase Manhattan Bank, and he did so to surprisingly little fanfare. While it is true that he had never held a Cabinet post and has never been appointed ambassador anywhere (at least not yet), Rockefeller has won wide recognition as the head of the “Eastern Establishment” and, through his travels and tireless blandishments on behalf of the confluences, rather than the conflicts, of international interests, he has functioned as a kind of private minister without portfolio among heads of state, central bankers, and finance ministers all around the globe.


For such reasons, David Rockefeller occupies a special niche in American folklore. The need to believe that someone, somewhere, must be running things according to some coherent pattern is a deep urge indeed, and through some mysterious Jungian process we have attached to David Rockefeller out myths of omnipotence. He is our favorite Mastermind of the Secret International Conspiracy to Rule the World, the man in whose hands the Kissingers and Sheikh Yamanis, presidents, shahs, and directors of the Central Intelligence Agency are mere instruments.


It is a view held not just by the radical Right or by the radical Left but by both, a symmetry that is philosophically reassuring. The Right accuses him of plotting world communism, naturally, while the Left worries about world capitalism. But some people closer to the political center mythologize about the Rockefeller influence, too, and one has only to listen to a few lawyers or Wall Street brokers hold forth on the subject to surmise that there is something religious about their convictions. It is nice, after all, to believe that someone is running the world, because the alternative – the thought that no one has any clear notion whatsoever of what is going on – is a little tough on the psyche. Disturbing. David Rockefeller exists, for many of us, as a kind of metaphysical convenience, like a theological premise or one of those unquantifiable Greek symbols that make mathematic equations come out right. He is, in a sense, our ultimate celebrity, and that makes his retirement more than noteworthy; it makes it scary. How can a theological premise retire? What is American folklore going to do without him?


Conspiracy buffs, however, will not be wholly bereft just yet. Although Reckefeller is relinquishing his corporate power base, he has more than enough other involvements – with international affairs, New York City’s problems, and the Rockefeller family’s interests – to keep him busy.


A few days before his retirement, Rockefeller settled comfortably into the sofa in the chairman’s office at Chase, amid Oriental ceramics, an exquisite 12th-Century wooden Jizo statue, and paintings by Matisse and Juan Gris, and chatted about his forthcoming activity. His voice was gentle, his manner relaxed.


“It’ll be divided in really a number of areas,” Rockefeller said. “I will be continuing as a member of the International Advisory Committee of the bank, so that although I will cease to be an executive or a director, I will still have some ongoing connection. I will have an office in this building but now on this floor.” He will, in fact, be chairman of the committee, a post previously held by Henry Kissinger, while Willard C. Butcher, who is 54, replaces Rockefeller as board chairman. Nor can Chase be called “the Rockefeller Bank” by virtue of equity control. Rockefeller owns less than 3% of the bank’s shares. By contrast, Prudential, the nation’s largest insurance company, owns 5.4%.


Meanwhile, a major reorganization is underway at the family office at Rockefeller Center and, David continued, “I certainly will be spending a lot of time on family-related interests.” Since 1973, four of David’s generation have died: his sister Abby and brothers Winthrop, John D. 3rd, and Nelson. “That just leaves my brother Laurance S. and myself. On the other hand, the next generations are multiplying.” The next generation comprises 21 scattered cousins, plus their spouses, and so far only Nelson’s son Rodman, who runs IBEC (International Basic Economy Corporation), and John D. “Jay” IV, who is governor of West Virginia, have shown much taste for financial or political leadership.


Thus the challenge, David explained, is “to structure the office in a manner that makes sense for the ongoing generations, and oncoming generations, and affect a smooth transition.” That is the reason why David and his associate Richard Dilworth, the family’s long-time financial major-domo, have dropped off the Chase board. “We are going to organize a limited trust company [that] could have a technical conflict of interest with the bank.” David said.


This has touched off a great deal of speculation among trust bankers that the Rockefellers may be about to open the doors of their family office to estates of other wealthy families and perhaps to corporate pension funds as well. It would make sense as a diversification strategy, in order to defray rising operating costs and to attract talented managers to improve investment performance. It is a strategy that has been pursued successfully by bother the Phipps family’s Bessemer Trust and by they Julius Rosenwald family’s Starwood Corporation which, incidentally, manages Ronald Reagan’s interests in a blind trust. So far, though, David Rockefeller is not tipping his hand. “It’s of no particular significance, I don’t think, to the outside,” is all he will say at this stage.


Related to family matters, Rockefeller went on, “is the whole question of Rockefeller Center.” The Center has suffered through some bleak years in the past, but its fortunes are now looking up. “In the last decade, thanks to the good work of Dick Dilworth, its chairman, and Alton G. Marshall, who was president for that period, it has diversified into a number of areas, and there are interesting possibilities for the future there as well.” One of the most intriguing is RCTV, a new pay-cable program service being developed for Rockefeller Center by Arthur Taylor, the former president of CBS. RCTV hit the headlines late last year when Taylor negotiated exclusive, 10-year U.S. rights to all BBC programs, a coup that may catapult Rockefeller Center into the forefront of the coming decade’s TV revolution.


Arthur Taylor is also working with David Rockefeller to bring New York’s splintered business interests together into one powerful lobbying group, the New York City Partnership. “I undertook a year and a half ago the chairmanship of the New York Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation, and using those as the base pillars of the new organization, “ Rockefeller said, “we have tried to pull together all of the business interests in the city – not just in midtown and Lower Manhattan but in all of the boroughs and ethnic-group business interests.”


