Rockefeller, Nelson Aldrich

views updated May 18 2018

ROCKEFELLER, Nelson Aldrich

(b. 8 July 1908 in Bar Harbor, Maine; d. 26 January 1979 in New York City), governor of New York throughout the 1960s who sought and failed to receive the Republican nomination for president in 1960, 1964, and 1968; the scion of the enormously wealthy Rockefeller family.

The second son and third of six children born to philanthropists John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Greene Aldrich, Rockefeller grew up with tremendous wealth, power, and prestige as the grandson of the richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller, and of U.S. senator Nelson Aldrich, who represented Rhode Island as a Republican. He attended the Lincoln School, a progressive coeducational institution in New York City, then graduated from Dartmouth College (1926–1930) with a B.A. cum laude in economics. Rockefeller married Mary Todhunter Clark, a Philadelphia socialite, on 23 June 1930; the couple had five children and divorced in 1962.

Although he knew he would inherit a trust fund of $40 million, Rockefeller was no playboy. He joined the family office in 1931, obtained a real estate broker's license, and began to sell space in the new Rockefeller Center, then the world's largest office complex. Taught from birth that wealth carries an obligation to help others, Rockefeller made his first contribution to public life by serving under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. As coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, he attempted to ward off the threat of Nazism by providing Latin Americans with economic assistance. In 1944 he became the assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, but his aggressive approach led to conflict with his superiors, and Rockefeller resigned a year later. Determined to help other families benefit from capitalism as his had, he created the American International Association for Economic and Social Development to prevent the spread of Communism in Latin America by using private U.S. funds to improve public health, education, and agriculture. Named by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to reorganize the federal government, Rockefeller recommended the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and served as its undersecretary from 1953 to 1954. Rockefeller left HEW to serve as Eisenhower's special assistant on cold war strategy, a post he held until his nomination as secretary of defense was blocked in 1955 because of his reputation for heavy spending.

With his federal government career curtailed, Rockefeller looked to his home state of New York and won election as its governor in 1958. He eventually served four terms over fifteen years, from 1959 to 1973. Charismatic, hardworking, and able to relate to people at all rungs on the social ladder, he saw every problem as solvable, but his optimistic spending contributed to New York's financial troubles in the 1970s. Intent on keeping a friendly business climate in the state by lowering business taxes, Rockefeller paid for the expansion of New York government and the accompanying 300 percent jump in the state budget during his tenure by raising individual taxes. He continually argued that the federal government should provide greater subsidies to larger states. To defend his controversial fiscal policies and to measure public opinion, Rockefeller began an innovative ten-year practice in 1961 of holding a series of town meetings around New York.

As socially liberal as he was free-spending, Rockefeller often seemed more like a New Deal Democrat than a Republican. He revitalized Albany, the capital of New York, by building a vast governmental complex; he funded the construction of hospitals and roads, advocated civil rights, supported rent control, and promoted treatment for narcotics abusers rather than strict criminal penalties (a position that changed in the 1970s because treatment failed to have much effect). One of his most creative programs, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) of 1968, built low-and middle-income housing by mixing four dollars of private capital with one dollar of government aid. Able to override local zoning laws, much to the anger of many New Yorkers, it was the nation's most powerful state agency for urban housing construction. Rockefeller used his personal contacts with the Wall Street financial community, particularly his brother David, head of Chase Manhattan Bank, to keep the agency solvent. After he left office, the UDC defaulted on its loans. Rockefeller's greatest legacy to the state may be the expansion of the state university system, which increased from 38,000 students on 28 campuses to 246,000 students on 71 campuses by the time he left office.

Rockefeller's personal life occasionally made headlines during the 1960s. In 1961 his youngest son, Michael, disappeared on an anthropological expedition in New Guinea. The family's prominence made the disappearance headline news around the globe. Rockefeller immediately flew to assist in a fruitless search for the remains of the young man, who was possibly attacked by crocodiles or, more likely, killed in a racially motivated attack by cannibals.

