Here lies Nelson Rockefeller: billionaire, presidential contender, forty-first vice president of the United States, forty-ninth governor of New York; builder, Pollyanna, glad-hander, king of the blue-ribbon commission; art collector, philanderer, Republican, liberal. The biggest personality in national politics between Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, Rockefeller was as overwhelming and unexpected as a typhoon on a sunny day. He died mother-naked in the company of his 25-year-old aide. He addressed President Nixon as “Dick” until he remembered himself and switched to “Mr. President.” A wellspring of harebrained ideas, he proposed turning the Queen Mary into a drug rehabilitation center and flooring the Metropolitan Museum of Art with AstroTurf. On Earth Day in 1970, he accepted a teenager’s cocky “Race you, Gov,” pedaling his bicycle like crazy and narrowly claiming the win. After Gerald Ford dumped him in favor of Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976—turning Rockefeller into that most impotent of beasts, the lame-duck vice president—he began autographing photographs of himself flipping off a group of hecklers.
The photo was a symbolic gesture to a Republican Party that had thrice denied him the presidential nomination (1960, 1964, 1968) and abandoned him as it turned hard to the right. No image captures this fraught relationship like the defiant Rockefeller staring down a stadium full of hostile Barry Goldwater partisans at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Rockefeller lost the party’s nomination to Goldwater, but nevertheless insisted on taking the podium and having his say. Denouncing the extremists in the hall, he aggressively declared, “The Republican Party must repudiate these people.” The crowd booed and chanted, “We want Barry!” Rockefeller would seek the presidency for the final time in 1968, only to lose the party’s nomination to Nixon, whose Southern strategy helped solidify the realignment of the political parties. In Ford’s White House, Rockefeller found himself lost in the wilderness of the right. He refused to attend meetings with chief of staff Dick Cheney. Of Cheney’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, Rockefeller vowed, “I will get this guy one way or another.”
Those were the unhappy twilight years of Rockefeller’s public life. In his heyday, he was not just a man against, he was for: for government solutions to society’s problems, for racial progress, foreign aid and aggressive anticommunism. He was surprisingly tough and driven for a “bouncy liberal-minded do-gooder,” in the words of one writer. John F. Kennedy, eyeing his potential opponents for the 1960 election, observed of the Republicans, and of Rockefeller, “Progress is not their business. He is moving them ahead.” But even though he was a natural politician, Rockefeller was too big for politics. At key moments in his career, he stumbled over his own appetites and ambitions. He might well have won the presidential nomination in 1964 had he not divorced his wife of three decades in 1962 for a younger woman named Happy. His compulsion to fire a cure at every social ill led one contemporary to observe, “He’d have solutions going around looking for problems.” Rockefeller himself put a characteristically positive spin on his chronic restlessness: “I’m a great believer in having a purpose.”
The historian Richard Norton Smith has written a massive and affectionate biography of Rockefeller, one that well captures the man’s ebullience and vitality. The Rockefeller of On His Own Terms is a “brashly charismatic salesman” and a “backslapping, blintz-eating, tax-raising force of nature.” Smith is a noted biographer who has served as director of several Republican presidential libraries, including Ford’s, and who frequently appears as a historical expert on C-SPAN and PBS NewsHour. On His Own Terms is an impressive achievement, many years in the making, and seems likely to become the standard life of Rockefeller. It nevertheless suffers from three significant flaws. The first is Smith’s overly rosy appraisal of his subject and of the Rockefeller brand generally. The second is Smith’s busy, overwritten prose, which frequently obscures rather than clarifies. And the third is the competition—specifically a superior but tragically incomplete multivolume life of Rockefeller by the late financial journalist Cary Reich.
