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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Inside Oz

Radicalism | Learning about the politics of big business, and what "an honest day's work" might come to mean. Part seven of a pilgrim's slow progress

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

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.

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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.

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