The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer 1908-1958
By Cary Reich
(Doubleday; $35; 875 pages)
After years of fighting turf battles as a senior official in the State Department during World War II, the young Nelson A. Rockefeller returned to New York City to face a far more daunting challenge: his father. All around the family’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center were reminders that John D. Rockefeller Jr. was lord and master of the world’s biggest fortune, and his children were not. Nelson’s response to powerlessness was architectural: He transformed part of the fusty old family precincts into a sleek “Bauhaus fantasyland” for himself and his brothers.
“Gee, Pa,” Nelson exclaimed when he showed his father the redesigned offices, “isn’t this all impressive?”
“Nelson,” said the patriarch, “whom are we trying to impress?”
Whom indeed. Nelson Rockefeller was born into a family of such wealth, power, and influence that it’s hard to understand how he could have been so perennially eager to please. His childhood on his family’s sylvan 3,500 acre estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., was one of almost unimaginable privilege, yet from the beginning he felt compelled to flatter, cajole, and even engage in abject self-criticism if that’s what it took to get his way, particularly with his puritanical and disapproving father. His efforts to insinuate himself were so relentless that Cary Reich, the author of this sprawling new biography (and of an earlier biography of the financier André Meyer), refers to his subject as a “patrician Sammy Glick” (though he never reaches the heights of heeldom demonstrated by the hero of Budd Schulberg’s novel about pre-war Hollywood back-stabbing). Rockefeller never won the presidency–despite all-out campaigns in 1964 and 1968–but he served as governor of New York for 12 years and then completed his public career as Gerald Ford’s vice president. He had an enormous impact on American politics and the landscape of New York. More than 15 years after his death, you can still start a fight by calling someone a “Rockefeller Republican.” Among other things, this book helps explain what the term actually means.
To admirers, “Rockefeller Republican” alludes to Nelson’s creation of an outstanding state university system, a vast network of hospitals, housing projects, mental health facilities, water treatment plants, parks, and highways. To enemies, it refers to a legacy of bankrupt state government and failed social programs. What is most striking about The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer 1908-1958 (the first of a projected two volumes), though, is that this duality–the push to achieve wed to a penchant for flamboyant failure; the ability to win a passionate following yet alienate the people who could keep him in power–was evident well before he thought about running for public office.
It was Rockefeller, after all, who single-mindedly campaigned for the United Nations to be established in New York, persuading his father to buy and donate the East River property for its site. During World War II, Rockefeller forged a defense alliance among Latin American countries to ward off Nazi influence. He then transformed it into an anti-Communist alliance on the eve of the Cold War. He pushed for foreign aid and investment throughout the developing world and helped persuade President Truman to come up with his famous Point Four formulation in 1949, which set the framework for American economic assistance overseas. As undersecretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Rockefeller helped pioneer the idea of national health insurance. As overseer of Cold War propaganda, he fought for and won adoption of Ike’s “open skies” proposal linking inspections to the cause of nuclear arms control. But in almost every one of these efforts, Rockefeller either overextended himself or managed to make so many enemies he ended up being ousted from power.
I n Reich’s generally quite readable–though occasionally overly detailed–book, three strands of Rockefeller’s character emerge, all of them reflecting the same degree of urgent vitality and, sometimes, an edge of self-destructiveness. The first is the womanizing Rockefeller, a persona the public only glimpsed at his death, in flagrante with a younger female staff member, in 1978. Reich focuses on two aides, Joan Braden and Nancy Hanks, and on Rockefeller’s empty marriage (and separate living quarters) with his first wife, who could be seen weeping quietly when he was elected governor in 1958. The stories fill in some blanks, but not, unfortunately, in a way that explains what his philandering might actually have been about.
The second of Nelson’s passions was for art, especially the abstract expressionists of New York and Paris. Scheming to take over an institution his mother had helped to establish, the Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller oversaw every detail of its construction and acquisitions–all by the time he was 30. He brought the same zeal to his own collections, asking Picasso to weave tapestries out of his own paintings, and Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger to create murals for his Fifth Avenue apartment. Léger actually came to New York and painted his mural in Nelson’s living room. With the nonchalance of someone ordering a touch-up, Nelson then asked the artist if, while he was at it, he could stay and do murals for the staircase and hallways.
