Who Remembers Nelson Rockefeller?

Despite promising my wife that I would not add to our home’s existing glut of books, I picked up three books at the APSA annual meeting, mostly for free. One was Richard Norton Smith’s On His Own Terms, a long-awaited biography of Nelson Rockefeller. I don’t have much to add to reviews by Timothy Noah, David Nasaw, and Jeffrey Frank. (I think that Nasaw is much too harsh in his judgment of Rockefeller). On His Own Terms is long and thorough. It illuminates parts of Rockefeller’s life he tried to hide, such as his dyslexia and philandering. It explains how Rockefeller’s love of art was central to his career, which is unusual for politicians, who are more likely to be golfers or baseball fans than serious students of Rothko and Rauschenberg. Smith is especially good at discussing Rockefeller’s actions as Governor of New York and his complicated relationship with Mayor John Lindsay. On the other hand, his detailed discussions of the state legislature may baffle those who don’t know their Steinguts from their Carlinos. He devotes an entire chapter to the tawdry circumstances of Rockefeller’s death, which may strike some readers as a little much.

Despite On His Own Terms’ great length, Smith skimps on some subjects that might interest political scientists, such as Rockefeller’s more-complicated-than-you-think relationship with Richard Nixon. He provides illuminating descriptions of Rockefeller’s presidential ambitions, but won’t the judgments of any serious students of the period. I find it hard to find a path that places Rocky in the Oval Office, except perhaps if he had accepted Nixon’s offer of the second spot in 1960, and became his obvious successor. Had it not been for Rockefeller’s divorce and (especially) remarriage, he might have won the Republican nomination in 1964, but he surely would have lost to Lyndon Johnson.

It’s striking that it has taken 35 years for a definitive biography of Nelson Rockefeller, a two-time presidential candidate, a four-term governor of New York, and a vice president. There are some obvious reasons for this: some archival material has only recently become available, authorized biographer Cary Reich tragically died after finishing the first volume of a two-volume work. But the more fundamental reason is that Rockefeller has been forgotten, perhaps because there has been no obvious constituency to celebrate his memory.

It’s hard to maintain widespread posthumous interest in an American politicians who did not become president. But other such figures of Rockefeller’s generation have had longer afterlives. Conservatives celebrate Barry Goldwater. Different sorts of liberals memorialize Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey. Neoconservatives lionize Henry M. Jackson. While few still praise George Wallace, at least he’s central to the civil rights revolution – if only as a villain. (Rockefeller certainly was a significant figure in support of the movement – he paid for Martin Luther King’s funeral, after all – but he’s not essential to its story).

Rockefeller has no constituency. Conservatives with AARP cards despise him; younger ones probably are oblivious. Baby-boom liberals did not embrace the taker of Attica, the author of draconian drug laws, the patron of Henry Kissinger and Edward Teller. The New Left despised a fervent Cold Warrior who seemed the epitome of “corporate liberalism.” While Rockefeller did try to seize RFK’s liberal mantle after his assassination (in retrospect, not a well-thought-out path to a Republican presidential nomination), he was a little old and un-hip to be embraced by the counterculture. (His legalization of abortion in New York State owed more to his brother John’s work at the Population Council than to the rising women’s movement). Even the few remaining Republican moderates rarely mention Nelson Rockefeller, so as to avoid the tax-and-spend label. (He is useful, however, to those GOP partisans who want to praise their party’s civil rights record – Jackie Robinson can be better described as a Rockefeller loyalist than as a staunch Republican). His record as governor, impressive in some ways (my family has benefited from his enormous expansion of the State University of New York), is besmirched by the fiscal mess he left.

Much like the modernist art and architecture he so loved, Rockefeller’s politics haven’t aged well. He was very much a man of the “Greatest Generation,” a product of “the American High’s” confidence that major institutions could always meet society’s challenges, given enough money and enough blue-ribbon task forces. Rockefeller not only believed in Big Government and Big Business, he had warm relations with Big Labor, and served as patron to both Big Intellect and Big Architecture. In an era marked by low trust in society’s institutions, Rockefeller’s heyday feels very long ago.

I can’t think of many people who resemble Rockefeller today. The closest I can come are the last two mayors of New York City. With Giuliani, he shares cultural liberalism, a messy personal life, a strong law-and-order inclination, and a pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination that failed for reasons that seem obvious in retrospect. With Bloomberg, he shares vast wealth (duh), an unsentimental attitude toward power, a love for technocratic paternalism, and a tin ear for west-of-the-Hudson sensibilities. But there is one surprising heir to the Rockefeller legacy. Eisenhower once said of Rockefeller, “He has one hundred ideas. One of them may be brilliant…it’s worthwhile to have him around because that one idea is worth the ninety-nine that aren’t.” I think there are those who make the same statement about Newt Gingrich.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner teaches at the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University and is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections. He tweets at @richardmskinner.