- - Monday, November 24, 2014


By Richard Norton Smith
Random House, $38, 842 pages

Nelson Rockefeller: grandson of John D. Rockefeller, early on helping his father develop Rockefeller Center and his mother the Museum of Modern Art; FDR’s wartime coordinator for Latin America, four-time governor of New York, credited with innovations in education, urban policy and approaches to funding; chairman of numerous commissions and committees, spokesman for liberal Republicanism, to which he gave his name and, for the decade of the 1960s, unsuccessful presidential aspirant.

Richard Norton Smith, a fluent and elegant writer, noted biographer of Thomas E. Dewey and Robert R. McCormick, among others, and director of presidential libraries commemorating Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford and Reagan, gives us Nelson Rockefeller’s life in full, touching especially on the political aspects.

Nelson Rockefeller ran for the presidency three times — in 1960, 1964 and 1968 — and after each failed attempt left another layer of alienated Republicans to oppose him the next time around. In 1960, trailing in the polls after a period of vacillation, he ceded the nomination to Richard Nixon but demanded that the vice president allow him to rewrite much of the party platform, offending conservative Republicans, middle-of-the-road Republicans and President Eisenhower himself.

In 1963, he divorced his wife and in 1964 married one of his staffers with whom he’d been having an affair, the wife of a man he’d favored with an important appointment to a state commission, thereby alienating a large segment of Republican women. His first child by his new wife was born that year, keeping the perceived scandal alive and making personal morality a key issue — a year in which he also found himself swimming against a powerful ideological tide. Many believe that 1964 marked the birth of the conservative ascendancy and the beginning of the end of that East Coast elitist Brahmin brand of New-Deal-lite Republican politics and governing personified by Nelson Rockefeller, who greatly admired FDR.

The hammer fell when he was allotted time to speak at the convention in San Francisco and used it to attack what he called extremist and totalitarian tendencies, as if all those mostly normal Republican delegates listening to him were involved, as he told them they were, in a plot to create a fascist regime, building “political power on the outlawed and immoral basis of segregation. Political success cannot be divorced from political morality.”

National Review, quoted by Mr. Smith, summed up the general Republican response to the tirade: “Let Mr. Rockefeller preach his ideas of the principled life to his various families, and spare the nation his cynical moralizing.”

As it was, that disruptive appearance, which Mr. Smith re-creates in a striking 34-page prologue, was effectively Nelson Rockefeller’s last hurrah in his pursuit of the presidency, an acknowledgment that he would never realize his greatest aspiration. (“When you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?”)

True, there was a slight revival of hope when, during the intense fallout from Watergate, he was chosen to serve as President Ford’s vice president, albeit primarily because he was one of the few available Republicans who could make it through the nomination process. For a time, he attempted to carve out a substantive place in the administration but found himself in the unaccustomed position of having to work as a member of a team, with the signals being called by presidential advisers such as Chief of Staff Donald H. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

It was, as Mr. Smith writes, “a bittersweet turn,” ending with the choice of Bob Dole to succeed him on the 1976 ticket and, with it, writes Mr. Smith, “he withdrew from the public arena.” But not quite. With his death two years later, he was briefly very much back in the national news.

What Mr. Smith calls “the humiliating circumstances” of that death (he suffered a heart attack while exercising his seigneurial rights with one of his Monica Lewinsky-like retainers) “only confirmed a womanizing streak long withheld from the public [that] overshadowed the accomplishments of his life.”

But that womanizing, apparently mainly with staffers, may have been an inseparable element in the makeup of the man. With more than enough money to buy the loyalty of legions of retainers, advisers and experts, and with much of the world he surveyed a personal fiefdom, he was lord of the manor. When you became one of his retainers, you could expect, if you served loyally, a secure working lifetime. If you were a personable woman, the bargain might involve additional sacrifice. But noblesse oblige, always.

It’s unlikely that the man Mr. Smith writes about would regret the manner of his passing — certainly not the man described by his daughter Ann at his memorial service: “He was what he was — exuberant, energetic, extravagant.” Or, as he himself put it, “Never look back; just keep going.”

At the recessional, to the distaste of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain to all eastern liberal Republicans, “Lionel Hampton and his five-piece band performed a rousing vibraphone rendition of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ the toe-tapping anthem Nelson always used as his exit music.”

Like him or not, he left life as he lived it — on his own terms.

 John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is a co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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