The point of departure of The Chief: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons is the relationship between the author’s father, Hugh Morrow, and Nelson Rockefeller from the early 1950’s to 1979, the year of Rockefeller’s death. Biographies and autobiographies generally attract the interest of the reading public because of the importance of the people whose lives they narrate. In the case of The Chief, the Rockefeller connection is the initial justification for the memoir, yet the governor of New York and the other figures of historical significance in fact play minor roles in this story. The Chief is primarily the story of the Morrow family and an analysis of the relationship that exists between fathers and sons, independent of the significance of those fathers and sons to events of historical importance. Lance Morrow’s memoir is, most of all, a narrative of the author’s search for the meaning of being a father and being a son.
Although this is his first book, the author is a writer with eighteen years of experience with various newspapers and with Time magazine. In his memoir of fathers and sons, Morrow tells the story of a somewhat typical childhood and adolescence in middle-class America, a story tempered considerably by the wisdom and understanding gained by the author after surviving a near-fatal heart attack and open-heart surgery, at the age of thirty-six. Otherwise, his experiences are not unusual, except for the fact that his father was always in contact with powerful, influential people.
Because Morrow’s father was a speech writer and press secretary to Nelson Rockefeller, a man of considerable political significance in the recent history of the United States, the narrative is filled with anecdotes about public figures. The events of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, which Lance Morrow witnessed at firsthand because of his father’s position, provide a fascinating background for the much more personal story of the author’s awareness of the significance of the father-son relationship.
Morrow’s recollections of the growing awareness of the complicated racial structure of southern Maryland, the political machinations of the government during the time that he worked as a senate page, and the complexities of Roman Catholicism and the Jesuit education that he experienced at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., are all tinged with the sophisticated hindsight of the adult. After high school, Morrow went to Harvard University, then dropped out to take a European tour, sporting a beard and knapsack, then returned to Harvard before going first to Washington, D.C., to work at the Evening Star and, after a year, to New York City to join the staff of Time magazine. While evidently in sympathy with the liberal causes of the 1960’s, Morrow remained on the fringes of involvement, as if maintaining the distance of the objective journalist that he would become.
Throughout Morrow’s account of these youthful experiences, the influence of his father is evident but never overwhelming. In fact, the portrait that Morrow draws of Nelson Rockefeller’s confidant reveals a distant, elusive paternal figure who did not engage in any significant communication with his son. Indeed, the stories and anecdotes that Morrow tells about his father’s activities are much less interesting than the details of Morrow’s own experience, often with people who do not have the public notoriety of Rockefeller or Hubert H. Humphrey or John F. Kennedy. Some of the more interesting passages of the book concern Morrow’s involvement in the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968, which he interprets as a struggle between the hippies from affluent middle-class families and the policemen from the immigrant working-class families of Chicago. He also cites the personal reactions of the political figures most affected by those events, as he does in the case of Watergate and Attica, but the real interest of his narrative derives from his own observations on those crises in American contemporary history.
The most fascinating aspect of Morrow’s memoir is his growing awareness of the influence on his own life of his father’s contacts with powerful people. Hugh Morrow, the man who announced to the...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)