Political Unicorn

This Republican Loved Taxes & Modern Art

A social progressive and a fiscal conservative, Nelson Rockefeller was closer to FDR than Reagan, says his biographer Richard Norton Smith.


Nelson Rockefeller led an interesting life (and had an interesting death, which we’ll get to shortly). He was involved in the development of the Museum of Modern Art’s building on 53rd Street and Rockefeller Plaza around the corner. He was a scion of immense wealth, a civil rights activist, and an art collector and patron. He was a diplomat, New York governor, and vice president of the United States. He was a Republican presidential candidate in 1960, 1964, and 1968.

Rockefeller’s roles overlapped in complex ways, and Richard Norton Smith presents them as one linear, messy, multifaceted life in On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller, a new 880-page biography of the New York political icon.

“I wanted to recreate the sense of all of these things happening simultaneously on all of these fronts,” Smith said. “In some ways, it would be easier to break them down—here’s the governorship, here’s transportation policy, here’s housing policy, etc. That would be easier, but it would also be much less lifelike.”

In a recent interview, Smith talked to The Daily Beast about his career as an presidential archivist and historian, Rockefeller’s life and political career, and how the Republican Party changed around Rockefeller in the ’60s and ’70s—and continues to change.

When did you first think you might write about Nelson Rockefeller?

In 1968, at the ripe age of 14, I was at the Miami convention carrying my Rockefeller sign on the convention floor. Then in 1989, I was asked to work on the Eisenhower Centenary. I went to Abilene and in the course of the day spent some time with Jim Cannon, who was a Rockefeller aide for a number of years. It was a long, long, long ride back from Abilene to the Kansas City airport, and it was enlivened from start to finish by Jim’s Rockefeller stories.

In some ways, the job was preempted by Cary Reich, who published an excellent first (The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller) of a projected two-volume biography in 1996. Tragically, Cary did not live to complete the second volume, and in 2000 I began work in earnest on this book. So that’s how long this has been percolating.

You have worked for the National Archives for several different presidential libraries?

Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford in the National Archives system, and I was director of the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois. I was also involved in the origins of the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University. And along the way, I’ve written several books on American politics. For the last few years, I’ve been the in-house historian at C-SPAN and have taught presidential history at George Mason.

Do you think you’ll write about Reagan or Eisenhower or one of the presidencies you have researched on an institutional level?

Around Christmas, I am moving to Michigan. I have set aside the next six years to write a biography of Gerald Ford. A couple of years ago, I did a large-scale oral history project talking to about 150 Ford associates, which is a big portion of the research I would do for a book like that.

Do you expect to dispel the conventional wisdom that he’s our most boring president?

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[Laughs.] I’m not sure I would accept the conventional wisdom! I have already found some things that I think will surprise people.

The big money maker in the Rockefeller family was Nelson Rockefeller’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, right?

That’s right. I’m not a Freudian, but I have thought there was an element of competition there [between Nelson and his grandfather]. They shared a birthday—July 8—and Nelson always thought that bestowed some sort of personal aura on him. Nelson wrote a paper at Dartmouth on Standard Oil, which was about as defensive and as deeply researched as you would expect.

How much did Nelson’s family background inform who he thought he was?

Nelson was utterly without guilt. He didn’t feel that he had anything to prove in terms of redeeming his family’s name [from the charge of Gilded Age robber barons]. I think he had something to prove that he on his own was a force to be reckoned with. The first 30 years of his life, he helped his father build and then rent out Rockefeller Center at a difficult time. He was pivotal in the creation and survival of the Museum of Modern Art. By 1938, before his 30th birthday, he was president of Rockefeller Center. And in 1939, the MOMA building opened that he was instrumental in designing and building.

His mother [Abby Aldrich Rockefeller] had an enormous influence, almost entirely for the good. She had a very sensitive social conscience that went beyond a sense that they were a rich family and had to give back something. She lived it — civil rights and other issues that you associate from the family. Today, she would be the politician in the family.

What new material did you research for the book?

After he left the vice presidency, Rockefeller decided to write a memoir. The book never got written, but he did do 500 pages of oral history that are just gold—some really remarkable things about his early days. In 1951, he did a separate oral history about these years—the ’30s and the ’40s. These are two different sets of interviews.

Are you the first Rockefeller biographer to use either of those?

I am. Also, when Nelson died and Hugh Morrow did his own oral history project and talked to about 75 Rockefeller associates. Those were also sealed and only made available recently. I’m the first to draw on any of those, and I did another 150 interviews on my own.

Did you turn up a source for the phrase “Rockefeller Republican”?

It goes to the term “fiscal responsibility.” I would define Rockefeller Republican in the classic sense as a combination of fiscal responsibility and social conscience. Fiscal responsibility was defined differently in, say, 1959 [when Rockefeller took office as New York governor] than it would be just a few year later. Averell Harriman [governor from 1955 to 1958] left behind a pretty significant deficit. In his first weeks in office, Rockefeller made it clear that there would be some tax increases, and Businessweek—not a left-wing publication—praises him for his fiscal responsibility. Three or four years later, the Rockefeller budgets were 60 percent higher than the Harriman budgets, and he was seen as a big spender.

By 1964 had Rockefeller moved to the left of the national party and to the left of New York Republicans?

Nelson Rockefeller was suspect because of his connections with FDR. He made no bones about his great admiration for FDR, who was his mentor, and he had roots too in the Truman administration. In the Oregon primary in 1964, which was do or die for Rockefeller, he had a very elaborate voter booklet that boasted of his involvement with three presidents—Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. No one today would do that. He was a bipartisan figure and certainly to the left of the national Republican Party. He was also out front on civil rights.

