Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

A Vanished Breed

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller, by Richard Norton Smith (Random House, 880 pp., $38)

‘Republican in name only,” “country-club Republican,” “establishment Republican”: These are the terms grassroots conservatives use to attack their moderate Republican opponents, whom they consider “squishes” and elitists — people who are more interested in being loved by Democrats than in fighting for conservative principles.

The original term for such a person was “Rockefeller Republican.” Conservatives started using the phrase in the 1960s, to categorize the liberal Republicans from whom they hoped to wrest control over the GOP — but it was also used by northeastern moderates to classify themselves, because they were proud to be associated with the energetic liberal Republicanism of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Not many politicians get their names used as adjectives to describe party affiliation. Rockefeller was arguably one of the most important, if polarizing, non-presidential politicians of the 20th century, a verdict amply confirmed by Richard Norton Smith’s sprawling and definitive biography.

The book itself has a tortuous history. In 1996, business writer Cary Reich published a meticulously researched first volume on Rockefeller’s life up to his election as New York governor in 1958, but Reich died shortly after the book’s publication, and Smith took up the challenge of writing a full biography. He had worked for moderate Republicans, including Edward Brooke and Bob Dole, and then served as the director of five presidential libraries while also writing well-received biographies of Thomas Dewey and Herbert Hoover; he is now C-SPAN’s in-house historian.

Smith spent twelve years writing the book. He is respectful of his subject, while mindful of the man’s failings. Smith had access to large amounts of Rockefeller archival material, some of which was not available to Reich, and conducted over 100 interviews. On His Own Terms is a long book, but it reads shorter than its page count thanks to Smith’s graceful writing, which is sprinkled with flashes of sly humor.

Born in 1908, Nelson Rockefeller was the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the grandson of John D. Sr., of Standard Oil fame. From an early age, it was clear that Nelson would be the dominant force in that third generation of Rockefellers: He was a whirlwind of activity and boundless enthusiasm. Unlike many who inherit great wealth, Rockefeller felt little guilt about his privilege and was comfortable exercising the power that came with that wealth. Cheekily, Smith refers to Rockefeller at one point as a “Fifth Avenue caudillo.”

Even before running for office, Rockefeller amassed an impressive résumé. He ran both Rockefeller Center and the Museum of Modern Art. He was a delegate at the 1945 San Francisco conference that organized the United Nations and helped the organization secure its present location in Manhattan. He was coordinator of inter-American affairs for FDR, chairman of the International Development Advisory Board under Truman, and under secretary of the newly created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for Eisenhower (as well as a White House special assistant, helping to shape Ike’s foreign policy).

One thing Rockefeller had little experience with was private-sector business. His grandfather shrewdly transformed the American oil industry and became one of the wealthiest Americans, allowing his descendants the luxury of not having to earn a living. Rockefeller’s one attempt at building a business was a failure. Interested in the economic development of Latin America, Rockefeller asked his advisers if one could, in Smith’s words, “establish businesses that resembled charities.” He established the International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC), which would create businesses in Latin America whose profits would fund charitable activities. According to Smith, “subsequent events showed IBEC to be too feeble in corporate structure to attract needed capital,” while raising the ire of Latin American leftists suspicious of the motives of any Rockefeller.

Then politics beckoned. It is hard to overstate how unusual it was for a Rockefeller to run for office, let alone win. Muckrakers had tarnished the reputation of John Sr. and his Standard Oil empire; a 1914 incident at a Ludlow, Colo., coal mine owned by Nelson’s father, in which nearly two dozen striking miners were killed, put another stain on the Rockefeller name.

Smith notes that Nelson battled with dyslexia, which made his campaign stump speeches wooden in delivery. He made up for it by turning himself into a gregarious retail politician, known for his “Hiya, fella” trademark greeting to friend and stranger alike and his walking tours of New York neighborhoods while eating blintzes and other ethnic foods. Like many successful politicians, the private Rockefeller was an enigma with few close friends. He could be arrogant and high-handed, but also loyal to subordinates and thoughtful to strangers. He made it a habit to visit with and thank the kitchen staff of restaurants in which he ate.

Politically, the Nelson Rockefeller of the 1950s and early 1960s was a classic Cold War liberal. He had no problem using government to fix social problems and had an optimistic view that most problems were inherently solvable. Big business, big government, and big labor could come together and create a stable and prosperous society. Rockefeller loved task forces and regularly convened his own private think tank filled with the brightest minds of the day.

In foreign affairs, he was an internationalist who maintained a lifelong interest in Latin America. It’s sometimes forgotten that he was also a staunch anti-Communist hawk. In fact, Smith argues that it was Rockefeller who was largely responsible for propagating the myth of a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union and arguing for a big defense buildup, ideas John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960.

#page#In tune with the Eisenhower era, Rockefeller began his time as governor with the theme of “pay-as-you-go.” State government would spend more money, but still keep its books balanced by raising taxes. The state initially ran a surplus, but spending soon outpaced revenues. Rockefeller liked big projects, and his most famous were the expansion of the state university system and a controversial urban-renewal effort in Albany.

