On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith (Random House, 880 pp., $38)
In 15 years as governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller, popularly known as “Rocky,” was as careful with the public’s money as he was with his own—which is to say, he spent lavishly, impulsively, and often indiscriminately. New Yorkers have been paying the bill ever since. As portrayed in Richard Norton Smith’s new biography, Rockefeller believed that there was no problem (least of all a lack of cash) too big to yield to a big-money solution. “As much as I loved Nelson,” Smith quotes the financier Frank Zarb, “his meter didn’t start until you reached a billion dollars.”
Rocky’s meter began to spin soon after he became governor of New York in 1959, and it accelerated as time went on. To be sure, every level of American government was expanding during the 1960s and 1970s. But Rockefeller made an outlier of the Empire State. He quadrupled the state budget and quintupled state debt, including off-the-books public-authority borrowing. He created the nation’s most lavish Medicaid program, designed to draw down maximum federal aid to the state while saddling New York City and county governments with half the non-federally reimbursed cost. He pushed through a collective bargaining law that would bequeath to New Yorkers the nation’s highest level of public-sector unionization. Though New York had been a cradle of open-handed liberalism, its state and local taxes, relative to personal income, were slightly below the national average when Rockefeller took office, according to Census data. By 1974, the combined burden had nearly doubled to a level well above the 50-state norm—where it has remained ever since.
Smith demonstrates that Rockefeller’s profligacy was at least as much a matter of personal disposition as political preference. There’s no small irony in this: Rocky’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., built his Standard Oil mega-fortune on penny-pinching attention to detail. As one story goes, even as a wealthy man, “Senior” was delighted to discover he could eke out a slightly larger profit by encouraging his employees to use one less drop of solder on each tin can of Standard Oil kerosene. Senior eventually moved his offices from Cleveland to lower Manhattan and established a baronial estate overlooking the lower Hudson River at Pocantico Hills in Westchester County.
His shy and moralistic son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., invested more of his fortune in real estate and finance but was at least equally absorbed in philanthropy, greatly amplifying the family’s extraordinary economic and political power. Nelson, the third oldest of Junior’s six children, took after his outgoing and irreverent mother, Abby. Junior schooled his boys in frugality, but young Nelson “routinely exhausted his [allowance] in a shop on Sixth Avenue, where he lay on the floor on his stomach, devouring Tootsie Rolls and the funny pages.” Smith describes the future governor and vice president as energetic, inquisitive, and mischievous—a natural leader. He was also dyslexic—which made reading and writing difficult and explained his lifelong tendency to transpose letters and numbers.
Today, a boy like Nelson Rockefeller would be assigned to a special education class and perhaps dosed with Ritalin for good measure. But he got no special treatment back then. Like his brothers, he was sent to the Lincoln School, a project of Columbia Teachers College, where he flourished when exposed to a curriculum that “replaced traditional subjects with interdisciplinary units drawn from real-life situations and selected, in part, by the students themselves.” He went on to graduate from Dartmouth. His first real job was helping his father develop and lease office space at Rockefeller Center, while also helping his mother build the Museum of Modern Art. By the start of World War II, Rockefeller’s knowledge of South America, derived from his involvement with the family’s business interests there, landed him a job as special advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rockefeller would adopt the wily and manipulative FDR as a political role model. He would also serve on a foreign development advisory board for President Harry Truman, but he remained a Republican, like his father and grandfather before him.
Rockefeller had a self-serving explanation for why he never changed parties: “If I became a Democrat, I’d always be in the position of holding the party back, whereas if I stayed a Republican, I’d be pushing the party forward.” In reality, the GOP in the postwar era offered more opportunity and maneuvering room to an ambitious, super-wealthy New Yorker. This was, after all, the heyday of “modern Republicanism,” defined by Dwight D. Eisenhower as “conservative when it comes to money and liberal when it comes to human beings.”
Rockefeller was nearly 50 when he embarked on his political career. New York Republicans assumed that he would model himself after the state’s former governor, Thomas E. Dewey, a paragon of the party’s eastern establishment. Dewey’s hallmark was “pay as you go financing,” expressed in practice as a strict insistence on balanced operating budgets and limited borrowing. The subject of a (superb) earlier Smith biography, Dewey is today best remembered for his stunning loss to Truman in the 1948 presidential election. But Dewey achieved notable success in his 12-year tenure in New York’s highest office, rooting out waste and corruption, enacting a pioneering housing-rights law, building the state thruway, and creating the framework for the State University of New York (SUNY).
Dewey’s successor was something of a fluke: Democrat Averell Harriman, wealthy heir to the New York Central Railroad fortune and former U.S. ambassador to both Great Britain and the Soviet Union, was elected governor in 1954 by a razor-thin margin after an Election Day snowstorm suppressed Republican turnout upstate. Harriman had been in office for only two years when he made the epic miscalculation of appointing his fellow Hudson Valley plutocrat, Nelson Rockefeller, to chair a commission proposing possible changes to the state constitution. Rockefeller, who had just wrapped up three years as a senior policy advisor to Eisenhower, seized the opening to familiarize himself with state issues and assemble the team of experts who would form the nucleus of his future gubernatorial staff.
