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The Rockefellers | Article

Biography: Nelson A. Rockefeller

Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller Archive Center

Nelson Rockefeller believed in fate. After all, he was born on the same day as his larger-than-life grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., a coincidence he always took to be an omen of great things to come. With Senior, he shared an ambitious vision and the boundless energy to make it real. But in other respects, Nelson couldn't have been more different from the Rockefeller patriarch. Turning his back on the intense privacy that had shielded the family for generations, he took the Rockefellers in a bold new direction. He wanted to be popular and powerful. And he wanted to be President of the United States. But fate, it turned out, would not oblige.

Born on July 8, 1908 in Bar Harbor, Maine, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller soon showed signs of the irrepressible temperament that would be his trademark. He led his brothers in all kinds of projects, displaying the charm and vitality inherited from his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who clearly favored him. Nelson had a more strained relationship with his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whose emphasis on discipline and modesty didn't quite suit his third child.

Unlike his father, in fact, Nelson always seemed to be in a hurry. He got married just a few days after graduating from Dartmouth, and was soon searching for ways to "get very far in this world," as he put it. The newly started Riockefeller Center project provided a good launching pad. Building on his interest in modern art, which he had inherited from his mother, he handled relations with the artists hired to embellish the complex, including the controversial Diego Rivera. He also plunged into the task of finding tenants for the ambitious complex, showing leadership and managerial skills that would make him indispensable in the family venture. In 1938, at the age of 29, he was named president of Rockefeller Center.

But Rockefeller's restlessness and ambition would soon push him beyond the confines of New York City. Seeking a role in national politics, he joined President Roosevelt's administration in 1940 as the head of a new agency for Latin-American affairs. He stayed in Washington for the next five years, and again between 1953 and 1955, working on foreign affairs, government reorganization, and public policy under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

Rockefeller was determined to use the experience he had accumulated in the federal government to gain elective political office. In 1958, he decided to run for governor of New York State. His campaign revealed a confident and affable politician, at his best when pressing the flesh and striking up conversations with the people who came out to see him. "Hi Ya, Fella" became his signature greeting. "Rocky," his nickname. After a massive campaign, bankrolled with his legendary fortune, Rockefeller won the election handily. The New York Times did not fail to notice the historical significance of the result: "The election of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller has given the final stamp of public approval to a name that once was among the most hated and feared in America."

Rockefeller wasted no time making the most of his new political prominence. As governor, he took it upon himself to change the physical face of New York State through an array of sweeping public works projects. He built low-income housing, schools, hospitals, roads, and monuments -- among them, the grandiose Albany Mall, a marble complex which is now the seat of the State government. He also established a strong and ambitious state university system (SUNY) and a modern highway network, spending liberally with the help of complicated financing schemes. But as he dove into his own brand of gubernatorial activism, Rockefeller never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

In 1960, barely two years into his first term as governor, he sought the Republican presidential nomination, but lost to Richard Nixon. Four years later, he would come much closer, ultimately yielding to Barry Goldwater and the fallout from a controversial second marriage. But Rockefeller's timing was flawed. His liberal views in social issues and domestic policy (including civil rights) were out of step with the shift to the right in the Republican Party since the late 1950s. In 1968, the year of his third and last try, the so-called "Rockefeller Republican" — a liberal in domestic policy and a hawk when it came to foreign affairs -- was facing extinction.

Rockefeller himself had not been immune to the impact of his party's transformation. Re-elected to the governorship three times -- in 1962, 1966, and 1970 — he too gradually moved to the right. His ill-fated decision to suppress the Attica prison riot in 1971 made him the target of bitter criticism from the left and the media. He became a champion of "law and order," staging a crackdown on "welfare chiselers" and introducing extremely harsh drug laws that called for lengthy prison sentences for petty crimes. Some of these measures, along with the widespread patronage and budgetary excesses that dominated New York politics during Rockefeller's tenure, overshadowed the accomplishments of his 15 years in office.

Rockefeller had always refused offers to be "standby equipment," as he referred to the nomination for vice president. But when in the summer of 1974 he was asked to take on that role by President Ford following the Watergate scandal, he did not hesitate. This could be his last chance ever of reaching the highest office. But his appointment was controversial, and what should have been a swift confirmation process turned into a protracted and grueling inquiry into the extent of the Rockefeller fortune and its hidden influence. "This myth about the power which my family exercises needs to be brought out into the light," Rockefeller argued before the Senate committee. "It just does not exist. I've got to tell you, I don't wield economic power." Unable to prove that the opposite was true, Congress confirmed Rockefeller's nomination, but his was a lame-duck tenure, cinched by President Ford's decision to drop him from his re-election ticket.

It would be four years before Rockefeller made headlines again. On Sunday, January 27, 1979, New Yorkers awoke to the news that Nelson Rockefeller had died of a heart attack at the age of 71 while working at his office in mid-town Manhattan. In the days ahead, as dignitaries and associates sang his praises, the actual circumstances of Rockefeller's death began to emerge: he had died in his townhouse while in the company of a young female staff assistant 45 years his junior. Her delay in calling the paramedics stirred endless speculation, leaving many questions unanswered. But one thing was certain: in death, as in life, Nelson Rockefeller had once again pushed the boundaries of the Rockefellers.

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