It is hard to conceive that a figure of such international stature as Armand Hammer, who died in 1990, could have been as contemptible a swindler as he apparently was, but such is the inescapable conclusion of "Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer" by Edward Jay Epstein.
A secret agent of the Soviet Union since 1921, Hammer managed to make and lose several fortunes during his long life, along the way skirting investigations of money laundering, fraud, conspiracy, espionage, bribery and countless other crimes by the FBI, the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other government agencies. The tale of his serial betrayals (of his family, his religion, his country), endless self-aggrandizement, and success at courting the rich and famous makes fascinating reading, but there is a contemporary hook: Armand Hammer loomed very large in the lives of one of America's prominent political families, the Gores.
Hammer was born in 1898, the son of Dr. Julius Hammer, a committed communist. Julius named his first son Armand for the communist symbol of an arm holding a hammer (Armand would later purchase the baking soda company because of the coincidence of names).
While Julius served time in prison for an abortion that led to a woman's death, Armand (who had actually done the abortion) traveled to Moscow in his stead and met with Lenin in 1921. Impressed with his American fan, Lenin gave "Comrade Hammer" a concession to mine asbestos in the Ural Mountains, and also assigned him the sensitive task of distributing (and laundering) money for Soviet agents around the United States. Hammer worked closely with the infamous Feliks Dzerzhinski, the first head of the KGB, known then as the Cheka.
Though the asbestos mine never did prove profitable and was later closed, it did provide a window into Hammer's character. Conditions for the workers were so bad that foremen had to carry guns to protect themselves from angry workers, who were half starved. To avert a strike, Hammer called upon the Cheka, who suppressed the workers to Hammer's satisfaction. Later, when railroad workers delayed shipments to the mine, Hammer again called upon Dzerzhinski, who had the local chief administrator shot "as a lesson." Hammer was delighted by this, and pointed out many times in later years that the trains ran more efficiently afterward.
To pursue his work on behalf of the Soviet Union, Hammer set up a number of shell corporations, a pattern that would persist throughout a lifetime. To provide hard currency for the Soviets, he styled himself an art dealer in New York, supposedly selling the "Romanoff Treasure." In fact, much of it was bric-a-brac and junk carrying phony identification supplied by the Soviets. Despite a lavish personal lifestyle, Hammer never did make any real money (he was near bankruptcy throughout the 1920s and '30s), until he received another government concession, this time from the United States government, to produce alcohol during the Second World War.
Hammer was not actually a very good businessman (though he created a myth in the press that he was a billionaire). But he was utterly unscrupulous and very adept at stroking the powerful. When, through the liquor concession, a wife's fortune and other machinations, he was able to achieve great wealth, he immediately used it to purchase political influence. In 1950, he made Congressman Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee a partner in his cattle-breeding business, which brought Gore a substantial profit.
When J. Edgar Hoover considered moving against Hammer for his provable treason, he stayed his hand at least in part because Hammer had friends in high places like Gore. When he became a senator, the elder Gore remained a Hammer ally, and he was rewarded when he lost his bid for re-election. Hammer hired Gore Sr. as an executive of Occidental Petroleum's coal division, at a salary of $500,000 per year.
Albert Gore Jr., who claims to be for the people and against the "powerful," controls between $500,000 and $1,000,000 worth of Occidental stock. In keeping with a tradition begun by his father, Al Gore Jr. invited Hammer to witness the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as his guest.
It is not a crime to hold Occidental stock, nor to be wealthy. But it should send a shiver down the spine of voters to consider that the Gore family's comfort is owed to a treasonous scoundrel.