This piece originally appeared as an unsigned obituary in Inquiry Magazine, March 5, 1979. Thanks to Charles Burris for pointing it out. ~ Ed.
The great 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.
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Before the 1950's 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.'s aide Ivy Lee were busy refurbishing the Rockefeller image, stressing humanitarian philanthropies and the Rockefellers’ “liberalism.” For generations, the Rockefeller's 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.
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In particular 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 Bank.”
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.
Nelson seemed 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.
In 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 Nelson's taste for monuments and grandeur reinforced the impression of many New Yorkers that here was another Caesar come to direct their destinies.
Nelson’s 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 program.
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Nelson was 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 billy club.
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Nelson also 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.
Still, there 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.
When Ford 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.
But fortunately, 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.
In 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.