For more than 20 years, Steve Coll has investigated some of the key “force multipliers” in the modern world – companies and organizations whose effect on everyday life is powerful and far-reaching. His recent book, “Private Empire,” looks at ExxonMobil, the oil concern which is in some ways more powerful than many countries on the planet. Despite the company’s intense secrecy, Coll conducted more than 400 interviews and got ahold of thousands of pages of government documents relating to ExxonMobil, revealing in his book how far it reaches into the average American’s life. At the center of it, at least until his ouster in 2005, was Lee “Iron Ass” Raymond, who ran the place with a fist that echoed his nickname. Exxon’s recent attempts to appear “softer” may or may not be working, but Coll’s book offers the most revealing look at the Texan behemoth.
But this isn’t the first time Coll has opened up an oil company and its shenanigans to scrutiny. In the late 1980s, he wrote the definitive account of Getty Oil (a book that followed his rookie effort in 1986 about the breakup of AT&T). In 1992 he wrote, with David A. Vise, a key account of how Wall Street ran amok in the previous decade, a book that did little for the reputation of the Securities and Exchanges Commission.
Coll’s work is steeped in a journalistic wanderlust and rigor; he’s worked at The New Yorker, and was a bureau chief for the Washington Post in South Asia as the ’90s began. His book “On the Grand Trunk Road” came out of his experiences in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere–-a prescient move, given how prominently that part of the world figures in the key moments of our current history.
Then, for 10 years, Coll reported on one of the most important organizations in American life, the CIA – and the resulting book, “Ghost Wars,” showed Coll at the height of his powers (the book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2005). The subtitle–-“The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001″–-reveals both the extraordinary range of the work, as well as the poignant cutoff date for Coll’s story of what happened before 9/11. And his subsequent book, about the bin Ladens, seems almost to pick up where “Ghost Wars” ends, and is one of the most complete accounts of Osama’s people ever compiled.
Which brings us back to ExxonMobil. With so much of the world’s geopolitical power residing in a single oil company–-and given that its work occurs in such difficult and strategic places–-it seems the logical next book for Coll.