originally appeared as an unsigned obituary in
Inquiry Magazine, March 5, 1979. Thanks to Charles Burris for
pointing it out. ~ Ed.
shock at hearing of the sudden death of Nelson Rockefeller
was the startling realization that now he would never get to be
President of the United States. Millions of Americans grew up
with the firm conviction, whether they liked it or not, that Nelson's
sweep into the Presidency would be as inevitable as the tides
or the movements of the stars. He seemed an irresistible force,
backed by an Eastern establishment that appeared to possess limitless
amounts of money, power, and intellectual and media support. That
despite these enormous advantages, Nelson never quite reached
the height of power, should tell us that nothing is really inevitable
and that, in the last analysis, a benign Providence watches over
the fortunes of the United States.
1950ís it was unthinkable that a Rockefeller should aspire to
high office in the United States. The Rockefellers had once been
the most hated family in the country, the very symbol of the "malefactors
of great wealth" denounced by populists and muckrakers. But for
four decades, publicists such as old John D.ís aide Ivy Lee were
busy refurbishing the Rockefeller image, stressing humanitarian
philanthropies and the Rockefellers' "liberalism." For generations,
the Rockefellerís had been content to exercise their political
power through others, first through Ohio Republicans and later,
when the dynasty moved to New York, through the New York party.
through their Chase National (later Chase Manhattan) Bank, the
Rockefellers exercised control over the "liberal" wing of
the New York Republican party that was headed by Governor Thomas
E. Dewey. In a rare episode that suddenly exposed behind-the-scenes
political power, Winthrop W. Aldrich, Nelson's uncle and chairman
of the board of the Chase Bank, imperiously summoned Governor
Dewey to his chambers and successfully urged him to run for reelection.
During the Eisenhower administration John Foster Dulles, former
foreign policy adviser to Dewey, served as Secretary of
State; few people knew that Dulles's wife, Janet Pomeroy Avery,
was John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s first cousin. Robert Taft, Sr.,
complained with no little justice in 1952 that "every Republican
candidate for president since 1936 has been chosen by the Chase
But in 1958,
Nelson Rockefeller's candidacy for governor struck the political
world like a thunderclap. It meant that the Rockefellers were
now confident enough to strike out for political power in the
open and under their own bold banner. Just as David was
to be the banker, and John D. III the philanthropist, so Nelson
was to be the politician of the family.
to have everything, and he swept New York politics before him.
As a liberal Republican he was able to muscle the Republicans,
while appealing to many liberal Democrats. Above all there was
the charisma, the toughness, the cool and open drive for power;
behind every smiling "Hi ya, fella," there were the cold, beady
eyes of a ruthless seeker after domination.
his reign as governor, Nelson forged an irresistible coalition:
The real estate and construction interests, as well as the construction
unions, were his for life as he sharply raised taxes and incurred
deficits in order to build such useless boondoggles as the $1.5
billion Albany Mall (later renamed the Nelson Rockefeller Empire
State Plaza) and the monumental World Trade Center towers in New
York City. The Trade Center had to be packed with state government
bureaus in order to survive at all, and Nelsonís taste for monuments
and grandeur reinforced the impression of many New Yorkers that
here was another Caesar come to direct their destinies.
policies were the epitome of Cold War liberalism, of aggrandizing
governmental power in all matters, economic and personal, domestic
and foreign. In his early years, Nelson was the leading drumbeater
for the national mania for fallout shelters: Millions of school
children were told that they could successfully avoid nuclear
destruction by cowering under their desks, or trotting dutifully
to the basement. For a while, New York was subjected to compulsory
air raid drills, until public resistance forced an end to the
characteristically tough and imperial in the way he tackled the
problem of drug abuse. His approach was draconian: long jail sentences
for heroin pushers and addicts. The Rockefeller program, which
of course proved finally to be a fiasco, was the epitome of the
belief in treating a social or medical problem with jail and the
built up a formidable political machine, via large and continuing
gifts and unpaid "loans" to his aides and confidants. And yet
he never reached his ultimate goal. His abrasive methods and personality
aggravated the split between conservative and Rockefeller Republicans,
until an ugly schism between the two forces was displayed on television
at the 1964 convention. When Rockefeller and his wing openly deserted
Barry Goldwater to support Lyndon Johnson that year, Nelson seemed
doomed to be thwarted in his open yearning for the highest office
in the land.
was a final chance. When Richard Nixon was nominated for President
in 1968, he picked the unknown Spiro Agnew for Vice President
at the urging of Rockefeller, and he did so to appease the liberal
wing of his party. The peccadilloes of Agnew, once a Rockefeller
Republican in Maryland, were later uncovered by U.S. Attorney
George Beau, a Rockefeller Republican from the same state. Thus
when Nixon was ousted from office his successor would not be the
newly-conservative Agnew, but Gerald Ford, who was congenial to
the Rockefeller wing of the party.
chose Nelson Rockefeller to be Vice President, it seemed to many
conspiracy theorists that their phantasms had at last been confirmed;
in the old cliché, Nelson Rockefeller was now "only a heartbeat
away" from the pinnacle of power.
he never made it to the top, and as Vice President Rockefeller
had to confine himself to conducting an elaborate whitewash of
the CIA that managed to preserve all of the agency's power intact
behind a facade of investigation and supposedly imposed restraint.
the end, Nelson was not to achieve his heart's desire, and Jimmy
Carter was sworn in as President. But if Nelson never achieved
his seeming destiny as our Caesar, he did have the satisfaction
of having his longtime personal foreign policy adviser, Henry
Kissinger, serve as the unchallenged foreign policy czar of both
the Nixon and Ford administrations. And the further satisfaction
of seeing Henry the K. succeeded by brother David's crew from
the Trilateral Commission, from Carter and Mondale down through
Brzezinski and the top layers of the State and Treasury departments.
At the end, Nelson and the other Rockefellers had to fall back
on their time-honored tactic of achieving power through others,
but perhaps, as usual, they accomplished more that way than they
could have on their own.