The Champ Who Never Made It

This obituary was originally published in the February 5, 1979 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller: 1908-1979

Nothing delights me so much as facing up to a complex public issue, with all its confusions, turmoil and intensity, and trying to pull together the human resources to deal with it.” Thus did Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller explain his political outlook during his confirmation hearings for Vice President in 1974. The words also summed up his whole political career, from his apprenticeship under a Democratic Administration to his four terms as New York Governor to his last moments in the limelight during a brief stint as Vice President. He truly loved problems and, with an exuberant confidence that few politicians could match, he thought he could solve most of them. Not singlehanded: he delighted in leading and managing people, all kinds of people. Again and again, he urged his rather narrowly based Republican Party to open its doors to every group. In this he had only limited success, but that did not deter him. He was driven by a mission to serve, improve and up lift his country.

Typically, he was working on a book about his modern art collection when he was stricken by a heart attack in his office in mid-Manhattan last Friday night. He died immediately. He was 70, but he seemed much younger.

This man of enormous energies and talents was never fully accepted, as if his name and his great fortune somehow stood in his way. Like so many other figures in American history, he desperately wanted to be President. He knew he was qualified; it galled him that men he felt had less ability repeatedly beat him out for the post. He was more a man of the people, more at ease in crowds than less wealthy politicians, yet he never seemed to be totally trusted. His money hurt him in a society where populist currents still run strong, and his liberalism prompted his own party’s right wing to pursue him like the avenging Furies, denying him the presidential nomination three times.

So he had to settle for second best, though he once swore he never would. “Standby equipment,” he contemptuously said of the vice presidency. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a No. 2 type of guy.” He was not, but he served Gerald Ford loyally and, when the President decided his No. 2 would be a liability in winning the 1976 nomination, Rockefeller withdrew without a murmur of protest.

Rockefeller was born to wealth, power and privilege but not to political ambition. The arts, finance, philanthropy were the family concerns. Yet a reading problem, dyslexia, forced young Nelson out of the library into more active pursuits and made him a confirmed extravert. He struggled through school in Manhattan, then managed to make Phi Beta Kappa at Dartmouth in 1930. After graduation he married Mary Todhunter Clark, a member of a Philadelphia Main Line family that summered near the Rockefeller home on the coast of Maine. The couple’s world tour had the trappings of a state visit as sheiks, princes, poets and artists turned out to greet them. Nelson and Mary eventually had five children.

Rockefeller knew that a business career was not for him. He wrote his father: “It seems to squeeze all other interests out of the men’s lives that are in it.” For a while he worked for Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and gained attention for recognizing the A.F.L. as the bargaining agent for center employees. Labor never forgot, and many unions later supported him in his campaigns for Governor. But there were limits to his liberalism. Indulging his passion for modern art, he commissioned the well-known Communist Artist Diego Rivera to paint a mural for the center. When a likeness of Lenin began to emerge on the wall, Rockefeller hastily sacked Rivera and destroyed the offending mural. It was replaced by a more appropriate work, featuring Abe Lincoln and Thomas Edison.

Because of the vast Rockefeller holdings in Latin America, Nelson became familiar with the area and sensitive to its needs. When World War II broke out, President Roosevelt put him in charge of a new agency, the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which countered Nazi pressures and propaganda in the Southern Hemisphere. Appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs in 1944, Rockefeller persuaded the countries of the continent to sign a mutual security treaty. But when Harry Truman succeeded Roosevelt, Rocky’s days as an administrator in a Democratic government were over.

His Republican career, however, was just getting launched. He joined the Eisenhower Administration to help set up the new Department of Health, Education and Welfare. His zeal for the task pleased Ike but not the party’s right-wingers, who began to make trouble for the free-spending newcomer. Frustrated in his bold designs, Rocky decided that he needed to build his own political base. Few Republicans wanted to challenge New York’s Democratic Governor Averell Harriman in 1958. Rockefeller was the answer to the state party’s prayers: a new face with plenty of cash. Then came the surprise. This hitherto untested, pampered and occasionally standoffish scion of one of America’s greatest fortunes turned out to be a political natural. Plunging into crowds on the sidewalks of New York, devouring whatever ethnic food was thrust into his hand, greeting everybody with a hearty “Hi ya, fella,” he wowed downstate Democrats and upstate Republicans alike. Why are you doing this? he was invariably asked. “I sure don’t need the money,” he would reply with an infectious grin. Harriman never knew what hit him as Rockefeller won by 573,000 votes.

