A scholar's view of how corporations exercise their political clout

The Inner Circle: Large Corporations and the Rise of Business Political Activity in the U.S. and U.K., by Michael Useem. New York: Oxford University Press. 246 pp. $22.95.

IN his new book Dr. Michael Useem, director of the Center of Applied Social Science at Boston University, focuses on corporate chief executives who serve on the boards of several other corporations as well as their own. His thesis: This group forms an ''inner circle'' that operates through social clubs and contacts, as well as through interlocking directorates and such organizations as the Business Roundtable, to influence the course of politics.

As the book's subtitle states, Useem explores his theme in both the United States and Britain. He presents a side-by-side analysis of the multidirectorate networks in both countries and suggests that the presence of a cohesive economic power group is a natural occurrence in any industrialized economy, including those of Japan and West Germany. In fact, the presence of an inner circle has become critical to defining and serving the national interest, Useem seems to imply.

The inner circle plays a leading role in advising government at the highest level, Dr. Useem demonstrates, documenting the extent of access to and interaction with government leaders among the 150 business leaders he interviewed.

The dues of membership in the inner circle include public visibility. Irving Shapiro, a director of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., is quoted in the book as saying: ''The day is gone when the top of an organization chart permitted a private life style. A generation or two in the past, you could get by in business by following four rules: stick to business, stay out of trouble, join the right clubs, and don't talk to reporters.''

Willard C. Butcher, successor to David Rockefeller as chairman and chief executive officer of the Chase Manhattan Bank, is quoted on the reasons corporate chiefs are now willing to pay that price: ''Glib and glamorous spokespeople for the left have often succeeded in capturing the greatest share of attention, while most business executives haven't yet mastered the necessary techniques; we can't withdraw and whine over biased reporting. We have a right and obligation to hit back. We must take our message directly into American homes, to the people, to the ultimate deciders of our society's fate. We need nothing less than a major and sustained effort in the marketplace of ideas.''

Dr. Useem believes the appearance of the inner circle marks the emergence of a new era of ''institutional capitalism,'' in which the corporate community has come very close to finding a common voice to articulate its agenda.

The inner circle provides a forum, Useem argues, whereby the parochial desires of individual companies or industries are set aside, and the common objectives and priorities of a free-enterprise society are articulated. The channels include political-action committees, direct support of candidates, charitable contributions, corporate-issue advertising, public-affairs programs, and corporate philanthropy - pieces of a power puzzle that Useem succeeds in shaping into a coherent picture of corporate political influence.

The underlying corporate purpose of funding a ballet or running an ad in the New York Times on the renewal of springtime is twofold, Useem points out: first, to create a favorable image of the sponsor; second, to promote a favorable public attitude toward industry and a sociopolitical environment conducive to overall economic health.

Those who travel the inner circle are sincere in presenting their arguments, Useem feels. They believe that mankind, and not just their own financial portfolios, is benefited when business prospers. Often, according to Useem, they take positions that do not directly promote the interests of their own companies and may even be injurious to these interests because they see a wider good.

Useem's analysis and arguments seem convincing.

The rationale behind corporate sponsorship of the arts is illustrated by the exhibition of American masterpieces earlier this year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. - sponsored by United Technologies Corporation. ''I am proud and pleased that United Technologies is a partner in this breathtaking exhibition,'' wrote Barry J. Gray, the company's chief executive, in a foreword to the catalog. He should have been pleased; his company's name even appeared on the exhibition poster, a reproduction of a work of Frederic Remington, which found its way into the homes and offices of thousands of exhibit viewers. The subliminal message of United Technologies' public spiritedness was not lost on the exhibit's large viewership, nor was the broader message that America's major companies have become the nation's modern Medicis.

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