The New York City Partnership’s agenda includes three key issues “that affect attracting and holding business and hence jobs and the economy in the city: the question of youth employment, which is very critical, the mass transportation system, and taxes, which are higher in the aggregate – city, state, and federal – than in any other state in the Union and therefore obviously serve as a deterrant to business.” The Partnership has won the cooperation, he said, of both labor and government, “so that I think for the first time we’re developing a relatively united force which could have political clout as well. Most other cities in the country have had this for a long time. New York never has.


“Then, of course, I will continue to be involved in many other organizations that I’ve been connected with for a long time, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, of which I’m the chairman; also the Trilateral Commission, of which I’m North American Chairman; Rockefeller University; the Museum of Modern Art; the Center for Inter-American Relations.” Not to mention the Bilderberg, and enclave of U.S. and European leaders that meets secretly once a year.


International affairs is without doubt David Rockefeller’s chief love, and he offered some thoughts on what he feels is the most worrisome trend today. “The most disturbing thing is the fact that the world is necessarily becoming more interdependent in an economic sense. The resources of the world are to be found in different geographical areas and are needed in the world as a whole. Given that interdependence, it is distressing to see that in many respects nationalism and protectionism have also grown, which work in the opposite direction. To find a means of rationalizing those two and making people recognize that it is necessary, and desirable, and in their own interest to work together, I think that’s a very important thing and requires a lot of diplomacy and sensitivity and though. Somehow when people work together quite often they create frictions, and it makes it harder for them to work together. You see it in the Middle East, you see it in Asia, you see it in Latin American. And in Europe. In fact, it’s hard to see a part of the world where it doesn’t exist.


“Incidentally, I left out one important thing, and that’s this U.S. business committee on Jamaica that President Reagan asked me to be chairman of following the visit to Washington of Prime Minister Seaga of Jamaica. That is something I will have to spend some time on in the next several months.” Since the Harvard-educated Seaga’s triumph over Leftist-leaning Michael Manley at the polls, the U.S. has been pumping money into Jamaica, and Rockefeller’s committee will seek ways to increase investment in bauxite mining, tourism, manufacturing, and agribusiness.


David was the “baby” of the family, a fact that his brothers rarely let him forget, and he was the only one to get a PhD. (in economics at the University of Chicago after Harvard and the London School of Economics) and the only one to take a traditional job. He joined Chase as an assistant manager in 1946 and subsequently concentrated on international banking in Europe and Latin America. He became president of the bank in 1961 and chairman and chief executive officer, succeeding George Champion, in 1969.


In the years since, while Rockefeller’s international reputation has soared, the bank itself has not done so well. According to a recent study by Chemical Bank, Chase in 1968 ranked as the world’s second largest bank, after Bank of America. Today it ranks fourteenth, and in New York it has fallen far behind its more aggressive rival, Citicorp.


Troubles with real estate investments, credit cards, and lackadaisical management have been the bank’s chief stumbling blocks. Furthermore, many people have been concerned about bank loans in general, and Chase’s loans in particular, to developing countries. Rockefeller talked candidly about that concern:


“The jeopardy that people talk about, and it could certainly exist, is that countries, because of the higher cost of payments deficit, which means that they have to borrow externally in growing amounts. This in turn means that the debt service on their external debt continues to grow. It can reach a point where they’re spending all of their export revenues to pay interest and amortization, which means they are not any longer able to import. Of course the fear is that they would simply cancel the debt.


“But I think this has been an exaggerated concern,” Rockefeller said. “The experience that we’ve already had with some countries – such as Zaire, which everybody was talking about a few years ago, or Turkey or Peru – in point of fact, thanks in part to the International Monetary Fund, thanks to the willingness on the part of the lenders to sit down and work out an agreement in most of these cases, there may have been a stretchout of debt payments, sometimes a reduction in interest rates. But it hasn’t meant a default, and the people haven’t in fact suffered losses.


“Most banks, certainly our own, have a very sophisticated country-risk organization which is constantly evaluating the ability of countries to borrow and repay. If we are concerned about a particular country, we either discontinue lending altogether, or else we change the type of loan – to shorter term, for example, or to project loans which are self-liquidating through the sale of goods outside for hard currencies.


“The experience of the international banking system up to this point has really been better internationally than it has been domestically, either in terms of actual loan losses or even of criticized loans. It seems unlikely to me,” Rockefeller concluded, “that there’s going to be such a total breakdown in the international monetary system that it will have a serious effect on the commercial banks.”


David Rockefeller is famous for his art collection, his support for developing Lower Manhattan, including the World Trade Center, and his homes on the Upper East Side, at Pocantico Hills, in the Caribbean, and at Seal Harbor, Maine. One of his lesser-known passions has always been entomology: he has one of the world’s largest beetle collections. “I still have a collection and still enjoy seeing beetles as I go around the world,” he said with a note of regret in his voice. “But it’s a competing interest, and I just haven’t had time to collect and really work at it.”


Nor does he expect to find the time in the near future. In fact, Rockefeller has so many activities to pursue that it hardly looks like retirement in any orthodox sense of the word. Certainly there is still enough grist there to keep the folklorists busy concocting conspiracy theories a while longer.


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