Nelson Rockefeller, Last of the Liberal Republicans

"Rockefeller Republicans" Leader Ran For White House Three Times

Nelson Rockefeller
Washington, D.C.: Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York reports on his Latin American trips at White House in 1969.

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Nelson Rockefeller served as governor of New York for 15 years and became an influential figure in the Republican Party before serving as vice president under President Gerald Ford for two years. As the presumed leader of the northeastern wing of the party, Rockfeller ran for the Republican nomination for president three times.

Rockefeller was known for a generally liberal social policy coupled with a pro-business agenda. The so-called Rockefeller Republicans essentially faded into history as the very conservative movement exemplified by Ronald Reagan took hold. The term itself fell into disuse, replaced by “moderate Republican.”

Fast Facts: Nelson Rockefeller

  • Known For: Longtime liberal Republican governor of New York and heir to the Rockefeller fortune. He ran unsuccessfully for president three times and served as vice president under Gerald Ford.
  • Born: July 8, 1908 in Bar Harbor, Maine, a grandson of the world’s richest man
  • Died: January 26, 1979 in New York City
  • Parents: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Green Aldrich
  • Spouses: Mary Todhunter Clark (m. 1930-1962) and Margaretta Large Fitler (m. 1963)
  • Children: Rodman, Ann, Steven, Mary, Michael, Nelson, and Mark
  • Education: Dartmouth College (degree in economics)
  • Famous Quote: "Ever since I was a kid. After all, when you think of what I had, what else were there to aspire to?" (on seeking the presidency).

As the grandson of legendary billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller grew up surrounded with extravagant wealth. He became known as a supporter of the arts and was highly regarded as a collector of modern art.

He was also known for a gregarious personality, though his detractors claimed his habit of exuberantly greeting people with a loud "Hiya, fella!" was a carefully calculated effort to appeal to ordinary people.

Early Life

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born July 8, 1908, in Bar Harbor, Maine. His grandfather was the richest man in the world, and his father, John Rockefeller, Jr., worked for the family business, Standard Oil. His mother, Abigail “Abby” Greene Aldrich Rockefeller, was the daughter of a powerful U.S. senator from Connecticut and a noted patron of the arts (she would eventually be a founder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City).

Growing up, Nelson was apparently afflicted with dyslexia, which was not fully understood. He had trouble reading and spelling throughout his life, though he managed to do reasonably well in school. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in economics in 1930. He married soon after college, and began working for his family at Rockefeller Center, which had recently opened as an office complex.

Rockefeller Family
New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908 - 1979, seated) with his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, and children, Mary, Anne, Steven, Rodman and Michael. Keystone / Getty Images

Early Career

Rockefeller obtained a real estate license and began his career by leasing out office space in Rockefeller Center. He also supervised some of the decor. In a famous incident, he had a mural painted by Diego Rivera chiseled from the wall. The artist had included the face of Lenin in the painting.

From 1935 to 1940 Rockefeller worked for a Standard Oil affiliate in South America and became interested in local culture to the point of learning Spanish. In 1940 he began a career of public service by accepting a position in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. His job at the Office of Inter-American Affairs entailed providing economic aid to Latin American countries (which was a strategic effort to thwart Nazi influence in the Western Hemisphere).

Nelson Rockefeller
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In 1944 he became the assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs, but resigned a year later, when his aggressive personality rubbed his superiors the wrong way. He later worked briefly in the administration of Harry Truman. In the Eisenhower administration, Rockefeller served as the undersecretary of HEW for two years, from 1953 to 1955. He then served as an adviser to Eisenhower on Cold War strategy, but left the government, hoping to get involved in politics elsewhere.

Running for Office

Rockefeller decided to run for governor of New York in the election of 1958. He secured the Republican nomination, partly because state party officials liked that he could finance his own campaign. It was widely assumed the Democratic incumbent, Averell Harriman, would be reelected, especially running against a novice at electoral politics.

Showing a surprising flair for campaigning, Rockefeller energetically approached voters to shake hands and eagerly sample food in ethnic neighborhoods. On Election Day 1958, he scored an upset win against Harriman. Within days of his election he was being asked if he intended to run for president in 1960. He said no.

Nelson Rockefeller Elected Governor
November 9, 1966 - New York: Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who "is" Governor, according to amended campaign sign overhead, rejoices in his re-election early November 9, 1966.  Bettmann / Getty Images

His terms as governor would eventually be known for ambitious infrastructure and transportation projects, a commitment to increasing the size of the state’s university system, and even a commitment to the arts. He would go on to serve as New York’s governor for 15 years, and for much of that time the state seemed to operate as a laboratory for governmental programs, often inspired by groups convened by Rockefeller. He typically convened task forces of experts which would study programs and propose governmental solutions.

Rockefeller’s penchant for surrounding himself with experts wasn’t always viewed favorably. His former boss, President Eisenhower, was said to have commented that Rockefeller was "too used to borrowing brains instead of using his own."

Presidential Ambitions

Within a year of taking office as governor, Rockefeller began to reconsider his decision not to run for president. As he appeared to have the support of the moderate to liberal Republicans on the East Coast, he considered running in the 1960 primaries. However, realizing Richard Nixon had solid support, he withdrew from the race early. In the 1960 election he supported Nixon and campaigned for him.

