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HALF NELSON

Cary Reich, The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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Twenty years after he last held public office and seventeen years after his death, the name of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller is mentioned in Republican circles mainly as a pejorative.


Rep. Peter King of New York sought to validate his credentials for assailing Newt Gingrich by noting that he had supported Barry Goldwater back when the future speaker was still a Rockefeller Republican (as indeed he was). Gen. Colin Powell spoiled his self-induction into the GOP by describing himself as a Rockefeller Republican (an apparently accurate description). To his dying day, Richard Nixon regarded me (quite incorrectly) as an unreconstructed Rockefeller Republican -- citing this as reason enough not to grant an interview.


A Rockefeller Republican was really nothing more than a Cold War liberal -- a believer in the power of government to solve domestic problems who took a hard line in the struggle against Soviet imperialism. Today this is a double anachronism. Everybody this side of Paul Wellstone harbors at least some doubts about the efficacy of governmental problem-solving; and there is no Soviet Union, now that the Cold War has been won.


Yet, Cold War liberal Scoop Jackson's name scarcely excites such passion in his Democratic party; in fact, it is not mentioned at all. What biographer Cary Reich describes as Rockefeller's enduring "power to fire up the most incendiary political passions at the mere mention of his name" for Republicans derives from their party's internal history. Rockefeller represents the financial and social elite of the Eastern Seaboard, which lost its grip on the GOP in 1964 and never regained it but still is resented in the hinterland.


Reich's biographical challenge is to breathe life and significance into a subject who left behind no movement and no dedicated band of supporters. The difficulty is compounded by the biographer's decision not to make short shrift of Rockefeller's rise and move quickly to his tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful career in Republican politics beginning with his 1958 campaign for governor of New York.


Instead, Reich's Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer, 1908- 1958 is a definitive, exhaustive, and quite often exhausting account of the subject's childhood, young manhood, business career, and exploits as a Washington bureaucrat. Reich is a prodigious researcher and a graceful, entertaining writer, but Rockefeller's struggles with his father and his father's retainers do not sustain interest.


The book's value is in pointing up the improbability of what Rockefeller achieved after 1958: a leading role in the Republican party that could have led to the White House, save for his lack of personal discipline, and did include election to four terms as governor of New York, then appointment as vice president of the United States.


The name Rockefeller evoked a much stronger popular response in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s than it does today. Then it was a symbol of unlimited wealth ("rich as Rockefeller" was a phrase in a popular tune of the '30s) and of rapacious robber barons.


When Nelson was elected governor in 1958, his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., widely called "Junior", was "absolutely stunned." Reich writes that " deep down," the senior Rockefeller never believed that his son would win, " that he would ever overcome the stigma that, in Junior's mind at least, still shadowed the family."


Even more improbable was Rockefeller's emergence in Republican politics at the age of 50, considering his service a little more than a decade earlier under Franklin D. Roosevelt -- first as a coordinator of inter-American affairs (an appointment of his own instigation, to a job largely of his own making) and later as assistant secretary of state for Latin America.


His go-between with FDR was his longtime adviser and helper, New York Democratic insider Anna Rosenberg, who told the president in 1938 that Nelson was "sympathetic. He feels quite differently from some of the other members of his family" (though in fact he contributed $ 33,000 to Alf Landon's 1936 Republican presidential campaign, more than his brothers).


Once they made contact, Rockefeller became a Roosevelt cheerleader, writing an impassioned defense of the WPA, the make-work New Deal project, to a critical congressional chairman and mailing a copy of the letter to Roosevelt.