Reich completed the first of two projected volumes on Rockefeller, Worlds to Conquer: 1908–1958, before dying of pancreatic cancer at age 48. It is an extraordinary biography: clear, witty, insightful, exhaustively detailed without being tedious, and a genuine pleasure to read. Reich—to whom Smith pays handsome tribute in his acknowledgments section—might have been thinking of future Rockefeller biographers when he wrote:
Disarmed by Rockefeller’s collegiate exuberance, Washington insiders made the same mistake so many others—at Rockefeller Center, at the Museum of Modern Art, in the Rockefeller family office—had made before them. They did not perceive the calculation and the political sensibility that were obscured by his outsized personality. Yet that aspect of Nelson Rockefeller—the shrewd, designing side—was there from the first, running like an undercurrent in a stream.
Smith is by no means uncritical of his subject, but he does seem charmed by Nelson and awed by the Rockefeller family’s mighty achievements in business and philanthropy. This becomes clear early in the book. Take Smith’s verdict on the efforts of Nelson’s father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., to mediate a deadly labor dispute in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1915. The previous year, open war between striking miners and the National Guard led to some seventy-five deaths. After the smoke cleared, Rockefeller Jr. visited and, according to Smith, talked to the miners, “danced with their wives, donned denim work clothes” and cut a deal that did not include union recognition. The result: “Overnight, the bloodstained wretch of Ludlow was reincarnated as a progressive force in industrial relations.” This is a dramatic oversimplification. As Scott Martelle points out in his authoritative history of the Ludlow Massacre, Blood Passion, Rockefeller Jr.’s stubborn refusal to recognize the union allowed horrendous working conditions to persist. Two years after Rockefeller Jr. purportedly solved the camp’s labor problems, an explosion and fire killed 121 miners.
Nelson Rockefeller was only 5 at the time of the Ludlow Massacre. Smith’s handling of the topic is nevertheless fair game because dynasty looms large in the Rockefeller story, and because Smith contends that the massacre haunted Nelson later in life. Yet Reich offers a clearer and more nuanced account of his subject’s adult years as well. For instance, both books discuss Rockefeller’s participation in the United Nations peace conference in San Francisco in 1945. Smith portrays Rockefeller as “Latin America’s most outspoken champion in the State Department.” But Reich describes a more complex scene, focusing on Rockefeller’s aggressive lobbying, against the wishes of the president and the secretary of state, to secure UN membership for Argentina—a fascist sympathizer during much of World War II. A fierce cold warrior, Rockefeller sought to create a unified Latin American voting bloc to be used by the United States as a cudgel against the Soviet Union. His machinations, in Reich’s words, “bordered on rank insubordination” and prefigured decades of cynical American partnerships with Latin American dictators. To Smith, Rockefeller at San Francisco was merely not “a team player,” which seems like too generous a verdict.
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Smith is on stronger ground in portraying Rockefeller’s hyperactive character. In the most insightful passage of On His Own Terms, he describes Rockefeller as a “serial alarmist” who saw urgent problems in need of fixing wherever he looked. As governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, he sought to prepare for the aftermath of nuclear war by calling for the installation of fallout shelters in every house and public building in the state. After hearing Henry Kissinger make a stray remark about water security, he put a staff member to work on the problem of seawater conversion. When he was vice president, Rockefeller made the case for buying Greenland from Denmark in order to exploit its minerals. There was never a problem that he could not convene a panel of experts to study. By his own admission, he left execution to others. “I like to get a thing started,” he said. “Then I’m not interested in following details. I get people to run it for me. [I’m] not going to chase a decimal point through a bowl of fly shit.”
I get people to run it for me: here money enters the picture. In his personal and public capacities, Rockefeller never saw a price tag that was too high. His “meter didn’t start until you got to a billion dollars,” said one affectionate colleague. During his governorship, this mentality led to laudable public initiatives like a massive overhaul of the State University of New York, major environmental programs, investment in parks, roads and railroads, and a failed attempt to enact universal health insurance. But sometimes the huge price tag seemed like money wasted, providing an easy target for conservatives who thought the government did not know what it was doing. An ideas man rather than a technocrat, Rockefeller proposed solutions like so many darts thrown in the general direction of the board. No project symbolized his decadence more than the almost $2 billion reconstruction of the Albany Mall, derided as another Brasilia and inspired by the Dalai Lama’s palace. Heedless in the way the very rich can be, Rockefeller called it “the greatest thing to happen in this country in a hundred years.”
