Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. observed that, “as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” Richard Norton Smith has written a scholarly and balanced biography of Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) that portrays the former New York governor as a quintessential man of his times, both in action and passion. Since Al Smith, no governor has left a larger or more controversial footprint on New York.
The book draws on an impressive array of sources to tell the story of Rockefeller’s formative years, business career, stints in Washington policy-making roles, art-collecting, philanthropy, political career, family life, friendships, personal habits, and shortcomings. What emerges is a rich portrait of a man who, William F. Buckley stated, “drank deeply of life from a full cup.”
Rockefeller was the second son of Abigail Aldrich and John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was the only son of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the family patriarch who created the Standard Oil fortune. As recounted by the author, Rockefeller was closer to his mother than his father, a stern taskmaster who stressed thrift and duty. Rockefeller inherited his love of the arts from his mother, who was a founder of the Museum of Modern Art.
Throughout his life, Rockefeller suffered from dyslexia. The author writes that the undiagnosed condition caused frustration and poor grades, though Rockefeller earned Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth. To cope, Rockefeller developed a keen ear and learned through listening, often from staffers and consultants.
During his early career in the 1930s, Rockefeller was employed in family businesses such as the newly constructed Rockefeller Center, where he displayed remarkable “deal-making abilities.” The author notes that in 1932-33, Rockefeller partnered with friends in a real estate brokerage that produced 21 leases for the new complex.
Latin America was one of Rockefeller’s passions, triggered by his 1937 inspection of Venezuela oilfields developed by a Standard Oil subsidiary. One strength of the book is the author’s deep knowledge of Rockefeller’s long-term commitment to dozens of Latin American enterprises, including a stint in World War II as co-coordinator of Inter-American Affairs for President Franklin Roosevelt. From this post, Rockefeller devised cultural offerings and health initiatives to support an anti-Nazi propaganda campaign. Later, Rockefeller established philanthropic organizations that distributed technical expertise and equipment throughout Latin America to battle illiteracy and poverty.
In 1958, Rockefeller won the New York governorship, unseating Averill Harriman. He won re-election in 1962, 1966, and 1970. The strongest part of the book covers these campaigns, Rockefeller’s battles with New York Mayor John Lindsay, and the major imprint Rockefeller left on New York.
As governor, Rockefeller pursued a progressive agenda. As chronicled by the author, Rockefeller put New York in the national forefront of environmental protection, clean water legislation, support of local education, expansion of the public university system, reorganizing mass transportation, increasing (by 50 percent) Black and Hispanic employment in state government, building housing for the poor and aging, creating the largest state medical care program for the needy, and establishing the first State Council on the Arts. To pay for this progressive agenda, Rockefeller raised income taxes eight times and drastically increased public debt.
As illegal drug use increased in the 1960s, Rockefeller tried different approaches to fight it. In 1962, he established a program of voluntary rehab for addicted convicts rather than prison. When that program was deemed insufficient, in 1966, he supported compulsory treatment and rehab. Impatient with the perceived lack of success of that program, in 1973, Rockefeller enacted tough sentencing laws. This get-tough approach was then followed across the U.S.
As discussed in the book, Rockefeller’s get-tough approach has been controversial. Although stiff sentences have hindered the drug trade, they have also led to the mass incarceration of two generations of mostly Black and Hispanic males. Today, more than 500,000 people are serving drug sentences in U.S. prisons. In 1980, the figure was just 41,000. The price to the public purse has been high; the long-term damage to minority communities incalculable.
The book takes an unvarnished look at Rockefeller’s handling of the 1971 Attica prison riot, which resulted in 39 deaths. The author suggests that much of the carnage might have been avoided if Rockefeller had accepted the inmates’ request that he listen to their grievances at the prison, which Rockefeller refused to do.
The author also explores Rockefeller’s forays into national politics. Rockefeller sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968, each time unsuccessfully.
The book posits that Rockefeller’s best chance was probably in 1960, when he was a successful first-term GOP governor fresh from a stunning 1958 victory in a year dominated by Democrats. But he was out-maneuvered in 1960 by Vice President Richard Nixon, who had deeper ties to the party base. Rockefeller then ran spirited campaigns in 1964 and 1968, but by then GOP conservatives had re-emerged to dominate the party. Rockefeller’s tax-and-spend record as governor, coupled with his 1962 divorce and controversial 1963 remarriage, doomed his presidential aspirations.
In 1974, Rockefeller was appointed Vice President by President Gerald Ford. The author explains that Rockefeller was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but only after tough questioning about his personal finances and past political dirty tricks. Once in office, Rockefeller was marginalized by Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld. By the time of the 1976 campaign, Rockefeller was seen as a liability on the national ticket, so he was replaced by Sen. Robert Dole.
His political career thus ended, Rockefeller returned to New York, where he died in 1979 of a heart ailment, purportedly in the company of a young paramour. As chronicled in the book, Rockefeller had a long history of womanizing. The book examines the circumstances of, but sheds little new light on, Rockefeller’s mysterious death. The purported paramour still isn’t talking.