Nelson Rockefeller is one of the largest political figures in New York State history, serving three terms as governor, as well as a half term as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford. His influence over New York is obvious even today, as he forced major changed to both the physical structure and the social fabric of the state.
Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1908 in Bar Harbor, Maine, the oldest son of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller Jr. He shared the same birth date as his powerful grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Sr, and considered this as a calling to power throughout his entire life. As a part of the Rockefeller family, he had a privileged childhood, inheriting an interest in fine art and high society. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and marrying Mary Todhunter Clark in 1930, he worked in several of the family businesses, eventually becoming president of the family's new Rockefeller Center in New York. While president, he created a bad reputation for himself by ordering the destruction of a mural painted on the premises by artist Diego Rivera. He was also appointed to the board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in 1932.
The political career of Nelson Rockefeller began in 1940, when then president Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him director of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. The appointment was the result of the Rockefeller family's endorsement of Wendell Willkie as a vice presidential candidate during the previous election cycle. He eventually moved into the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. He helped to implement Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, and created a large pro-American propaganda campaign. Nearly 75% of all news printed in Central America was crafted by the State Department by the end of World War II. After the war, he headed the International Development Advisory Board.
Governor of New York
After serving in the Eisenhower administration on the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization and in the Department of Health, Rockefeller resigned to concentrate on politics in New York State. Using the experience he had in influencing the press, and $10 million of his family's fortune, he led a strong campaign, and was elected governor in 1958. The New York Times said of his election, "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."
One of his first projects as governor was the largest state funded urban renewal project in history, the Empire State Plaza in Albany. He used his influence in both government and business to push the legislation for the plaza through despite sharp opposition from the public During his first term, he also expanded the organization of state funded universities across New York (SUNY), and the construction of a more expansive highway system, which included the Northway and the Quickway.
Based on the success of his statewide campaign, Rockefeller decided to run for the presidency in 1960. His main opposition was Richard Nixon, who quickly surged ahead in the polls. After Rockefeller withdrew, he fully supported the Nixon campaign, hoping to influence the political agenda. After Nixon's loss to Kennedy, Rockefeller returned his focus to New York. His re-election campaign in 1962 was even stronger than in 1958, and he was returned to the office by a large majority.
The 1963 Presidential campaign of Nelson Rockefeller turned out to be an utter disaster. Nixon had decided not to run, preferring to regain his lost governor's seat in California instead. In fact, Rockefeller quickly became the front-runner, well ahead of his main opponent, Barry Goldwater. But Rockefeller's divorce and very quick remarriage to Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, his mistress for the previous five years, raised a firestorm of controversy. The polls displayed a sharp decline in Rockefeller's popularity when news of his remarriage hit newsstands. However, Rockefeller forged ahead, trying to bring attention to political issues instead. He fought against the "extremist groups" from the conservative side of the Republican Party, which were most notably the supporters of Goldwater. After winning the Oregon primary, it seemed that Rockefeller might stop the growing support of the Goldwater campaign, but a loss in California gave Goldwater the needed delegates to win the nomination. Rockefeller supported the Goldwater campaign, but with more hesitation than he did with Nixon four years earlier.
Rockefeller once again made a bid of the presidency in 1968, at the urging of outgoing president Lyndon Johnson. Nixon was back on the trail as well, and soon Rockefeller withdrew his campaign. When Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, invited Rockefeller to join his ticket as vice-president, he turned him down saying, "Franklin Roosevelt wanted me to be a Democrat (back in the 1940s). It was too late."
Drugs and Crime
With his public image tarnished, Rockefeller decided to divert the public's attention from his personal live to a political issue that would attract attention from both sides: drugs and crime. During his gubernatorial campaign in 1966, Rockefeller made drugs the cornerstone of his political ideals. At the time, there was no state funded treatment program for addiction. Rockefeller wanted the government to take a more active role.
His opponent in the election, former New York City prosecutor Frank O'Connor, criticized Rockefeller's rehabilitation program as "an election-year stunt" and "medically unsound." Rockefeller countered by saying, "Frank O'Connor's election would mean narcotic addicts would continue to be free to roam the street- to mug, snatch purses, to steal, even to murder, or to spread the deadly infection that afflicts them possibly to your own son or daughter." Conservative Republicans loved Rockefeller’s hard stance on crime, while the general public appreciated the apparent increase in safety. Rockefeller easily won re-election.
