Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books about Tarbell's muckraking, the cost of war, and that headless body in a topless bar

Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
By Steve Weinberg
W. W. Norton
256 pages, $25.95

Those who have seen the new film There Will Be Blood, based on Upton Sinclair’s novel about the oil industry, will recognize the cutthroat tactics and carnage in Taking on the Trust. Steve Weinberg’s book focuses on the earlier competition in America’s first oilfields, in northwestern Pennsylvania. In the 1870s, the chief predator was a remote, reticent entrepreneur named John D. Rockefeller. Weinberg has chronicled both Rockefeller’s career and that of the reporter who eventually called him to account, Ida M. Tarbell. Their stories have been told before, but displaying the two lives in parallel provides new insights into both. Weinberg places Tarbell on the scene as Rockefeller ravages her family’s independent oil business. Not until years later, as she was approaching middle age at the turn of the twentieth century, did circumstances allow her to fight back. By then, Tarbell had become a star writer for a fresh new magazine, McClure’s, which was exposing the flourishing corruption of the age via the genre that came to be known as muckraking. Her measured recounting of Rockefeller’s depredations, The History of the Standard Oil Company, first appeared in the magazine and was later issued as two substantial volumes; it was a classic not only for what it achieved—paving the way for legal restraints on Standard Oil—but for what it remains, a paragon of impeccable American expository prose. Weinberg, a student and practitioner of investigative journalism himself, has drawn upon an immense array of resources, and offers considerable new and enlightening information about both his subjects.

Headless Body in Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper
By the staff of the New York Post
Harper Entertainment
208 pages, $14.95

USA Today is sometimes referred to as “America’s favorite newspaper,” but in this instance the New York Post, with its considerably smaller circulation, claims the title for itself. The paper also fails to acknowledge that anybody ever wrote a clever or outrageous headline before the influx of “the Australians and the Brits” with the Rupert Murdoch regency. (Most lists of best American tabloid headlines award about half to the Post’s bitter rival, the New York Daily News.) In truth, the editors use up their crown jewel in the title of this collection; what can possibly match the terse poetry and sheer tabloidness of headless body in topless bar? That aside, the book consists almost entirely of reproductions of full pages of the Post, grouped roughly by topic, with strong emphasis on jingoism and celebrity misbehavior. There is, to be sure, something better in this collection than headlines that seemed clever at the time. The most original contribution of the Post has been the reinvention of the composograph, the notorious art form pioneered in the 1920s by Bernarr Macfadden’s short-lived Daily Graphic—that is, photographs altered or assembled to provide visual wit or punning. In one instance, the Post imposes the heads of weasels on the French and German UN delegates as criticism of their failure to support the Iraq war. In another, when Paris Hilton is let out of jail, her body is superimposed on a photograph intended to depict the liberation of Paris (actually, a crowd in Times Square). Still another offers the number of Barry Bonds’s home runs—756—spelled out in syringes. Most of the rest is just yesterday’s news.

The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict
By Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes
W. W. Norton
192 pages, $22.95

For those who believe that the paltry billions submissively appropriated by Congress come close to covering the costs of the Iraq war, this tract offers powerful revelations. Although The Three Trillion Dollar War was written by two sophisticated economists—Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia professor and Nobel Prize winner, and Linda J. Bilmes, a professor of public finance at Harvard—its conclusions are simple enough. According to the authors, the war in Iraq (with Afghanistan thrown in) will ultimately cost the United States, in government expenditures alone, between $2.3 trillion (“best case”) and $3.5 trillion (“moderate realistic”), even in the event of a reasonably prompt withdrawal. Deferred costs, such as interest payments on the accumulated war debt and the looming expense of caring for discharged veterans, who may eventually number a million, are just starting to weigh in. Conceding that these amounts will not bankrupt the U.S. (the country spends three trillion in the annual budget without undue strain), the authors insist that the expenditures will be a dead weight on whatever the nation seeks to accomplish going forward. Indeed, Stiglitz and Bilmes predict that our Iraq and Afghanistan wars will end up being more expensive than any previous American conflict except World War II. Primarily, they argue for the realism that has been avoided by the present administration, and for an understanding that “there is no free lunch, and there are no free wars.” 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.