ON HIS OWN TERMS: A LIFE OF NELSON ROCKEFELLER by Richard Norton Smith

Original caption: 9/16/1976– Binghamton, NY- Vice President Nelson Rockefeller gives a crowd of young hecklers an upraised middle finger gesture at the Broome County Airport during a brief stop here Sept. 16, while on a campaign trip with Vice Presidential candidate Bob Dole (L, Background, out of focus)

Today the term “Rockefeller Republican” is still considered a negative characterization to most members of the Republican Party.  The term stands for moderate republicanism that calls for fiscal prudence, but also a social conscience.  In the current political environment when a large number of Republicans are calling for the disassembling of major components of the federal government and are trying to limit people’s voting rights the ideas of Nelson Rockefeller fall on deaf ears.  For the former four time governor of New York bipartisanship and an all inclusive party were a major part of his political agenda for most of his time in office.  As most of the Rockefeller platform is unacceptable today, it suffered a similar fate in 1964 as Barry Goldwater became the Republican standard bearer against Lyndon Johnson.  Many would argue that the hatred for “Rockefeller Republicanism” by Goldwater voters was the precursor of today’s Tea Party.  If so a number of important questions must be asked.  First, how did Rockefeller’s brand of moderate Republicanism come to the fore? Second, why was it so successful in New York and rejected nationwide? Lastly, why did it provoke such an extreme reaction in 1964 that continues to this day?  In his new book, IN HIS OWN TERMS, a major new biography of Nelson Rockefeller, Richard North Smith attempts to answer these and other questions as he explores a career that included the governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, coordinator of Inter-American affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, and one of the most generous and widely renown philanthropists of his era.

(New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller trying to address the 1964 Republican National Convention)

The portrait that Smith presents is a complex one.  Rockefeller comes across as an ideological follower of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for a major part of his political career.   Later he would adopt a more conservative political agenda as he continued to seek the presidency on at least three separate occasions.  He comes across as a generous individual who uses his wealth to reward and assist others, but at the same time he could be a stubborn vindictive person who set out to get even with those who disagreed with him.  Domestically, Rockefeller pursued a liberal agenda, but in foreign policy he was a cold warrior, fearful of the communist threat he supported the Vietnam War for most of his political career.  On a personal level Smith describes a man who could be a caring father, but at the same time he appears as a serial philanderer.  His first marriage failed after thirty years, and after remarrying, he seemed to dote on the children of his second marriage angering those of his first.  The author explores in detail these aspects of the Rockefeller persona and career, and has written an almost encyclopedic biography of one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.

Smith describes his thirteen year odyssey in writing this biography.  Its coverage is impressive as he conducted numerous interviews and thoroughly mined the attendant secondary and primary sources.  The result is extensive coverage of his subject that brings the reader into the Rockefeller family dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller.  We witness the wealth that was available to Nelson Rockefeller and how he employed it to satisfy his almost obsessive need to acquire art, design and build numerous residences and public buildings, caring for his many associates and friends when they were in need, and of course, procure his own election as governor on four separate occasions.  Rockefeller was a “serial” believer in forming committees and/or commissions made up of the leading experts on whatever topic was of interest to him.  Each role he was tasked, be it, as coordinator for Latin American affairs under FDR, an emissary for Richard Nixon to Latin America, a study to ascertain the best way to rebuild Albany, NY, develop a way to improve the welfare system in New York as well as well as nationally, along with numerous others, Rockefeller in most cases funded these activities with his own money and many of the solutions that emerged, i.e., revenue sharing and enhancing John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress were adopted by different presidential administrations.

In a book of this length there are many themes and storylines.  One that seems to dominate is the evolution of Nelson Rockefeller from a liberal approach to social policy, whereby he was willing to push through increases in taxes, fees and other sources of revenue to implement them.  Rockefeller supported a myriad of social programs from improvements in Medicaid, purification of water resources, women’s rights, the first state minimum wage law, to the implementation of civil rights legislation.  Rockefeller’s approach to executive leadership and legislative tactics are reviewed as well as his philosophy of government.  What emerges is the type of governor that New York hadn’t seen since FDR.  With the message of taking responsibility for developing problems for the future, he would tackle issues in the present so they would not become problems down the road.  The issue was his overly ambitious approach to executive leadership always risked alienating conservatives west of the Hudson River.  With a strategy that would evolve from a “pay as you go” philosophy that would bring revenues into line with expenditures, “thereby eliminating costly borrowing and setting the stage for renewed economic growth,” Rockefeller evolved into to a governor who blew up the state budget to meet the needs of his massive infrastructure and building expenses in addition to the budget shortfalls of New York City by borrowing and floating different bond proposals.  By the time Rockefeller reached the end of his third term in office and was elected to his fourth term he became increasingly fiscally conservative as he faced opposition from the state legislature and probably realized that the political current of the late sixties and early seventies would not help any presidential ambitions he might have if he did not change.  Another major storyline that dominated Rockefeller his entire life that permeates the book was his life long battle with dyslexia.  The governor was not aware that he suffered from this affliction, but whether he was attending the Lincoln School in New York, Dartmouth College, or just trying to keep up with the massive amount of reading that a state executive engaged in it was always a battle.  With his wealth as a cushion, Rockefeller was able to employ numerous individuals to assist in this process whether in preparation of legislation or developing auditory strategies to overcome his reading difficulties.