By the early 70's, Rockefeller had made a reputation for himself as tough on crime, which he used to take his crusade even further. In 1973, he proposed several pieces of legislation in the New York State Assembly. One of these bills drastically increased the sentences for drug crimes including mandatory sentences regardless of the circumstances, while another proposed involuntary confinement of suspects in treatment centers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, called "draconian" by its critics, passed through the legislature with pressure from Rockefeller, and these drug programs soon became the model for the federal government. Rockefeller was also able to appoint over 100 additional judges as a part of this legislation, which gave him even greater influence in state government.
Rockefeller was criticized for the handling of the Attica Prison Riot. Rather than traveling to Attica himself, he sent representatives, namely Robert Douglass, to negotiate with the rioters. When the negoations hit a bump, Rockefeller sent in state troopers to quell the riot. The troopers killed 10 hostages and 29 inmates, which tarnished both Rockefeller's reputation, as well as that of the New York State Police.
Although he never liked Nixon, Rockefeller had remained a supporter of his administration through Cambodia and Vietnam. As the Watergate scandal developed, Rockefeller resisted the open opportunity to vent his frustration, unlike many of his Republican counterparts. When Vice President Spiro Agnew stepped down in 1973, Rockefeller made it clear that he would not turn down the opportunity to join the federal government. Instead, Nixon tried to solidify the party behind him, and selected Gerald Ford. Rockefeller decided at this time to step down as Governor and allow his long time Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson to run as an incumbent. Rockefeller turned to the newly formed Commission on Critical Choices for America, which he expected to use as a power base for another run for the presidency in 1976.
After Nixon's resignation, newly inaugurated President Ford nominated Rockefeller as his Vice President over George Bush. Ford made this decision partially to consolidate power in his administration, but also as a hedge against a possible Rockefeller campaign against him. Ford offered Rockefeller a "full partnership", expecting Rockefeller to lead the administration's domestic policies. As a part of his appointment, Rockefeller had to pass the Senate to be confirmed. As a part of the Senate hearings, Rockefeller was forced to open his financial books, which showed that he had been giving money to important government figures, including his long time associate Henry Kissinger. However, with pressure from the President, the Senate finally confirmed Rockefeller on December 10, and the House on December 19. On that evening, Rockefeller took the oath of Vice President in the Senate chamber. The oath was broadcast nationwide using cameras that had been installed in expectation of Nixon's impeachment hearings.
By the time that Rockefeller was confirmed as Vice President, the "full partnership" that had been promised was already falling apart. Although Ford and Rockefeller would agree on most things, Ford's staff, and Donald Rumsfeld in particular, would block Rockefeller's initiatives. When Rockefeller proposed the Energy Independence Authority, Ford's environmental and economic advisors moved to block the proposal, although it had Ford's approval. When asked what he did as Vice President, Rockefeller replied, "I go to
funerals. I go to earthquakes."
The Ford Administration also used Rockefeller as a smoke screen to prevent an investigation into the CIA. Ford names Rockefeller the head of the investigation committee, even thought the Senate had already formed a committee. When the Senate asked for paperwork from the White House, they responded that the papers were already in the hands of the Rockefeller Commission. These papers would then sit in limbo with Rockefeller until the investigation ended.
After Ford asked Howard "Bo" Callaway to head his re-election campaign in 1976, it quickly became clear the Rockefeller would be bumped from the Vice Presidential seat, perhaps replaced by Rumsfeld. Rockefeller critics called him too old, too liberal, and not a team player within the administration. In early Ford polls, 25% of Republicans said that they would not vote for Ford if Rockefeller was on the ticket. In an attempt to retain his position, Rockefeller patched up his relationship with Senator Goldwater, and began touring the country promoting a Ford-Rockefeller ticket.
With the emergence or Ronald Regan as a potential threat for the Republican nomination, Ford asked Rockefeller to step down. Later, Ford said, "It was the biggest political mistake of my life, and it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life." Rockefeller continued to campaign for Ford, but after giving a group of hippies the finger at a Republican rally at Binghamton University, he quietly made an exit from the political stage.
Rockefeller dedicated the remainder of his year to the arts, both as a philanthropist and as a collector. He died on January 26, 1979 during a sexual encounter with his mistress, Megan Marshak. Marshak hesitated to call an ambulance, afraid of the controversy that the circumstances would certainly create. It is argued that Rockefeller might have been saved had Marshak summoned medical assistance earlier.