As governor of the most populous and powerful state in the country, Rockefeller instantly became a major figure in the Republican Party upon his 1958 election; moderate Republicans bandied his name about as a candidate for the presidency in 1960. An ambitious man, Rockefeller had designs on the office and made a nationwide exploratory tour in 1959, but the qualities that made him a successful governor did not make him a good national candidate. Rockefeller typically relied on his staff to conduct massive amounts of research. In 1960 he gave up his pursuit of the nomination, reporting that the "people who were running my campaign said it was hopeless." He simply lacked the fierce determination that propelled other men, like Richard Nixon, to ignore the naysayers. The downing of a U-2 spy plane over Russia in May 1960 prompted Rockefeller to threaten to split the party at the convention by making himself available for a draft unless his advocacy of increased defense spending and stronger support for civil rights were reflected in the Republican Party platform. This blackmail did not endear Rockefeller to party leaders, and his actions hurt him when he again flirted with the nomination in subsequent years.

Rockefeller's presidential campaigns were also constrained by his governorship; unlike the eventual 1960s Republican presidential nominees Nixon and Barry Goldwater, he had a state to run. He did not have the luxury of spending years courting the party faithful, nor, as he acknowledged in his twilight days, would he have been content to sit on the sidelines gathering support while others ran the country. Rockefeller also had to attract diverse, multiethnic urban voters to maintain political power in New York, and the programs that appealed to such an audience did not necessarily meet with the approval of southern or western white suburbanites. Key state and local Republicans around the country preferred a more conservative leader.

In 1964 Rockefeller had an excellent chance of winning the presidential nomination, but his personal life cast too dark a shadow. He had fallen in love with Margaretta "Happy" Fitler Murphy, eighteen years his junior and a married mother of four young children. Both Rockefeller and Happy divorced their spouses; they married on 4 May 1963. Before his remarriage, Rockefeller had been ahead of Goldwater in the polls, but his actions cost him this lead. To add further insult, Goldwater partisans came up with the slogan "We want a leader, not a lover." Rockefeller managed to win the Oregon primary in May 1964, but the first of two sons that Happy bore him arrived with unfortunate timing a week before the California primary. With Rockefeller's morality again on center stage, California voters gave Goldwater the win.

In 1968 a staff analyst told Rockefeller he could not be nominated for the presidency, and he intended to sit out the campaign. Accordingly, he publicly withdrew in March 1968, but he reentered the race at the end of April after appeals from moderates and the business community. Having entered too late to mount a serious challenge to the frontrunner, Richard Nixon, and having antagonized many leading Republicans, Rockefeller's only hope lay in a massive groundswell of support. He spent lavishly on national television advertising to raise his opinion polls, but he could not overcome Nixon's lead.

Despite his differences with Nixon, Rockefeller loyally supported the president. A hawk and a strong anti-Communist, he supported Nixon's Vietnam policy and acted as the president's emissary to Latin America in 1969. Continuing to yearn for the presidency, he renominated Nixon at the 1972 convention in an attempt to better position himself for the 1976 campaign. Chosen as Gerald Ford's vice president when Nixon and Agnew resigned in disgrace, Rockefeller was sworn in on 19 December 1974 and found himself marginalized in the White House and in his own party. He retired from politics in 1975. On a Friday night in 1979 he met privately with a female staff worker in his New York City townhouse and suffered a fatal heart attack, fueling considerable speculation about the exact circumstances of his demise. His cremated remains were buried in the Rockefeller Family Cemetery, near the family's Westchester County estate in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

A liberal and a believer in an activist government, Rockefeller fell out of step with the increasingly conservative Republican Party of the 1960s. Although a much-ad-mired and enormously popular governor who helped millions of New Yorkers with innovative policies, he failed in his lifelong ambition to become president because he did not appeal to voters in the South and West who dominated the Republican ranks.

