Conversation: David Rockefeller

November 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: The book is “Memoirs.” The author is David Rockefeller who was born in 1915 to great wealth and privilege. He is the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil; the youngest son of John D. Junior and Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller. The former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the Chase Bank. This is the first ever autobiography of the Rockefeller. It’s a story filled with opportunity, obligation and achievement. David Rockefeller, welcome.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: Happy to be here.

TERENCE SMITH: The Rockefeller family is a famously private family. It story has been told but not by its members. You’ve decided to tell the story yourself. Why?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: I thought it would be of interest to other members of the family and perhaps descendants, but hopefully broader realm of people as well. I have to admit another factor is the fact that Kay Graham was a good friend of mine and she was writing her memoirs which came out and were a great success about the time I was thinking of these. It the so well, I thought would I see what I could do.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s a theme through the book that you wrote that says that being a Rockefeller is obviously, gives one great privilege and opportunity, but that that’s not all — that there is also, from your grandfather and your father, a sense of obligation and duty. Tell me about that.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: I think we were brought up both in what was said but more importantly what was done by members of the family, to feel that we were exceptionally fortunate in having resources and opportunities that many people don’t and that with opportunity goes responsibility.

TERENCE SMITH: Despite the advantages the boyhood that you describe in this book sounds rather solitary. You were the youngest, after all, of the siblings.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: Solitary in the sense that to a certain degree, I think was a little bit isolated. I had friends from school who would come out to the country weekends and I certainly didn’t feel unhappily so, but I had tutors. But I think I probably did not have the kind of youth that the average American boy has growing up in New York City.

TERENCE SMITH: You write that you and your brothers cooperated on many things, including, of course, the establishment of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, but that there were also tensions, especially when it came to some of the issues of how to deal with the family fortune. Did that fortune make those relationships more difficult?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: I don’t think that was really the problem. I think that there were just some issues on which we had different perspectives. Our lives and what we did with our lives why quite different, and of course in the case of Winthrop and Nelson, they both went into politics. Winthrop was governor of Arkansas and Nelson of New York. That was quite different from the life of a banker or, in the case of John, largely a life of a philanthropist and Lawrence was involved in venture capital, so we had different interests.

TERENCE SMITH: Philanthropy was, for all of you, sort of a common pursuit. This was something handed down from grandfather to father to brothers.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: I think that’s true. It’s one way of expressing, in our lives, our sense of obligation; namely, giving away money or spending time in doing things to help others.

TERENCE SMITH: Talk about your brother Nelson for a moment who of course went on not only to be governor of New York but Vice President. There’s a line in the book in which you write that the two most expensive things a Rockefeller can do is run for public office or get a divorce.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: Well, running for public office, I think, you just read the newspapers and you know how much it costs to get elected to almost anything, so that was certainly obvious. Nelson did get a divorce from his first wife and I think it was expensive financially but also in other ways. I was disappointed, upset. I liked his first wife very much and was sorry to see them get separated. And I think it’s fair to say that for a period of a few years that we saw less of one another and the warmth of the relationship did disappear to a degree.

TERENCE SMITH: You also write about some tensions that weren’t unique to your family but existed between you and your wife and your children over issues like Vietnam and politics and the role of capitalism and that sort of thing that your daughter Abbey at one point briefly joined the Socialist Workers Party. Tell me about that relationship.

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: Well, they were brought up during the ’60s and early ’70s when the Vietnam War was on and when most young people were very strongly against it. And our children shared that view. And I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but I felt that there was a justification for doing what we did there, and that we had to pursue the matter to its conclusion, so that there were tensions which, as I say, were typical not particularly of our family especially, but of difference in age groups at that period of time.

TERENCE SMITH: Was it painful at times?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: There were a few rather sharp exchanges but I really wouldn’t say that it caused any great rift in the family.

TERENCE SMITH: You also of course had this long career with the Chase Bank.


TERENCE SMITH: As its chairman and CEO. And in the course of that, you traveled and visited over 100 world leaders. Were there some among them that impressed you more than others?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: Yes, there certainly were. Anwar Sadat was one that I thought was quite remarkable in doing what he did and taking a country that had been quite isolated and had lots of problems and then going to Israel and reestablished relations with them. It was a pretty remarkable thing to have done.

TERENCE SMITH: You also mention in here an encounter with Saddam Hussein in Iraq in Baghdad. Was there anything in that meeting some 20 years ago that would have led you to believe that he would be playing the role he is today?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: I don’t think so, but in the light of what’s happened, it certainly makes it all the more interesting. I did it, actually, at the request of Henry Kissinger, who was then Secretary of State. I was going anyway to that part of the world, and Chase had business with the leading commercial bank in Iraq. So I was going for that. And he asked me if I would also go to see him to say that he would like to establish closer touch with the regime. He felt that it was important that our two countries communicated more effectively. I did see him and he was pretty cold. He said the only way we could hope to establish closer relations would be if we were to discontinue our support for Israel. Well, that was not likely that that was going to happen. So it was not a terribly productive meeting, although in the hindsight, it was certainly an interesting one.

TERENCE SMITH: The last line of your book, it says “it’s been a wonderful life.” It has, hasn’t it?

DAVID ROCKEFELLER: It’s true. I think there are not many people I know who have had the variety of opportunities that I’ve had and who, because they had a happy family life, were able to enjoy it as much as I have.

TERENCE SMITH: David Rockefeller, thank you so much.