Flush with his initial political success, Rockefeller decided to try for the presidency after less than two years in office. It would be the first of his three lackluster attempts for the one job he desperately desired. For a man as driven and focused as Rockefeller, these three campaigns were remarkably disorganized, owing to the indecision and poor judgment of the candidate. In 1960, he managed to anger Eisenhower by criticizing his defense policies and created distrust among his fellow Republicans as a result. Inexplicably, Richard Nixon, who had the nomination sewed up, agreed to meet with Rockefeller and negotiate for his support. The resulting “Treaty of Fifth Avenue” was seen as a sellout to an ungrateful Rockefeller and fueled resentment against him.

Rockefeller sought the presidency again in 1964. Already viewed suspiciously by many in the GOP, he put another nail in his coffin by divorcing his first wife and quickly marrying another: Happy Murphy divorced her husband and left her four young children to marry Nelson (Smith suggests that Happy’s youngest child may have been Nelson’s). This was simply too much baggage to overcome.

Moderate Republicans never quite rallied around Rockefeller, and he compounded his problems by attacking Goldwater conservatives head on, calling them “extremists” and lumping them in with John Birchers and others on the extreme right. This was language designed to infuriate more than persuade. Rockefeller would be famously booed off the stage at the 1964 convention that nominated Goldwater.

Rockefeller and other liberal Republicans saw Goldwater’s 1964 defeat as a repudiation of conservatism. Back in Albany, Rockefeller “returned home less embarrassed by his defeat than liberated,” writes Smith. “The Empire State would have its own Great Society, even broader in scope than its Washington namesake.” Balanced budgets went out the window. Rockefeller now relied even more heavily than before on borrowing money, through generous bond issues.

His popularity among New York voters dropped, yet he still won reelection to a third term in 1966, giving him a chance at a third try at the White House in 1968. This one failed as well, and Rockefeller — ever the pragmatist — moved back toward the center. He tried to rein in spending, and he grew increasingly worried about the fiscal situation of New York City. Even Bill Buckley supported Rockefeller for a fourth term in 1970, later claiming that Rockefeller admitted privately he had been wrong about expanding welfare. Rockefeller had always been committed to civil rights — his money had been used to bail out Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies from southern jails — but his tough anti-drug laws and the disastrous end to the 1971 Attica prison riot, which saw the killing of 29 inmates and ten hostages, stained his legacy.

Rockefeller would eventually return to Washington to serve as Gerald Ford’s vice president for two unhappy years, in which he clashed with chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld. In 1979, he was felled by a massive heart attack at the age of 70 while with his young mistress. It was a tabloid end to a legendary career.

Nelson Rockefeller did not live to see Ronald Reagan become president. Cary Reich noted the irony that although Nelson “never achieved the Age of Rockefeller, he may well have brought about the Age of Reagan.” National Review and other conservatives had battled against Rockefeller Republicans just as ferociously as they had fought against the Left, arguing for a “choice, not an echo” in the GOP. He became the symbol of all that was wrong with the party. Slowly, liberal Republicans died out or became Democrats. The loss of the Rockefeller Republicans did little to hurt the party, which saw its biggest successes as the party moved rightward.

It would be a mistake to see today’s intraparty battles as a mere replay of the Rockefeller era. Back then, there really was an ideological divide, as well as a social one — but conservatives decisively won that battle. Today’s divide is largely over tactics and whether a politician is sufficiently conservative. Ideologically, Mitt Romney is no George Romney, and Chris Christie is no Nelson Rockefeller.

Rockefeller’s ideology meshed with the buoyant Cold War political consensus of the 1950s but had fewer answers for the problematic 1970s. Richard Ravitch, a centrist Democrat who served under Hugh Carey (governor from 1975 to 1982), once called Rockefeller “part Ponzi, part Robin Hood.” Rockefeller’s career put the lie to the mantra that liberal Republicans were “fiscally conservative”: As governor he had tripled the amount of state debt and quadrupled state spending. He accomplished many things in New York, but at a great cost. “I drank the champagne,” Rockefeller later admitted, “and Hugh Carey got the hangover.”

Rockefeller’s policies contributed to making New York a textbook case of what Walter Russell Mead has diagnosed as an increasingly outmoded “blue social model” of government. In New York, income and property taxes are high, and so are labor costs; debt soars, as do pensions and retiree health-benefit obligations. Taxes and regulations make the business climate unappealing, leading to weak job growth. Land-use policies and environmental regulations make housing more expensive. With a high cost of living and a lack of jobs, middle-class New Yorkers increasingly leave the state. Today, upstate New York is dying economically, kept afloat only by government-funded universities, hospitals, and prisons.

In his zeal for ambitious government programs, Rockefeller did not see the downside until it was too late. The man who defined a generation of Republicans has left no legacy in the GOP, yet the State of New York is still grappling with the legacy of his policies.

– Mr. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is the author of The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York.

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