What Should You Do with an Oil Fortune?

Let’s say you were born into a legacy that is, you have come to believe, ruining the world. What can you do? You could be paralyzed with guilt. You could run away from your legacy, turn inward, cultivate your garden. If you have a lot of money, you could give it away a bit at

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Let’s say you were born into a legacy that is, you have come to believe, ruining the world. What can you do? You could be paralyzed with guilt. You could run away from your legacy, turn inward, cultivate your garden. If you have a lot of money, you could give it away a bit at a time—enough to assuage your conscience, and your annual tax burden, but not enough to hamper your life style—and only to causes (libraries, museums, one or both political parties) that would not make anyone close to you too uncomfortable. Or you could just give it all away—to a blind trust, to the first person you pass on the sidewalk—which would be admirable: a grand gesture of renunciation in exchange for moral purity. But, if you believe that the world is being ruined by structural causes, you will have done little to challenge those structures.

When Leah Hunt-Hendrix was an undergraduate at Duke, in the early two-thousands, she wasn’t sure what to do with her privilege. She had grown up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and spent most summers in Dallas with her wealthy churchgoing grandmother. One afternoon, she wandered into a lecture by Stanley Hauerwas, a divinity-school professor whom Time had just named America’s “best” theologian. Hauerwas, as it happened, was also from Dallas; the son of a bricklayer, he could speak in the academic argot of a virtue ethicist or the salty style of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. He rejected the “ahistorical approach of liberal theory,” the assumption that each individual is an autonomous economic unit with a view from nowhere. Instead, as Hunt-Hendrix later put it, “we are born into traditions, and it becomes our task to keep making sense of the world through those traditions, improving them as we go.” Inequality was arguably the defining fact of contemporary American life, which struck Hunt-Hendrix as urgently, intolerably wrong. Hauerwas encouraged his students to reckon with the forces that had shaped their lives, even ones that were set in motion long before they were born.

One summer, Hunt-Hendrix studied with Hauerwas one-on-one, reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The following summer, she went back to Dallas. On campus that fall, Hauerwas saw her sitting on a bench and stopped to ask about her break. “She sort of sheepishly mumbled something about interning at the family business,” he recalled. “At that moment, it hit me, and I blurted it out, ‘Well, shit, you’re a Hunt! ’ ”

At a place like Duke, where about twenty per cent of the students come from the one per cent, it’s not remarkable to encounter a rich kid. Only in extraordinary cases (Rockefeller, Murdoch) is a surname, on its own, an instant giveaway. Hunt is a common name, but to a Dallasite of Hauerwas’s generation it was unmistakable. “I can’t believe it took me this long to put it together,” he told her that day on campus. “My daddy must have laid bricks for your granddaddy.”

H. L. Hunt, Leah’s maternal grandfather, was a Dallas oilman. In the nineteen-thirties, he built wells all over the East Texas oil field, which turned out to be one of the most prodigious reservoirs of oil in the United States. In 1948, Fortune estimated that he was the wealthiest person in America; in 1967, Esquire quoted a source saying, “There’s absolutely no question about the Hunts being the richest family in the country.” Hunt backed Barry Goldwater, the archconservative senator from Arizona, and George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. (When term limits prohibited Wallace from seeking reëlection, Hunt encouraged him to run his wife, Lurleen, in his place.) He supported the power-mad senator Joseph McCarthy, the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society, and reportedly even the Nation of Islam, which promoted racial separatism. William F. Buckley, Jr., once wrote that Hunt’s “yahoo bigotry” had almost managed to “give capitalism a bad name.”

If Leah Hunt-Hendrix had accepted the notion that she was merely an atomized individual, unencumbered by history, then all of this might have seemed like little more than a coincidence. Her grandfather had died before she was born. Why should she do penance for his sins? And yet, no matter how many times she repeated this argument to herself, she remained unconvinced. She even looked a bit like her grandfather: fair skin, apple cheeks, round face. When Hunt began amassing his fortune, it was not widely understood that the overuse of fossil fuels could ruin the planet. But this was known by 1987, when Hunt Oil finished building a pipeline through the desert of North Yemen; and in 2srcsrc7, when Hunt Oil signed a prospecting deal with the regional government of Kurdistan (a deal that the Bush Administration disavowed in public but blessed in private); and in 2src17, when Rex Tillerson, who had worked closely with Hunt Oil in the Middle East, became Donald Trump’s Secretary of State. Hunt Oil is still family-owned, and still among the largest private oil-and-gas companies in the U.S. It’s now one of several family companies that are part of Hunt Consolidated, including Hunt Energy, Hunt Refining, Hunt Realty, and Hunt Power. The Hunt Consolidated headquarters, in downtown Dallas, is a fourteen-story tower made of steel and glass; the air-conditioning bills must be enormous, yet, somehow, the building is LEED-certified.

