I grew up in upstate New York in the 1960s, and for me, there only ever was one governor – Nelson A. Rockefeller (yes, that Rocky!) He was the guy everyone always complained about – yet he was elected governor four times. He died (somewhat scandalously) in 1979, and for many there are two enduring symbols of his tenure – the Attica uprising, and the state government complex in Albany (crudely termed “Rocky’s Last Erection.”) Yet, there is so much more about the man, as historian Richard Norton Smith has revealed in his critically acclaimed biography, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.
Before he was a politician, Rockefeller was an art-lover and a keen fan of building projects. Shortly after graduating from Dartmouth in 1930, he became one of the planners of Rockefeller Center, as well as a member of the board of the brand-new Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He adored modern art and what is known as “primitive art”, the art of pre-industrial societies (this was a passion shared by his son Michael, who disappeared in 1961 while exploring the jungles of New Guinea). He also was passionate about Latin America, and this is how he landed his first political work, as an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Working for the State Department in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rockefeller met with many leaders of Latin American nations to try to establish strong alliances. Fluent in Spanish, and an admirer of Latin American painters, sculpters, and writers, Rockefeller made a significant contribution to cementing relationships that would prove vital to our national security during and after World War II. Of course, it can be argued that there was a major conflict of interest in his activities, since the family oil business had profited from Venezuelan oil fields for years, but Rockefeller also worked hard to establish air routes, open shipping lanes, and encourage Latin American leaders to improve working conditions in their nations.
He ran for governor of New York State in 1958, winning easily on the Republican ticket. He immediately brought his energy to improving infrastructure and education. The New York State Thruway, linking New York City to Lake Erie, was constructed during his first and and second terms, and Rocky vigorously lobbied the federal government to build Interstates 81 and 88. The State University of New York system is one of the largest in the nation, with some 27 campuses scattered across the state. Here, too, we see Rocky’s passion for style and architecture: each campus has its own unique building style, admittedly not always appropriate (one of the buildings on the Fredonia campus is built like a pyramid, which makes many of its exterior doors unusable during the winter, when the winds from Lake Erie can blow a person off the side of the building).
But Rocky’s liberal Republicanism was falling out of style by the late 1960s; he had already been shunned by the Republican national leadership in 1964. He hadn’t helped his own chances at getting to the White House when he divorced his wife of over 30 years and married a much younger woman who was forced to give up custody of her own four young children, this in a time when no divorced man had ever been elected President. His handling of the violent Attica prison uprising, in which dozens were killed, all but destroyed his hopes of becoming a national figure, but he was lucky: he had befriended a Michigan politician named Gerald Ford, who asked him to become his vice-president after the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. However, it was obvious that the Republican party was moving to the right, and Rocky was dropped from the ticket when Ford ran for election in 1976.
By then, Rockefeller knew his career was over. For the next couple of years, he dabbled in various projects, ultimately beginning to write his memoirs. In January 1979, he died suddenly while “working with his assistant” on his autobiography. HIs assistant was a young writer who was rumored to have met the paramedics while wearing her bathrobe… While Rockefeller’s extramarital infidelities were widely known, even by his wife Happy, it still seems a tragic end to a fascinating life.