Fortune also had something to do with his moderate politics. Rockefeller signed legislation removing most restrictions on abortion, banned the death penalty except in cases involving the murder of police officers and, as a presidential hopeful in 1960, ran to the left of Kennedy on civil rights. These positions were consistent with his beliefs and values, but, whereas most politicians have to compromise, money exempted Rockefeller from the childish game of partisanship. He never had to pander to a base in order to fundraise, and he harbored a businessman’s faith in pragmatism. Like Mike Bloomberg, Steve Forbes and Ross Perot, Rockefeller thought he had a VIP pass to political office. He could skip the line and enter through the back. But the greatest prize remained frustratingly out of reach. Perhaps a billionaire lacks the constitution to subordinate every desire and impulse to the all-consuming task of becoming president.
Money also freed Rockefeller to pursue his lifelong passion in art. His happiest moments were spent arranging and rearranging his priceless acquisitions in his many extravagant houses and apartments. For years the president of the Museum of Modern Art, he was more than just a connoisseur; he became a prominent advocate for art as a public good. During a budget-cutting session in 1971, he refused to consider lower funding for the State Council on the Arts, calling it “a closed subject with me.” When a staffer persisted, Rockefeller gave a stirring defense of arts funding that resonates in today’s fiscal-fetish climate: “What is government all about? What is life in this nation all about if it’s not centered around our culture? You indicate that these issues of dance and the arts have nothing to say to us. But they are absolutely the essence that holds our culture together.”
Women were his other hobby. When the Westchester County Republicans presented him with an honorary replica of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, Rockefeller cracked up with laughter and said, “Mr. Chairman—are you suggesting in front of my neighbors that I’m a great swordsman?” After Rockefeller did a favor for Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade Esposito by helping his grandson get into medical school, Esposito offered to pay him back: “Rocky, if you ever get gonorrhea, this boy will take care of you.” The offer might well have been serious. Rockefeller’s serial philandering took him through many secretaries and distanced him from both of his wives. The humiliating circumstances of his death created a tabloid frenzy that eclipsed his years of public service and besmirched his family name.
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Toward the end of his governorship, two reactionary episodes tarnished Rockefeller’s progressive legacy. He oversaw the bungled response to the 1971 Attica prison riot, in which over forty inmates and staff members were killed after a raid by racist, trigger-happy state police; and he pushed for harsh drug-sentencing laws that would soon come into fashion nationally. At Attica, Rockefeller refused to visit the prison and personally negotiate with the inmates. On the cold record, it is hard to fault him for his actions: he likely would have been taken captive, and he ultimately ordered the raid because inmates had threatened to start executing hostages. But as Smith points out, visiting Attica would have allowed him to see the nasty atmosphere building among guards and troops eager to start cracking skulls. With sentencing, Rockefeller was not making an ideological statement so much as trying one more solution to an intractable social problem. Both episodes nevertheless serve as reminders that while he was a liberal, he could play the part of conservative.
Thirty-six years after his death, what does Nelson Rockefeller stand for? Beyond the charming, campaigning, problem-solving mega-personality, he has become the archetypal last moderate Republican. Rockefeller is the man who spoke up when his party dropped the mantle of Lincoln. At the moment when right-wing politics went mainstream in America with Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, Rockefeller, to his everlasting credit, presented himself as a stark alternative and held firm. When the Republicans rejected him, he stuck it to them on that podium, thrusting out his jaw and refusing to be chased off the stage. The GOP of Northeastern moderates and liberals was far from perfect, but unlike the nihilistic madness that grips the right today, it at least spoke the same language as the rest of the country. The line from Barry Goldwater to Ted Cruz runs through—and over—Nelson Rockefeller. What would he make of the Tea Party? What does a ship’s captain think of mutineers?