Rockefeller's private and governmental papers are held at the Rockefeller Archive Center, Pocantico Hills, near Tarrytown, New York. He authored a number of books, including The Future of Federalism (1962); Unity, Freedom, and Peace (1968); and Our Environment Can Be Saved (1970). Biographies of Rockefellerinclude James Desmond, Nelson Rockefeller: A Political Biography (1964); Robert H. Connery and Gerald Benjamin, Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the Statehouse (1979); Joseph E. Persico, The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller (1982); and James F. Underwood and William J. Daniels, Governor Rockefeller in New York: The Apex of Pragmatic Liberalism in the United States (1982). James Poling's The Rockefeller Record: A Political Self-Portrait (1960) is a collection of his public utterances. The dominant Rockefeller of his generation, he is covered heavily in Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty (1976). Nicol C. Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (1989), summarizes Rockefeller's presidential runs. An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Jan. 1979).

Caryn E. Neumann

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller

views updated May 14 2018

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979), an heir to the enormous Standard Oil fortune amassed by his grandfather, forsook business for a career in state and national politics, which included four terms as governor of New York, several attempts at the presidency, and a brief tenure as vice-president of the United States.

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, July 8, 1908. He was the third of six children of John B. Rockefeller, Jr., and Abby Greene Aldrich. His grandfathers were John D. Rockefeller, Sr., founder of the Standard Oil Company, and U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich (Republican, Rhode Island).

Despite his family's great wealth, Rockefeller had a fairly frugal upbringing. He attended the Lincoln School, which was composed of students from diverse economic strata. For college, he attended Dartmouth, where he majored in economics, taught a Sunday school class, and occasionally worked in the school cafeteria to earn spending money. In 1930 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and cum laude from Dartmouth and married Mary Todhunter Clark, a Philadelphia socialite, two weeks later. (They subsequently had five children.)

An Expert on Latin America

Rockefeller began his professional career working for his family's companies. By the age of 30 he was president of the New York Rockefeller Center. Business did not retain his interest, however. Several trips to Latin America in the late 1930s convinced him of the region's importance to national security, and in 1940 he accepted his first major governmental position as the head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. The office strove, through advertising and trade agreements with Central and South American countries, to lessen the influence of the Axis powers in those areas. In 1944 he was promoted to assistant secretary of state in charge of Latin American affairs, but a year later he resigned and resumed a private career. Despite his brief tenure, many of the Latin American countries rewarded his efforts. President Rios of Chile inducted Rockefeller into his country's Order of Merit in 1945. The following year Brazil made him a member of the National Order Southern Cross, and in 1949 Mexico enrolled him in the Order of the Aztec Eagle.

Although removed from government, Rockefeller continued his efforts to promote a higher standard of living in underdeveloped areas of the world through the American International Association for Economic and Social Development, a private agency he created with the aid of his family's funds. In 1950 Rockefeller resumed his public career by accepting President Harry Truman's appointment as the chairman of the International Development Advisory Board, which combatted Communism in underdeveloped nations by encouraging economic growth in depressed areas.

President Dwight Eisenhower advanced Rockefeller's political ascent in 1952 by appointing him chairman of the Advisory Committee on Government Organization. Recommendations submitted by his committee helped to reorganize such basic government agencies as the Defense Department, the Office of Defense Mobilization, and the Agriculture Department. In addition, under Eisenhower's orders Rockefeller organized a new agency, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and then became its first undersecretary. Rockefeller believed that good government meant efficient management of resources. He once stated, "The goal of society is to provide every individual with an opportunity to develop his highest potential as a citizen, as a productive member of society, and as a spiritual being."

Rockefeller served as undersecretary until 1954, when President Eisenhower made him one of his special assistants. As a special assistant Rockefeller aided the president with Cold War tactics, helping to develop such proposals as the "open skies" plan, the Atoms-for-Peace Plan, and the Aswan Dam program.

A Mixed Success in Politics

In 1956, frustrated with his ability as an appointed official to merely implement, rather than to initiate, government policy, Rockefeller resigned as special assistant and created, with his own monies, the Special Studies Project. The project, directed by Henry Kissinger, researched and suggested solutions to some of America's most demanding social problems. A book, Prospect for America (1961), recorded the proposed solutions.

At 5 feet, 10 inches Rockefeller was physically compact and forceful. He once noted, "nature gave me a strong body. I can keep going when a lot of other people fold up." He drew on his stamina heavily in 1958 during his successful campaign for governor of New York. His subsequent administration was notable for balancing the state budget and substantially reducing the state debt.