One reason for Nelson’s enthusiasm for art and sculpture, according to Reich, was his dyslexia, which made reading treacherous. As a bureaucrat, Rockefeller certainly preferred big colorful charts to text in laying out plans to colleagues. Reich might have gone further, however, by noting that dyslexia is often accompanied by hyperactivity, which seemed to characterize the astonishing and sometimes undisciplined energy Rockefeller brought to everything.
Which brings us to the third side of Rockefeller’s personality and the main theme of the book, that of empire-building. Nelson was probably destined for politics from the start, when he was named after his mother’s father, Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, whom Lincoln Steffens once called “the arch-representative of protected, privileged business.” He was the third child in the family, but from his earliest years he was determined to be the leader of his generation of Rockefellers. By his 20s, he was already striving to forge his siblings into a powerful unit, organizing his brothers and sister to confront their father with a demand that the family assets be turned over (gradually) to the next generation. Nelson also carried out what was in effect a coup d’etat at Rockefeller Center, forcing out the retainers loyal to his father so that he could take over himself.
Early on, Nelson got into the habit of tapping his own financial resources to surround himself with talented people. He was forever commissioning huge semiacademic studies of problems by an array of experts like Henry Kissinger, a practice which throughout his life elicited resentment from colleagues less flush with cash. Rockefeller’s addiction to living in an expensive realm of his own, for creating his own entourage, ultimately accounted for Gerald Ford’s decision to toss Rockefeller overboard and pick Bob Dole as his running mate in 1976 (something that will presumably be discussed in Reich’s next book).
His involvement in Latin America was indicative of how he would mobilize resources to get something done, then go to such extremes he’d have to abandon the project. Rockefeller first became interested in the region through its artists, and then through the Venezuelan subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey–the family business. To ward off increasingly strident demands from leftists, Rockefeller wanted to create businesses that would raise people’s standard of living; using his own resources, he set up companies to raise cattle, grow crops, market food, develop natural resources, and build housing. Before long, however, many of these projects went bust, and Nelson had to turn to his family for financial assistance to ward off bankruptcy. Eventually, he decided that only the United States government could supply the resources to do the job.
Nelson’s urge to enter the public arena was partly the legacy of his father, whose Rockefeller Foundation helped create the modern science of philanthropy, though its underlying purpose was to expunge the malevolent connotations attached to the name of Rockefeller in the wake of the predations of the Standard Oil trust. (The philanthropic worldview also informed Rockefeller’s ambitious ideas about government spending, which would eventually make him an easy target.) Another influence was that patrician politician Franklin Roosevelt, who was, like John D. Rockefeller, the focus of Nelson’s relentless sycophancy and black-belt bureaucratic infighting. Reich tells the story of how Rockefeller got wind one day of a scheme to get the president to eliminate his (Rockefeller’s) operation at the State Department. He quickly found out who was going to be seeing FDR that morning–it was Vice President Henry Wallace–and persuaded him to win a stay of execution. But unlike Roosevelt, Rockefeller never developed the resilience to stay in power. Eventually, his forced resignations from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations led Rockefeller to turn to elective office as the one way of establishing an independent base.
Upon first hearing that Rockefeller might run for governor of New York, the millionaire incumbent Averell Harriman dismissed it as a joke. He even let Nelson head up a commission on the state constitution, though Tammany leaders warned he would regret it. As they predicted, Rockefeller used the commission to educate himself and build a case for change in Albany. What surprised everyone was that he turned out to be a most charismatic campaigner, with a much more down-to-earth touch than Harriman ever exhibited. “Hey, these subways are neat!” said Rockefeller. “I don’t know why people complain about them.” It didn’t matter that he was naive. People wanted somebody they knew could not be bought.
Reich’s book ends as Rockefeller stands on the threshold of a new era of expansive government, the presidency beckoning in the background. By then, we already know what being a Rockefeller Republican consists of: a mixture of lavish spending, arrogance, ambition, scheming, and pragmatism; a belief in expertise and big projects; and, above all, excitement about the sheer adventure of governing. For all his failures and disappointments, Nelson Rockefeller set a standard for excellence that the country will not see again any time soon.