The first volume in a projected two-volume series, Cary Reich’s The Life of Nelson Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer, 1908-1958 is a splendid account of the early career of one of the most colorful figures in American history. Although memories of Rockefeller are dimming in the 1990’s, he was once a fixture on the political landscape. Rockefeller was elected governor of New York for four consecutive terms in an era in which governors of the Empire State were routinely considered contenders for the presidency. Yet Rockefeller did not need the shades of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey to urge him forward. His ambitions, like his appetites, were legendary. He sought the Republican presidential nomination three times—in 1960, 1964, and 1968—only to be denied each time. Ironically, given the range of his aspirations, Rockefeller’s career culminated in a two-year stint as vice president in Gerald Ford’s lame duck administration.
It was Nelson Rockefeller’s misfortune to become the standard bearer of liberal Republicanism at a time when the Republican Party was embracing an increasing conservatism. As governor of New York, Rockefeller compiled a record that many Democrats would have envied. He self-consciously set out to change the face of his state and instigated an enormous amount of construction, building more than forty university campuses, dozens of medical facilities, and thousands of miles of highways. No governor of New York ever built as much or on such a scale as “Rocky.” He was equally expansive in granting entitlements. At one point, forty-five percent of New York residents were covered by Medicaid. Yet Rockefeller’s imperial style, at once grand and generous, came at a steep price. Soon after he left Albany, the state of New York was facing a credit crisis and New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy. Although he was a sincere Republican, socially conservative and resolute in his insistence on law and order, Rockefeller nevertheless embodied the faith in big government and social intervention which infuriated the rising right wing of the GOP. A man of Rockefeller’s instincts could only be confounded by the fervor of the Goldwater crusade of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s shrewd and cynical crusade of the “silent majority.” The man of the future in the Republican Party of the 1960’s was not to be Nelson Rockefeller, but another governor on the opposite coast—Ronald Reagan of California.
Nelson Rockefeller was not fated to lead his country into the last quarter of the twentieth century. Perhaps that was just as well. He was not a man suited to deal with a time of limits, of economic dislocation and moral confusion. Rockefeller was too quintessentially a product of an earlier, more ebullient era. Some men are said to be born ahead of their time. A few are thought to have been born too late to flourish fully. The younger Nelson Rockefeller was perfectly adapted to his era, the middle decades of the century. He was perfectly suited to the rhythms of an industrialized and urbanizing America. His was a streamlined spirit made for a streamlined age. Rockefeller loved speed, and he loved machines. He also wanted his machines to move fast, whether they were automobiles, boats, or planes. He enthusiastically embraced modernism in the arts, building a world-class collection of modern art and helping found New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). As impresario of Rockefeller Center in New York City, he made his contribution to the skyscraper landscape of modern America. Although Rockefeller owned the rich man’s obligatory rural retreats, it was in the city, especially New York City, that he was truly at home.
From first to last, Nelson Rockefeller was a New Yorker, and he prospered in the years when New York City stood closer to the heart of American life, symbol in stone and steel of the “American Century.” Both privately and publicly, Rockefeller represented the self-confident ethos of the United States during World War II and its aftermath, when America first assumed the mantle of “leader of the free world” and commentators invoked visions of a “Pax Americana.” Throughout his career, Nelson Rockefeller refused to recognize bounds. He sincerely believed that any challenge could be surmounted, and in this he mirrored the expectations of a people buoyed by unparalleled power and affluence. His reckless expenditures on bricks and mortar in New York State was at one with such contemporary endeavors as the War on Poverty and the race to put a man on the moon. Indeed, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s generous biographical maxim could be applied to Nelson Rockefeller—his virtues were his own; his sins were those of his age.
Rockefeller’s affinity for his times is not surprising. He was born into a cradle of the historical forces shaping modern America. His mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, was the daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the czar of the U.S. Senate in the first decade of the twentieth century and a staunch defender of the great trusts and industrial combines that were reshaping America’s economic and social landscape. His father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was the son and namesake of John D. Rockefeller who founded Standard Oil and had been one of the most infamous “robber barons” of the Gilded Age. Nelson Rockefeller thus...
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