In 1961 Rockefeller divorced his wife. Despite some public disapproval of this, he maintained enough support in New York to win his second term as its governor the following year. In 1963 he married Margaretta Fitler "Happy" Murphy, who was 19 years younger than he and who would bear him two sons. Five weeks before marrying Rockefeller "Happy" Murphy had divorced her husband and had given him custody of their children. The remarriage caused so much public disenchantment with Rockefeller that a Gallup poll showed his decline after the remarriage from the frontrunner among the 1964 Republican presidential hopefuls to that of distant second behind Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller nonetheless announced his candidacy for the nomination. The Republican convention of 1964 chose Barry Goldwater, however, and Rockefeller continued his duties as governor.

Rockefeller won four gubernatorial elections in New York, but he lost three attempts for the presidency. On December 11, 1973, more than a year before his fourth term expired, Rockefeller resigned as governor in order to head the National Committee on Critical Choices for Americans and the Commission on Water Quality. He denied resigning to plan a rumored fourth presidential attempt.

Rockefeller once admitted to desiring the presidency "Ever since I was a kid. After all, when you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?" As early as 1967 he claimed to have lost his presidential cravings, but the political commentator Bill Moyers stated, "I believe Rocky when he says he's lost his ambition. I also believe he remembers where he put it."

Rockefeller nearly realized his presidential aspirations on December 19, 1974, when he was selected as vice-president under President Gerald Ford (who had moved to the White House following the resignation of Richard Nixon). After his two years as vice-president, however, Rockefeller began to substitute art for politics. Art had long intrigued him. The year of his college graduation he had become a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he served as president of the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. He founded the Museum of Primitive Art in 1957 and amassed extensive collections of modern paintings, sculpture, and all types of primitive art.

His own collections proved impressive enough to prompt the opening of a boutique which sold reproductions of his collected works. He also signed a contract with Alfred A. Knopf publishers to produce five books about his art collection. He only produced one of the contracted books, Masterpieces of Primitive Art (1978), before he died of heart failure on January 27, 1979.

Rockefeller wrote three other books: The Future of Federalism (1962), Unity, Freedom and Peace (1968), and Our Environment Can Be Saved (1970). In sum, Nelson Rockefeller 's career in politics and philanthropy significantly contributed to the change in the family's reputation from that of avaricious manipulators to that of politically active philanthropists.

Further Reading

Among the extensive literature on Nelson Rockefeller is Stewart Alsop's Nixon & Rockefeller: A Double Portrait (1960). Robert H. Connery and Gerald Benjamin's Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the Statehouse (1979) documents Rockefeller's gubernatorial career. The Rockefeller File (1976) by Gary Allen harshly criticizes the Rockefeller wealth and power. Nelson Rockefeller: A Political Biography (1964) by James Desmond analyzes primarily the business and political aspects of Rockefeller's life. Frank H. Gervasi's The Real Rockefeller: The Story of the Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of the Political Aspirations of Nelson Rockefeller (1964) is one of the most favorable books about Rockefeller and chronicles his 1964 presidential attempt. The Rockefeller Record (1960) by James Poling anticipates a great political career for the then rising Rockefeller. Rockefeller's Follies: An Unauthorized View of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1966) by William Rodgers portrays Rockefeller as a skilled administrator hindered by a shortsighted determination that his own will prevail. Michael Kramer and Sam Roberts "I Never Wanted To Be Vice-President of Anything:" An Investigative Biography of Nelson Rockefeller (1976) and Nelson Rockefeller: A Biography (1960) by Joe Alex Morris give additional political and character analyses.

Additional Sources

Persico, Joseph E., The imperial Rockefeller: a biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982; Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike Press, 1982.

Reich, Cary, The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1908-1958: worlds to conquer, New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Rockefeller in retrospect: the governor's New York legacy, Albany, N.Y.: Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Govt., 1984.

United States. 96th Congress, Memorial addresses and other tributes in the Congress of the United States on the life and contributions of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1979. □

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