According to an anecdote recounted in his 1979 obituary in the New York Times, in 1962 he was asked, while looking at the White House from his private plane, if he ever thought about living there. He replied, “Ever since I was a kid. After all, when you think of what I had, what else were there to aspire to?”

Richard M. Nixon and Nelson A. Rockefeller
Vice. Pres. Richard Nixon (R) with Nelson Rockefeller (L) September 01, 1960.  Joseph Scherschel / Getty Images

Rockefeller viewed the presidential election of 1964 as an opportunity. He had solidified his reputation as the leader of the “eastern establishment” Republicans. His obvious opponent in 1964 primaries would be Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

A complication for Rockefeller was that he had been divorced from his first wife in 1962. Divorce was unheard of for major politicians at the time, yet Rockefeller hadn't seemed to be harmed by it when he won reelection as governor of New York in 1962. (He married for the second time in 1963.)

It’s difficult to quantify how much impact Rockefeller’s divorce and new marriage had on his presidential prospects in 1964, but it’s likely it had an effect. When the 1964 Republicans primaries began, Rockefeller was still considered a favorite for the nomination, and he won the primaries in West Virginia and Oregon (while Goldwater won in other early states).

The deciding contest promised to be the primary in California, where Rockefeller was believed to be the favorite. A few days before the June 2, 1964, voting in California, Rockefeller’s second wife, Margaretta “Happy” Rockefeller, gave birth to a son. That event suddenly brought the issue of Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage back into the public eye, and it has been credited with helping Goldwater win an upset victory in the California primary. The conservative from Arizona went on to become the 1964 Republican nominee for president.

When Rockefeller rose to speak at the Republican National Convention that summer to advocate for a platform amendment repudiating the conservative John Birch Society, he was loudly booed. He refused to support Goldwater in the general election, which Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide.

Nelson Rockefeller Addressing GOP Committee
Rockefeller, shown addressing the GOP State Committee, is seeding delegate strength among committee members on June 25, 1968.  Bettmann / Getty Images

As the election of 1968 approached, Rockefeller tried to enter the race. That year Nixon represented the moderate wing of the party, with California governor Ronald Reagan favored by the conservatives. Rockefeller gave mixed signals about whether he would run until that summer’s convention approached. He finally tried to round up uncommitted delegates to challenge Nixon, but his efforts fell short.

Rockefeller’s presidential runs had a lasting impact on the Republican Party, as they seemed to define the profound split in the party as the conservative wing was becoming ascendant.

The Attica Crisis

Rockefeller continued on as governor of New York, eventually winning four terms. In his final term a prison uprising at Attica came to permanently scar Rockefeller’s record. The prisoners, who had taken guards as hostages, demanded Rockefeller visit the prison and oversee negotiations. He refused, and ordered an assault that turned disastrous when 29 inmates and ten hostages were killed.

Rockefeller was condemned for his handling of the crisis, with his political opponents claiming it demonstrated his lack of compassion. Even Rockefeller supporters found his decision difficult to defend.

Rockefeller Drug Laws

As New York endured a heroin epidemic and a crisis over drug use and associated crime, Rockefeller advocated for tougher drug laws with mandatory sentences even for dealing small amounts of drugs. The laws were passed and over time were seen as a major mistake, greatly increasing the state's prison population while not doing much to curb underlying problems of drug abuse. Subsequent governors have removed the most severe punishments of the Rockefeller Laws.

Vice President

In December 1973 Rockefeller resigned from the governorship of New York. It was assumed he might be thinking of running for president again in 1976. But after Nixon's resignation, and Gerald Ford's ascension to the presidency, Ford nominated Rockefeller to be his vice president.

President Gerald Ford and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller
President Ford holds the report on the Central Intelligence Agency presented to him at the White House by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, chairman of the blue ribbon panel that made the investigation.  Bettmann / Getty Images

After serving as vice president for two years, the conservative wing of the party, led by Ronald Reagan, demanded that he not be on the ticket in 1976. Ford replaced him with Bob Dole of Kansas.

Retirement and Death

Retired from public service, Rockefeller devoted himself to his vast art holdings. He was working on a book about his art collection when he was stricken by a fatal heart attack on the night of January 26, 1979 at a townhouse he owned in Manhattan. At the time of his death he was with a 25-year-old female assistant, which led to endless tabloid rumors.

Rockefeller's political legacy was mixed. He steered New York state for a generation and by any measure was a very influential governor. But his ambition for the presidency was always thwarted, and the wing of the Republican Party he represented has largely disappeared.

Sources:

  • Greenhouse, Linda. “For Nearly a Generation, Nelson Rockefeller Held the Reins of New York State.” New York Times, 28 January 1979, p. A26.
  • "Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 13, Gale, 2004, pp. 228-230. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Neumann, Caryn E. "Rockefeller, Nelson Aldrich." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s, edited by William L. O'Neill and Kenneth T. Jackson, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003, pp. 273-275. Gale Virtual Reference Library.