Behind every great fortune is a great crime, according to an adage attributed to Balzac—but, unlike the money, the crimes are not fungible. Some took place many generations ago, whereas others are ongoing; some afflict a marginal few, others the whole world. Hunt-Hendrix joined a Christian-fellowship group on campus and volunteered as a community organizer in downtown Durham. She wanted to devote her life to rectifying society’s imbalance of wealth and power, but none of the familiar options—endow a professorship? work at a soup kitchen?—seemed to get to the root of the problem. “Most of us spend our lives only embracing or only renouncing where we come from,” Hauerwas told me. “Leah wanted to do the grownup thing, the exceedingly difficult thing—to look all of it square in the face, and then to find a way to make herself actually useful.”

After graduating, Hunt-Hendrix entered an interdisciplinary doctorate program at Princeton called Religion, Ethics, and Politics. (“In my mind, those are three ways of saying the same thing,” she said.) Two of her main advisers were Cornel West—one of the best-known public intellectuals in the country, always ready to support a labor strike or a socialist candidate—and Jeffrey Stout, who was about to publish “Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America.” (The book posited that the U.S. seemed to function “as a plutocracy,” and that the way out was to help organizers build power “from the bottom up.”) She took a leave from grad school in 2srcsrc9 and spent a year teaching English in a small Egyptian city, then another year studying Arabic in Damascus. In Tunisia, she later wrote, she met organizers who “talked about the role of oil companies”—the major public ones, in this case—executing land grabs and “violence against activists who were part of the resistance to fossil fuel extraction.” On a trip to the West Bank, she heard residents’ stories of abject suffering and, moved by compassion and guilt, asked what she could do to help. But many people told her: We don’t want your help, we want your solidarity.

When she came back to Princeton, she proposed a dissertation on the intellectual history of solidarity. (“Vast, interdisciplinary topic,” West told me. “We knew she’d pull it off, but she exceeded our expectations.”) She could spend her life giving money to those in need, she concluded, but charity would only change things at the margins; to help uproot structural inequality, she would have to invest in social movements.

Hunt-Hendrix is now forty and splits her time between New York and Washington, D.C., where she has become a nexus of the New New Left, in frequent contact with street organizers and also several members of Congress. A few times, I saw someone recognize Hunt-Hendrix in passing—Representative Ro Khanna, leaving a progressive centimillionaire’s holiday party in Greenwich Village; a Teamsters organizer at a rally of UPS workers in Canarsie—and ask her, “What is it you do again?” Each time, she struggled to give a concise answer. Basically, she is a philanthropist, though she is reluctant to use the word, given her skepticism toward much of what passes for philanthropy. She donates money to leftist social movements, and she leverages her connections to persuade other rich people to do the same. She gave early funding to Black Lives Matter activists, and to the long-shot primary campaigns of members of the Squad. Since 2src17, through her organization Way to Win, she has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for left-populist politicians—not quite Bloomberg or Koch money, but significantly more than is usually associated with the far left.

“I guess mostly I’m grumpy because I have six goddam roommates.”

Cartoon by Charlie Hankin

“She has better politics than anyone else who’s that rich, and she’s better at fund-raising than anyone else with her politics,” Max Berger, who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s Presidential campaign in 2src2src, told me. “Whatever you want to call my faction—the Bernie wing, the Warren wing, democratic-socialist, social democrat—we would have way less power if Leah didn’t exist.” If the faction had enough power to enact its full agenda, many of the richest people in the country would likely lose money and influence; a centerpiece of the agenda is the Green New Deal, which, if implemented in maximalist form, could help put fossil-fuel companies, including Hunt Oil, out of business. “Leah was clearly preoccupied with how a person of extreme privilege can live responsibly in the world,” Stout told me. “That seemed to be, for her, an existential question.”

Legend has it that H. L. Hunt won the lease to his first oil field in a poker game. According to the book “Texas Rich,” the legend is just that: Hunt actually got some of his most prized properties by keeping the wildcatter Dad Joiner in a hotel room for days and wearing him down until he signed away the land, a deal that Joiner apparently regretted for the rest of his life. “In terms of extraordinary, independent wealth,” J. Paul Getty said in 1957, “there is only one man—H. L. Hunt.”

In the press, Hunt cultivated a reputation as a respectable conservative who wore rumpled gabardine suits and carried a sack lunch to work. With the benefit of a fuller historical record, it’s clear that, even by the standards of his time, Hunt was unusually racist and reactionary. He sometimes implied that to give up a significant portion of one’s income, through taxation or philanthropy, was to let the Communists win. He funded a nationally syndicated conservative radio show, “Life Line,” and an endless series of far-right-propaganda pamphlets and books, many of which he wrote himself. “Alpaca,” a self-published novel in the vein of Ayn Rand, sketched his vision of a political utopia; it included a system called “graduated suffrage,” in which rich people would get more votes. Once, after a “Life Line” anchor spoke out against “hate groups” on the air, Hunt privately admonished him never to espouse “opposition to a white-supremacy group.”

Read More