There are a number of fascinating aspects to Smith’s approach to his subject as he prepared  expansive footnotes at the bottom of each page providing the reader with ancillary information that was not available in the text.  Rockefeller’s private opinions of the likes of John Lindsay and Richard Nixon emerge in a very “colorful” fashion which made the mining of these footnotes quite entertaining.  Smith’s discussion of deeply personal issues is not blanched over.  The breakup of Rockefeller’s marriage to Mary Todhunter Clark (Tod) was detailed and very fair as was the coverage of his remarriage to Margaretta “Happy” Murphy.  The loss of his son Michael during an expedition to collect primitive art in a remote part of New Guinea shows a father who has to deal emotionally with a loss of a son.  The relationship of the Rockefeller brothers and their children receives a great deal of attention and produces many interesting insights into the dynamic of such a public family.  Importantly, Smith does not mince words or coverage in dealing with Rockefeller’s numerous extracurricular activities with numerous women throughout his marriages.  In fact we witness a scandal at the site of Rockefeller’s death as to how his body was treated by those who were with him and the medical papers that were prepared to spare the family any embarrassment.

Aside from the personal aspects of the Rockefeller story, Smith devotes a great deal of effort in explaining what drove Rockefeller.  He was an avid and meticulous collector of modern and primitive art and he set as a goal the creation of a museum to house modern art that he would proudly help establish with the creation of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  The second area that fascinated Rockefeller was politics and how it could be used to help people and better his country, a career path that would dominate his life for over forty years.  The fact that Rockefeller realized that as a scion of wealth he did not have to worry about “ordinary things,” therefore he was motivated to pursue the extraordinary.  Rockefeller’s battles to create MoMA were his trial by fire, a learning course in the art of political infighting.  This would also be the case in the creative process and building of Rockefeller Center as he would take lessons  learned from these confrontations and apply them in the future in his fights with the legislature, opponents such as New York Mayors John Lindsay and Robert Wagner, as well as national political battles.  In dealing with transit and garbage strikes, prison issues including the riots and death at Attica, infrastructure and other building projects, Rockefeller’s learning curve was applied to many crises.

Rockefeller’s other area of interest was foreign policy, and Latin America in particular.  His approach to western hemispheric issues was ahead of his time.  It began as a strategy to block Nazi Germany’s inroads in Mexico and South America.  He agreed with FDR that hemispheric solidarity was the key to changing the perception that the United States was seen as a colonizer in the region.  In 1942 Rockefeller unveiled his “Basic Economy Program” that called for improvement in the region’s public health problems.  Rockefeller arranged training for hundreds of professional nurses to assist in creating medical clinics in outlying areas.  Further,  he worked to export penicillin to offset disease in the region.  “In four years, Rockefeller agents trained more than ten thousand in-service workers, nurses, doctors, midwives, sanitary engineers, and home demonstration agents.”(164)  Rockefeller engaged in a fierce bureaucratic battle with “Wild” Bill Donavan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services at the end of the war over policy toward Latin America.  After the war facing the fight against communism, Rockefeller was a proponent of foreign aid to the region, but his approach was geared to offset the sensibilities of the countries receiving it to avoid the charactiture of “Yankee Imperialism” that OSS policy seemed to engender.  Rockefeller’s sensitivity toward third world countries should not take away from his fervent anticommunism, particularly in dealing with Vietnam where he was a strong supporter of Lyndon Johnson and was able to develop a close working relationship with the president.

Smith does yeoman’s work in describing Rockefeller’s campaigns for governor and president.  In both areas Rockefeller’s wealth and ability to obtain the necessary support for his candidacies was ever present.  The elective success he experienced in New York could not be replicated on the national stage as the Republican Party shifted to the right throughout the nineteen sixties.  His battle against Goldwater in 1964 made him an enemy to conservative republicans and his indecision in 1968 cost him any hope of wresting the republican nomination away from Richard Nixon, which also destroyed any candidacy for 1972.  His hopes improved after he was chosen vice-president by Gerald Ford following the resignation of Richard Nixon, but any hope of influencing the Ford presidency was offset by major disagreements with Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld who would block Rockefeller at every turn over policy and political decisions.  Any hope of higher office was dashed in 1976 as Rockefeller’s support for civil rights and the Voting Rights Act made him a political liability with conservative republicans in the south and resulted in the candidacy of Robert Dole for Vice-President on the 1976 Republican presidential ticket.

Overall, Nelson Rockefeller enjoyed an amazing life.  Art connoisseur, benefactor to countless individuals, a mostly progressive governor, and an influential and sometimes polarizing national figure for decades.  Richard Norton Smith gives attention to all these aspects of Rockefeller’s life and has written an in depth and informative biography that I am certain will be the definitive work on an illustrious career for many years to come.

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