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Inside Oz

"Inside Oz" Continued...

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

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.

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