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.