In office, Rockefeller transformed the Empire State. His proudest achievement was to expand the state university from 38,000 students on 41 campuses to 244,000 on 72. He added 50 state parks, 100,000 new housing units, 109 hospitals and nursing homes, and 348 sewage-treatment plants, which have effectively reduced pollution in the upper Hudson. His most controversial construction was the $1 billion-plus Albany Mall, an immense Brasilia-like complex to house the state government. It was denounced as “Rocky’s Erector Set,” but it is now a favorite of government workers and tourists alike.

This splurge of construction cost dearly. After increasing taxes as much as could, the Governor resorted to a novel device to raise still more money. He got around the state legislature as well as the voters by setting up a host of quasi-public agencies that were able to issue “moral obligation bonds” on their own initiative. But these bonds did not have the full backing of the state, and one of the agencies, the Urban Development Corporation, defaulted during the economic downturn in the 1970s. That triggered a sequence of events that helped lead to New York City’s prolonged fiscal crisis.

Rocky’s New York power base, plus his political aptitude and personal appeal, catapulted him to the front ranks of presidential contenders. But the prize consistently eluded him. In 1962, when the G.O.P. nomination seemed within reach, he divorced his wife of 31 years and subsequently married Margaretta (“Happy”) Murphy, who gave up custody of her four children. Rockefeller also failed to mount a serious organizational effort; with a trace of arrogance, he almost seemed to feel that the party should come to him. At a Republican convention dominated by the party’s right wing, Rockefeller made a gallant but futile fight against the forces pushing Barry Goldwater’s nomination. Amid boos, catcalls and shouted obscenities, he reminded his assailants: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is still a free country.” Said Goldwater last week: “He would have made a good President.”

In his last term as Governor, Rocky joined the growing shift to ward conservatism. He called for more frugality and restraint in government, denounced welfare cheaters and pushed through a tough new law making life sentences mandatory for drug deal ers. When a brutal revolt broke out in the maximum-security prison of Attica, he first stayed aloof, then sanctioned a counterattack that resulted in the deaths of 29 prisoners and ten guards who had been held as hostages. Rockefeller was harshly attacked, especially by the left, for mishandling the affair. But he felt that he had no choice, and continued to defend his actions.

Ford chose him to be Vice President in 1974 in an effort to broaden party appeal. But his new post proved every bit as frustrating as he feared it would be. As No. 2, he could not indulge in his favorite activity: problem solving. His staff quarreled with the President’s. His proposal for a $100 billion quasi-public agency to make the U.S. independent of foreign energy sources was hooted down. For all that, he had a good working relationship with Ford — until politics intervened.

Even though he kept emphasizing his new-found conservatism and made repeated forays into the South to show that he no longer had liberal horns, he remained unacceptable to the unforgiving right. When it became clear that he might damage Ford’s chances of staving off Ronald Reagan’s challenge from the right, he withdrew with remarkably good grace. “I came here to help the President,” he explained, “not to complicate his life.” His removal from the ticket may have helped Ford win the nomination but it doubtless hurt him in the election.

Once out of office, Rockefeller swiftly became a political has-been. He had hoped for some kind of offer from the Carter Administration, but the call never came. He also lost his iron grip on the New York State G.O.P. Rebuffed in politics, Rocky turned to his other lifelong pursuit: art. Forsaking his earlier tendency to avoid business, he opened a store to sell reproductions of his art works. Other art dealers protested this as a philistine, commercial intrusion; as Rocky saw it, he was doing something to help his fellow countrymen by sharing his art.

Often euphoric about his own as well as his nation’s fortunes, he assured people that he would live to reach his 90s, as his grandfather had. In this, as in his quest for the presidency, he was to be dis appointed. He lived long enough, how ever, to see some of his most cherished ideas come under attack. He once chided his frequent critic, New York State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, for not thinking big, for being too much of a penny pincher. Yet as Rocky’s political career came to a close, it was the penny pinchers who were riding high, and Rockefeller the empire builder who had become something of an anachronism.

It may be that his spirit of overcoming obstacles will outlast his most majestic monuments. He had a zest for life and for politics that no amount of money can buy. That was Nelson Rockefeller’s true wealth and his lasting legacy.

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