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Looking back at the life and politics of Nelson Rockefeller

A politician who self-described as having a “Democrat heart with a Republican head,” Nelson Rockefeller would be something of a political anomaly today. Biographer Richard Norton Smith, author of “On His Own Terms,” joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what distinguished the four-time New York governor and former vice president.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: In the aftermath of the 2014 midterm elections, we take a look back to a different political time, a time when a national figure could describe himself as having a Democratic heart with a Republican head, and be taken seriously.

    That man, Nelson Rockefeller, was a four-term governor of New York, served as vice president in the mid-1970s, and ran three times for the presidency.

    Now historian and "NewsHour" regular Richard Norton Smith has written a new biography, "On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller."

    I talked to him recently.

    Richard Norton Smith, welcome back to the NewsHour.

    RICHARD NORTON SMITH, Author, "On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller": Thanks. Good to be here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, you surely now know more about Nelson Rockefeller than any living person on the planet. You spent 14 years working on this book. Why does he deserve so much of your time and talent?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Oh, gosh.

    Well, he's an enormous figure, obviously, in the history of the Republican Party, but in the history of the 20th century. I will bet you very few of your viewers know he's really the father of NATO. At the U.N. conference in 1945, a very young diplomat, Nelson Rockefeller, was responsible for amending the U.N. charter to allow for the creation of defensive military alliances.

    That's NATO. The history of the Cold War and of the 20th century would have been very different had it been otherwise.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And there's so much more.

    He came from this larger-than-life family. His grandfather was a founder of Standard Oil. He was clearly shaped by his family, but on the other hand, he didn't conform to that, did he?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    No.

    I mean, his grandfather was arguably the most hated man in America, except his other grandfather, who was Senator Nelson Aldrich, Republican leader of the United States Senate, who was hated in his own sphere.

    So Nelson had a lot to redeem, in a sense. The key figure is his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who today would be a political candidate. That wasn't possible then, so he became her surrogate. When he was born, she said: "I have done my duty by this family. I have given you a John III. This one is mine."

    And it was from Abby that he imbued his love of people, and politics, and art, and all things contemporary, his joie de vivre, everybody that made him such a charismatic figure and ultimately such a power, not only in New York, but nationally.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You write, among many other things, about his severe learning disability, the dyslexia, and how he throughout his life compensated for that and how that also shaped him.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    That's right. His dyslexia went undiagnosed. He was 50 years old before he ever heard the word dyslexia. He went through life believing that he had a deficient I.Q.

    And his mother, again, the redoubtable Abby, said surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And he took her advice. And every Rockefeller operation was in fact marked by all of these advisers and gurus and policy wonks, one of them Henry Kissinger, whom he introduced to the American scene.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, let's talk about his politics. He worked for Franklin Roosevelt as a young man. Then he went on — he was a Republican. But he didn't believe in so much of what was the gospel of the Republican Party.

    He was a huge supporter of the civil rights movement. He opposed everything Barry Goldwater stood for. Where does he fit in the ideological spectrum?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    He really goes back to Teddy Roosevelt.

    Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive conservative, a great believer in the capitalist system, but also someone who understood, like Disraeli in England, that that system inevitably produced inequities, inadequacies, injustices. Therefore, it was the role of the Republican Party and particularly of thoughtful conservatives to, in a proactive way, address those inequities, so that popular disaffection could not grow and build toward — away from reform to revolution.

    Nelson Rockefeller famously said, if you have a poor education and poor health, then I believe society has let you down. He believed that there was such a thing as society, and he believed that democratic, with a small-D, capitalism would be judged, indeed would survive, based on its ability to address those and other needs.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    He was of course four — for four terms governor of New York. You write that people thought he badly wanted to be president, but you said, every time he got close, he seemed to sabotage himself.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Happy Rockefeller, his second wife — the divorce and remarriage was a huge controversy 50 years ago.

    Today, arguably, it wouldn't be. But she told me she wondered how badly, in fact, he wanted to be president, because every time he got close, she said, "He did something stupid, like marry me."

    There are other people who believe that the ghost of Franklin Roosevelt haunted him and that, when he looked at the presidency, he wasn't running against John Kennedy or Richard Nixon,but it was FDR. FDR was the president. And there was, believe it or not, hidden away from the public an element of vulnerability and even of self-doubt when it came to his ability to command the presidency the way that FDR had.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You spend an entire chapter, final chapter on his death. He was 70 years old. He was off with a young woman who was his mistress, died of a massive heart attack.

    Why devote — why was that the end — why was that particular thing the end, and why devote that much time to it?

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Well, unfortunately, for a whole generation, it came to define and in many ways to diminish him.

    The fact is, there's a lot we didn't know. The background is that he was dying. He had a very serious heart condition, which, again, he kept from the public. To this day, that's news. But in a larger sense, there's one continuing, historically relevant, significant part of that story, and that is the role of the press.

    The way I tell the story is the story of a cover-up that unraveled very quickly. I argue, beginning that night, not with Gary Hart or later incidents, but beginning the night of Nelson Rockefeller's death, the press redefined what was traditionally considered public vs. private.

    And you can get a pretty good argument over whether it's been good for journalism or good for democracy, but there's very little doubt that it began with Nelson Rockefeller's death and the cover-up that unraveled.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It is an extraordinary book, extraordinary storytelling. A lot of love and a lot of labor went into it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Richard Norton Smith, we thank you.

  • RICHARD NORTON SMITH:

    Thank you so much.

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