Seen through the prism of subsequent national experience, Nelson Rockefeller resembles a swollen post-war automobile — a land yacht with tail fins, a period piece, bemusing and embarrassing. He remains, however, instructive.
Richard Norton Smith, a biographer as talented as he is industrious, could not have known, when he began his labors 14 years ago, that publication of his On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller would coincide with the curtain rising on a presidential campaign to which Rockefeller’s story is pertinent. It illuminates today’s two-party dynamic.
With what Smith calls his “dervish energy” and “jack-o’-lantern grin,” and his appetite for “pharaonic construction” projects, Rockefeller had the willfulness of someone whose stupendous wealth was deranging: “I’m not interested in what I can’t do. I want to know how I can do what I want to do.”
Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — Rockefeller served both in significant offices — urged him to become a Democrat. A longtime aide said, “He wasn’t a liberal. He was a problem solver.” But Rockefeller insisted, “There is no problem that cannot be solved.” So he was a liberal, with a progressive’s reverence for “experts.” He gave the impression, his sympathetic but clear-eyed biographer says, of having “more ideas than convictions.”
Like Lyndon Johnson, who also was born in 1908, Rockefeller as a young man experienced wartime Washington mobilizing the nation’s productivity. Like Johnson, Rockefeller may have embraced the misconception that a free society could and should perform in peacetime the sort of prodigies that America accomplished in 1941–45 as a garrison state. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Johnson exclaimed: “We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.” As one of Rockefeller’s top assistants said of him, “He’d have solutions going around looking for problems.” Rockefeller was, Smith says, “Too busy doing to entertain doubts.” And he was “a serial alarmist,” trumpeting crises in order to justify spending.
Rockefeller’s lunges for Republican presidential nominations in 1960, 1964, and 1968 had high ample financial might and negligible political intelligence. Money proved to matter less than passion. In 1964, Smith notes: “By noon of the first day of eligibility, an estimated 40,000 [Barry] Goldwater volunteers had secured nearly four times the required signatures to put their hero’s name on the California primary ballot. By contrast, Rockefeller’s paid staff required a full month to qualify.”
Smith, who in his youth was somewhat smitten by Rockefeller and has never fully recovered, makes much of Rockefeller being booed at the 1964 convention. Smith honorably reports that while Rockefeller had been warning California voters to reject Goldwater’s supposed extremism, “Shadowing Goldwater appearances were Rockefeller pickets carrying swastika-bearing placards proclaiming, ‘Goldwater: The Fascist Gun in the West.” The voice of moderation.
As the 1964 convention drew near, Rockefeller was urged to mobilize the “Eastern Establishment,” replying, “You’re looking at it, buddy. I’m all that’s left.”
In 1912, another alarmingly hyperkinetic New Yorker, Theodore Roosevelt — on whose lap the child Nelson had sat — tried to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from President William Howard Taft. Had Roosevelt succeeded, America today might have two progressive parties.
In 1964, Goldwater rescued America from such a similar political homogenization. As Jacob Javits, New York’s liberal Republican senator, morosely observed, “[Goldwater has] made it respectable to be a conservative again.”
Rockefeller was like another Dartmouth graduate, Daniel Webster, who, says Smith, “spent a lifetime running after the presidency and, between elections, behaving in ways that put the White House effectively beyond his grasp.” Promiscuous in his liberalism and his libidinousness, it was not that, as a friend said, “he would rather be Nelson Rockefeller than president,” but that, as Smith writes, he saw “no reason to choose.”
A compulsive collector of art, Rockefeller was, Smith thinks, “a frustrated artist for whom the exercise of power fulfilled his creative needs.” New York’s fate has illustrated what can happen when a politician treats society as a block of marble he can sculpt as he pleases.
New York’s best post-war governor, Hugh Carey, rescued the state and its largest city from the credit crisis that was a legacy of Rockefeller’s quadrupling of spending in his 14 years, and of Mayor John Lindsay being even more profligate. “I drank the champagne,” said Rockefeller, “and Hugh got the hangover.”
New York, whose motto “Excelsior” means “ever upward,” this year will probably fall to fourth in population, behind California, Texas, and now Florida, which in 1950 had fewer congressional seats than New York City. “Excelsior”? Not exactly.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post