Alaska scares me. I have only been there once, about five years ago. I was doing a commercial for Alaskan seafood, which I adore. But the producers put me on a tiny raft in the ocean next to a glacier that began to “calve,” or break off, and fall into the sea - already terrifyingly choppy - to make the commercial, and I felt close to death every second. The waves were frigid and enormous, and the raft bobbed and pitched dangerously. The calving glacier made it suicide.
We eventually moved to a stage indoors, where all was well, but I was scarred - and scared. What kind of wild gamblers would have set up a film shot so that the actor was likely to get killed? Was this what Alaskans were?
Oil is a scary proposition, too. Endowed by nature with intense amounts of energy by weight and volume, desperately sought after worldwide - the price up by something like 50 times since 1973 - this is the stuff that dreams are made of, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart and William Shakespeare. Oil is so important, possesses so much, well, again, energy, that wars are fought over it, kings are deposed, and revolutions and coups are commonplace where it is nearby. Interesting, even amazing, books and movies are made about the trouble we poor humans get into when oil money is close at hand. Think of “Giant,” and you have the idea.
“Crude Awakening” is a breathtakingly fine book on the history of oil in the complex state of Alaska. When, a mere 40 some years ago, wildcatters struck an immense find in Alaska, the rush was on. But it was not just a rush by engineers and prospectors with computers and seismographs. It was a rush by politicians and lobbyists to transform the sleepy, quiet, neighborly - and very cold - 49th state into an energy superpower - tossing off so much money that the state’s power players did not know what to do with it.
They quickly figured that out - women, toys, bank accounts, immense payoffs to state residents. The usual things money can buy.
The spectacular power of oil made Ted Stevens, a genuinely fine Senate superstar, into a super-duper star. In a convoluted way, it gave us Sarah Palin, a wonderful woman in many ways, but a bit strange in others. (My favorite part of the book is about how Mrs. Palin ran for mayor of her suburb of Wasilla by asking people to elect a “Christian” mayor. She was running against John Stein, a man with a possibly, well, probably, Jewish name - who happened to be a Lutheran. Knowing Sarah Palin a little bit, I am guessing it was ignorance more than malice that motivated her.)
“There is one born every minute, as the saying goes, and two to take him,” and the leader of the takers was a likable fellow named Bill J. Allen, who lobbied beautifully for the oil companies to give them maximum freedom of operation and the lowest possible severance taxes. He - Mr. Allen - wound up causing a lot of grief for Stevens - who very possibly was framed by prosecutors over a trivial favor from Mr. Allen - and found himself in the pokey. That is just one of an innumerable number of stories of human nature when oil is nearby. (As I read, I kept thinking of a law of human nature I made up long ago: Honesty is a variable. Money is a constant.)
“Crude Awakening” - one of whose authors, full disclosure, is a relative of a man I worked with in Washington 40 years ago - is a magisterial work of history. It gives me an idea of just how foolhardy people in Alaska can be - and also how kind and welcoming and supportive. It also tells me that there is a new generation of historians out there who will be able to keep up fine, meticulously detailed history-writing, presented in a compellingly readable way, when we old writers are pushed onto our ice floes and sent off to die.
If you want to understand the power of the King Kong of minerals, oil, once it is awakened, captured and carried back to the mainland, do not miss this book, or the movie that is sure to follow. This is simply fantastic work.
• Ben Stein is an economist, author, actor,game-show host and TV commentator.
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