By Steven Watts. Alfred A. Knopf. 608 pages.

Henry Ford's brain ran almost entirely on instinct and image. If he had a good hunch about something and could easily picture it, he was unstoppable, devising not only such wonders as the Model T, but also the assembly-line process that made its mass production possible.

But he could be downright dangerous on the rare occasions when an abstract concept unrelated to his work found its way into his head. Contemptuous of intellectuals, and proud of it, he once boasted, "I don't like to read books; they muss up my mind." He had no use for history -- which he infamously called "bunk" -- and thus was easily duped into mistaking claptrap for wisdom.

Though simplicity and uniformity were good for the Model T, they proved disastrous for Henry Ford's reputation as a public figure. In The People's Tycoon, a scrupulously fair biography, Steven Watts allows Ford to shine as an innovator and gives him full credit for transforming the world with his new ideas about cars and factories. But Watts also portrays Ford in his later years as a bitter reactionary who sullied his fame with bigotry.

Ford's anti-Semitism has been examined in several recent studies, but Watts places it in a vivid context that reveals how the very strengths of the automotive titan helped to undermine his work elsewhere in society. Outside of the workshop and the factory, he was, more often than not, an embarrassment to himself and his company.

In the 1930s, Ford was convinced that Jews were ruining America, and he spread this poisonous notion with the absolute faith of someone whose brain was undisturbed by any trace of logic. It allowed him to develop the absurd view that "Jewish financiers" were the real power promoting the growth of labor unions in America. "It's a great thing for the Jew to have on hand," he said of the union movement, "when he comes around to get his clutches on an industry."

There are so many levels of distorted thinking in this statement, not the least of which is the question of why any financier would want to help labor oppose capital. But Ford never allowed such contradictory ideas to give him pause, and nurtured his prejudice until the end of his life.

As Watts reveals, what makes this ignorance and hate so frightening is that it was aired so freely in the most influential parts of the mainstream press. The quotation about Jews and labor unions appeared in the mass-circulation magazine Collier's under the ominous title, "If I Were President: Henry Ford Tells Where He Stands on All of the Great Issues of the Day."

As a measure of how thoroughly Watts has researched his subject, consider his discussion of Ford's statement about history being "bunk." I've always thought the quotation was based more on legend than fact, merely because it's hard to believe anyone would say something so stupid. Yet Watts has found not one but several examples of the comment, some with slightly different wording but all expressing the "bunk" verdict loud and clear.

In fact, it was such a favorite remark of Ford's that he eventually abandoned all restraint and -- as Watts explains -- "worked himself into a kind of repetitive apoplexy," declaring in 1940, "I say history is bunk -- bunk -- double bunk."

Ordinarily, you wouldn't want to spend much time on 600 densely-packed pages about someone as unlikable as Ford. But this biography gives as much attention to the "American Century" of its subtitle as it does to the man of humble beginnings who fancied himself "the People's Tycoon." By a slow accumulation of detail, The People's Tycoon builds up a dazzling social panorama, highlighting both the triumphs of American ingenuity and the discontents of its consumer society. As history, it is anything but bunk.

Michael Shelden has written biographies of Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and Graham Greene and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph of London.

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