If you look at what a Democrat in the South is at the same time, it’s pretty easy to see why he might not identify with that.

Exactly, exactly. He said he had a Republican head and a Democratic heart. FDR told him he should change parties, and Truman told him he should change parties. On civil rights, the relationship with Martin Luther King is really significant, it’s lasting, and it has historic consequences—tragically, at the end, organizing and largely paying for King’s funeral.

With his civil rights inclinations, if Rockefeller had come along a decade later he may have been a Leon Panetta—switching from Republican to Democrat over civil rights.

That’s not a bad parallel. Nelson Rockefeller was responsible for the Senate filibuster [which was often used to stymie civil rights legislation] being reduced from two-thirds—67—to 60 votes. Southern Republicans like John Tower and Strom Thurmond went to President Ford and told him his vice president needed to toe the line or he was going to have problems.

Four months before the 1960 election, Richard Nixon went to New York to meet with Rockefeller, and that meeting has taken on some historical importance. What happened at that meeting?

What’s important about the meeting is that Nixon felt like the meeting had to take place at all. As late as 1960, the Republican Party still had an eastern establishment deemed powerful enough that its wishes had to be taken into account.

Was it a courtesy call?

It was more than a courtesy call. Nixon actually went there with an agenda. He wanted very much to get Rockefeller to run as vice president. The Democrats had already nominated Kennedy, and more importantly had put Johnson on the ticket. Eisenhower had carried a majority of southern electors. The thought was that Nixon would have to look to the Northeast, and he really tried to get Rockefeller on his ticket.

So what happened in the meeting?

They had no trouble coming to agreement on most issues. The big one was defense spending. Nixon was an absolute hawk on that issue, and he had foolishly implied that Rockefeller was not sufficiently worried about the Soviet threat to afford it the treatment Nixon thought it deserved. That put Nixon in an awkward position.

In 1973, what were the mechanics of Gerald Ford picking Rockefeller to be vice president after Nixon’s resignation?

I don’t think Ford seriously considered anyone else. He had a short list that included George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and some others. It just made sense. Ford had spent his life on Capitol Hill, was largely unknown to the public, didn’t have an international profile, and had a pretty thin bench to recruit from to replace the departing Nixon people. So he turns to the party’s preeminent executive, someone recognized for having an inexhaustible supply of talent, and somebody who bought him immediate credibility overseas.

You’re doing a pretty extensive book tour and most of it outside of New York and Washington. Are you surprised at this level of national interest for a political figure who was never president?

Yeah, I am. Some of it is continuing fascination with the Rockefeller family. Some of it no doubt is prurient interest; I’m well aware that some people will read the last chapter first. [When Rockefeller died of cardiac arrest, he may or may not have been having sex with a 25-year-old assistant.] What has surprised me most and kind of pleased me is the willingness of reviewers to suspend their political biases and look at Rockefeller as a historical figure.

The Republican Party has moved to the right in the last decade, but the primary process in 2008 and 2012 resulted in relative moderates—John McCain and Mitt Romney—getting the nomination. Do you think that’s an anomaly from the conservative candidates splitting the vote, or is something else going on?

To reach a point where the Republican Party can win elections but also govern, it’s going to have to do two things. It will have to come to terms with the ghost of Ronald Reagan, and it will have to come to terms with Rush Limbaugh.

Won’t there be a reckoning if they lose a fourth straight presidential election?

It depends on who they nominate. I have a piece in Time about the future of the Republican Party. I’m not in the forecasting business, but I think the libertarian movement is the closest thing to the Goldwater movement in my adult lifetime. It’s bigger than any one individual, it engages youthful energy the way the Goldwater movement did, and the establishment press is sort of looking the other way. It could be a really fascinating election.

The libertarians know Goldwater got demolished in 1964, right?

We were 50 years closer to the New Deal then. Goldwater played right into Democrats’ hands by talking about making Social Security voluntary and selling off TVA. We were still very much a New Deal country in 1964. Fifty years later, the Reagan consensus prevails, it seems to me, more so than Roosevelt consensus.

Pick the weakest Republican candidates in the last 20 years and look at the number of electoral votes; they still managed to get triple what Goldwater did. The Republican base is profoundly larger than it was in 1964. That’s not to say Rand Paul wouldn’t get creamed by Hillary Clinton, but it’s not the sure thing it was in 1964.

Aren’t there more third rails for a libertarian Republican nominee to tiptoe around now? You can’t run against Social Security, Medicare, healthcare reform, etc., and appeal to people in the middle.

I agree with you, but the youthful energy in the libertarian movement foresees a tipping point. They profoundly question whether these programs will be available to them when they become eligible. At some point, they think the political balance will change. When George Bush talked about privatizing Social Security, that was a short conversation. Fast forward 10 or 20 years, who knows. They believe time is on their side. Goldwater wanted a philosophical debate in 1964. Fifty years later, his heirs think we can have that kind of discussion.

What about the idea that if a moderate pragmatist like Romney can’t win, the Republicans are out of options?

He had such baggage. There are a lot of cross-currents at work from the Obama years that I’m not sure will repeat in the future. It’s hard for any party to win a third term. The country, in theory, should be ready for change in 2016. But it comes down to whether it’s ideological change defined by the base or whether it’s more broadly philosophical, pragmatic, problem-addressing change geared toward independent voters.