Nelson Rockefeller

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Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller or Rocky (1908–1979) was the 41st Vice President of the United States (under Ford), four term Governor of the State of New York, and an heir of the Standard Oil Corporation. The family, perhaps the richest in American history,[note 1] also owned controlling interests in Chase Manhattan Bank of "too big to fail" fame.[1] Rockefeller is the namesake of the Rockefeller Republicans, embodying the GOP's moderate eastern wing before the party's rightward slide.

Early career[edit]

Before being elected Governor of New York, Rockefeller served in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt as the CIAAWikipedia or Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs during World War II, an office with a reputation for being staffed with communists, known as Rockefeller Reds. Rockefeller also served in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, first as the Undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare, later as Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs.

Governor of New York[edit]

Rockefeller served as Governor of New York from 1959-1973. At first, Rockefeller governed as a reform-minded liberal. He used New York's budget to refurbish state infrastructure, from highways to schools, welfare systems, and state parks, along with "pay as you go" tax reforms. In his later terms, however, Rockefeller became increasingly controversial. In 1971, he ordered the assault on Attica prisonWikipedia in which 33 inmates and 10 hostages were killed. In the Pedro J. Rosario v. Nelson Rockefeller case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that New York's early registration requirement as a guard against panty raiding Party raidingWikipedia did not violate Rosario's right to vote in the 1972 general election.[2] He also passed the Rockefeller Laws, instituting harsh sentencing for drug users.

Nationally, Rockefeller was best-known for his ardent support of civil rights. He hired baseball player-turned-activist Jackie Robinson as an aide who encouraged him to hire more blacks in the New York state government and pushed for desegregation of New York schools and businesses.[3] He became a friend and supporter of Martin Luther King; his support of King ranged from paying his medical bills after King was stabbed in 1958, to bailing SCLC members out of prison, to speaking at King's church in Atlanta.[4]

Presidential primary bids[edit]

Rockefeller made three bids for the presidency in Republican primaries in 1960, 1964, and 1968. In 1960, he challenged Vice President Richard Nixon, mostly to ensure a liberal platform at the convention. His bid in 1964 was more serious; entering the race as the prohibitive favorite, his divorce and remarriage during the campaign sabotaged his chances, allowing Barry Goldwater to capture the nomination. In 1968, he encouraged Michigan Governor George Romney to run against Nixon. When Romney flamed out, Rockefeller entered the race, too late to stop Nixon from securing the nomination.

Commentators and pundits joked, "Nelson Rockefeller should be president; it's only right the man who owns the country should run it." Rockefeller himself admitted that "When you think of what I had, what else is there to aspire to?"[5]

Vice Presidency[edit]

President Ford nominated Rockefeller to fill the vacancy created by Ford moving up to the Presidency and he was approved by the Senate in 1974. Though Ford promised Rockefeller a major role in shaping domestic policy, like most vice presidents he was quickly marginalized. He did chair the Rockefeller Commission, convened by Ford to investigate abuses by the CIA, including foreign assassinations and domestic surveillance. However, it was widely criticized as a whitewash and supplanted by the Senate's Church Committee.[6]

For the 1976 election, Ford dumped Rockefeller for Bob Dole, hoping to appease conservative Republicans who would otherwise back Ronald Reagan.[7]

Later life and legacy[edit]

Today, Rockefeller is best remembered for denouncing Goldwater and the conservative takeover of the GOP during the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. He was booed for minutes on end by Goldwater's supporters, responding that "It's still a free country, ladies and gentlemen" and encouraging their reaction.[8] This speech, along with his refusal to campaign for Goldwater, made him the archetypical RINO in the eyes of conservatives. In 1970, Rockefeller served as consultant for fellow liberal Republican Jacob Javits' health care proposal to expand Medicare to the entire population.[9]

Nelson's brother, Winthrop, served as Governor of Arkansas in the pre-Clinton era, and they are cousins of Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Their brother, David Rockefeller, was the longtime chairman of Chase Manhattan. His son Michael Rockefeller, an anthropologist, disappeared during a visit to Papua New Guinea in 1961, amidst lurid speculation about his fate.[10]

Besides his political endeavors, Rockefeller was a lifelong patron of the arts. He's best-known in that capacity for his feud with Diego Rivera that began when the latter included a painting of Lenin in a mural at Rockefeller Center during the 1930s.[11]

Rockefeller died in 1979 the way most of us wish to go: most likely of a heart attack while having sex with a young woman.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. The Rockefeller fortune in 1937 at the time of the patriarch's death is estimated at $340 billion in today's dollars.