book cover imageOn His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller
by Richard Norton Smith.
Random House, 2014.
Hardcover, 842 pages, $38.

Looking back during his final years, Nelson Rockefeller declared his life a failure in that he had not become president of the United States. He had come as close to that goal as he could without realizing it, serving as Vice-President under Gerald Ford in the middle of the 1970s. That chapter of Rockefeller’s life is largely forgotten, however. His most compelling moments in politics came in his many years as governor of what was then the nation’s most populous state, New York, as well as his persistent and erratic quest for the nation’s highest office. His long tenure in Albany, from 1959–1973, marked as it was by breathtaking innovation and spending by the State of New York, made him arguably the nation’s most significant governor since World War II. Richard Norton Smith powerfully makes that case in his compelling biography of a vital but flawed politician.

In politics, the saying goes, timing is everything. Rockefeller’s career, to a point, validates that adage. But it was not just the fortunes of timing that stood between Nelson Rockefeller and the nation’s highest office. Smith emphasizes from the outset that Rockefeller’s advocacy of liberal republicanism, a cause with which he clearly sympathizes, was never fully in sync with the direction of his Republican Party. Opening the story at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco, Smith recounts how Rockefeller was booed as the very embodiment of the eastern establishment of the Republican Party by conservative delegates devoted to Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Their visceral animosity arose despite the wealthy New Yorker’s strong and unimpeachable credentials as a Cold Warrior. But Rockefeller’s hero, as Smith explains, was his fellow New Yorker, Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whose government he worked as a Latin America specialist. With the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson, whom he hoped to face in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller took a back seat to no modern American politician when it came to believing in the power of government to shape society, and in possessing the political skills to exercise that power. That included Rockefeller’s strong and career-long support for civil rights, which was a family tradition dating back to his grandfather John D. Rockefeller. Nelson Rockefeller, for example, paid for the 1968 funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. His activist energy in the governor’s chair was formidable, supported as it was by public policy experts on whom he came to depend.

Smith is at his best when he shows the dynamic trajectory of Rockefeller’s career by this most atypical of politicians. A collector of fine art, he came to view the great public works projects he oversaw as governor of New York as pieces of art in their own right.

Rockefeller the human being is on full display here, with all his foibles and struggles that even his great wealth could not shield him from. The obstacles in his path included a lifelong struggle with dyslexia. The graduate of Dartmouth College also had gaps in his general knowledge. When coming across the name of a certain Thomas Aquinas, an intrigued Rockefeller asked his staff to arrange a meeting with the thirteenth century Catholic theologian. (In fairness, Rockefeller was in the Baptist tradition.) He suffered the incalculable loss of his son Michael, presumed dead at age twenty-three after being lost at sea in New Guinea. Both of his marriages were marred by his adultery; his divorce in 1963 and subsequent marriage to a woman herself newly divorced contributed to Rockefeller’s woes in his 1964 run for the presidency. Rockefeller died suddenly in 1979 in the company of his latest mistress.

His best chance for the White House may have been in 1960, before the rise of the conservative movement in the Republican Party reached its peak. Rockefeller, however, had won his first of four terms as governor of New York only in 1958, taking office the next year. In 1960, the wily and resourceful incumbent vice president, Richard Nixon, achieved and maintained his stranglehold on the party’s nominating machinery.

Rockefeller was the dominant figure in the politics of New York, then the nation’s most populous state. His ambitious, government-led reforms were most notable in education, as he dramatically expanded the state’s public university system, in public support for the arts, and with a generous state-level welfare program. He also envisioned and oversaw the massive collection of public buildings that remade the skyline of the capital city of Albany. In this he was intent on building “a monument to yourself,” as one old Albany political hand advised him at the start of his governorship.

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza in downtown Albany is the enduring symbol and physical manifestation of his years as governor. It remains controversial today, more than a half century after it was first imagined. Constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, this multi-billion dollar project remade the skyline of New York’s small but historically weighty capital city, one ancient by American standards. While showing Albany to foreign dignitaries, Rockefeller had been embarrassed by what he saw as blight in the city’s neighborhoods. Soon New York State acquired and proceeded to level 98 acres of Albany, over the protests and legal challenges of the citizens and government of the city.

In a recent documentary produced for public television on this agonizing process, The Neighborhood that Disappeared, is a rare piece of conservative social history in that its makers are sympathetic to the plight of ordinary citizens living in tight-knit neighborhoods who were helpless to stop the reach and power of the government to literally uproot them and their families and lives. The documentary also persuasively casts doubts on Rockefeller’s persistent claim, including in testimony before Congress during his confirmation hearings for the vice-presidency, that this particular section of Albany was a cesspool of blight and vice.

The result, sometimes referred to sardonically as “Brasilia on the Hudson,” created many jobs in its construction and achieved a certain cold grandeur in its completion. Its modernist style, however, was not in keeping with the architectural traditions of Albany and would hardly be chosen for such a project today. There is much unused space in its enormity, and it is has not worn well over time. What was lost cannot be recovered. Future biographers of Rockefeller should take this critique of his legacy more seriously than Smith was able to do here.

As governor of New York at a time of great change and tumult in American society, Rockefeller was at the center of some of the era’s most wrenching episodes. One of the worst prison riots in the nation’s history occurred at Attica State prison in western New York in 1971. Rockefeller met with heavy criticism for refusing to travel to the prison or meet with representatives of the inmates. Eventually he ordered the state police to take the prison by force, resulting in the death of several dozen people, most of them inmates. Rockefeller’s brand of liberalism did not include leniency on crime. He signed into law strict new penalties against sellers and users of illegal drugs, resulting in, among other things, a significant increase in New York’s prisonpopulation at a time when narcotic use was becoming widespread. Conservatives had long understood that Rockefeller, whose family was active in the “population control movement,” was one of the first governors in the nation to sign legislation making abortion legal, doing so in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.

Despite the length of On His Own Terms, Smith, the author of a highly regarded book on George Washington, does not have much to say about the Rockefeller family’s Huguenot roots in America. The story begins with legendary oilman John D. Rockefeller, grandfather of Nelson.

Other than referring to Rockefeller’s pragmatism, Smith does not delve much into any philosophical underpinnings to his vision of government as a force for positive good. Perhaps there was not much to find. And Rockefeller’s socially liberal, activist-government tradition is indeed largely extinct within the Republican Party. Both main parties have become more ideologically unified in the decades since Nelson Rockefeller dominated the politics of New York. Something has been lost in that transition, as Smith understands. His study of Rockefeller should be the defining biography of this important American figure for some time to come.  

Jason K. Duncan is Professor of History at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book is John F. Kennedy: The Spirit of Cold War Liberalism (Routledge, 2014).