In retrospect, the patrician and parsimonious Harriman never stood a chance in the 1958 gubernatorial race against the blintz-eating, backslapping, and free-spending Rockefeller. (“Hiya fella!” was Rocky’s all-purpose greeting for people he didn’t know; “Hello, stranger” was Harriman’s.) Rockefeller won handily—a rare GOP success in what was, nationally, one of the worst Republican years of the postwar era. Rocky had pledged to restore Dewey’s pay-as-you-go approach, and he may have actually meant it—right up to the moment when it clashed with his grandiose vision. Discovering that there wasn’t nearly enough money to finance all his big plans, he jacked up the personal income-tax rate from 7 percent to 9 percent and conformed New York to the federal practice of income-tax withholding—“the greatest bonanza the state could have asked for,” Rocky’s tax commissioner said. Money gushed in, and the state budget swelled by 33 percent in his first term.
What Rockefeller wanted, above all, was to build: housing, university campuses, highways, bridges, parks, mental health facilities, and water and sewer systems—the works. But, then as now, New York’s constitution had an unusually restrictive provision requiring voter approval of all state general-obligation debt and limiting such votes to one bond issue per general election. Rockefeller turned to “moral-obligation” debt—in effect, a nonbinding pledge to pay—first conceived in the 1950s by Wall Street bond lawyer John Mitchell as part of an unsuccessful proposal to expand the federal role in school construction. With help from Mitchell (later Richard Nixon’s attorney general), Rockefeller revived the concept, using the state Housing Finance Agency to underwrite bonds issued by a newly created State University Construction Fund.
For anyone with the slightest interest in late twentieth-century American political history—New York’s in particular—Smith’s book is a marvelously engrossing read, painstakingly researched and enriched by access to newly opened Rockefeller archives. Despite its author’s obvious sympathy with his subject, the book is a balanced portrait. Without veering into the tawdry, Smith doesn’t stint from describing Rockefeller’s incessant womanizing or reporting the circumstances surrounding Rockefeller’s 1979 death in the company of a much younger mistress.
Smith also records examples of the many instances in which Rockefeller tapped his or his family’s wealth and connections to buy the loyalty of aides and potentially useful political allies. Unfortunately, he fails to provide inflation-adjusted values for Rockefeller’s outlays. So we aren’t told that Rockefeller’s $75,000 check, made to his top aide upon becoming governor in 1959, was the equivalent of $617,000 in 2014 terms. A few years later, Smith informs us in a footnote, the governor arranged for his brother Laurance to make a $30,000 loan to the Republican Party’s national chairman. Smith doesn’t note that the sum would equal $238,000 in today’s dollars—making the “loan” seem more like an outright bribe. (Not that it accomplished anything; the loan recipient was William Miller, a conservative Buffalo-area congressman who in 1964 became the running mate of the man who defeated Rockefeller for the GOP presidential nomination, Barry Goldwater.)
Smith understandably pays considerable attention to Rockefeller’s forays into national politics, including three failed bids for the Republican presidential nomination and a disappointing two-year tenure as Gerald Ford’s appointed vice president. When Smith turns to Albany politics, though, he occasionally stumbles. For example, he attributes Rockefeller’s embrace of moral-obligation financing in part to the narrow defeat, in 1961, of a “$500 million bond issue earmarked for a vastly expanded SUNY.” In fact, the ballot proposal that year wasn’t a SUNY bond issue but a state constitutional amendment authorizing $500 million in loan guarantees for both public and private college construction projects. Its defeat wasn’t, as Smith implies, a sign of voters’ reluctance to fund SUNY construction; rather, it was an outgrowth of the same church-state concerns (not untinged by anti-Catholicism) that would later doom a Rockefeller-supported effort to repeal the state constitution’s Blaine amendment prohibiting state aid to religious schools.
And (not that there’s any real hint of scandal on this point) the author sows confusion on the issue of whether, or how much, Rockefeller imbibed. Smith reports that Rocky rarely indulged in anything stronger than the occasional glass of Dubonnet, and even once asked an aide, “Why do people drink?” But he also reports that, during his 1966 campaign, Rocky travelled with “a backseat cooler with its false bottom concealing a supply of cold beer.” And, he acknowledges, Rockefeller may have been a bit tipsy when he blurted out, during a 1970 campaign appearance, that the Democratic state comptroller Arthur Levitt would be “in like Flynn” on Election Day. (Rocky phoned his running mate, GOP comptroller candidate Edward V. Regan, with a self-deprecating apology. “Hello, Ned,” he began. “This is Judas.”)
Rockefeller’s policies, especially his tax increases, were controversial enough to ensure that he would never be politically bulletproof in his home state. But as luck would have it, he never drew even a moderately strong opponent. (His bottomless checkbook and sophisticated statewide political operation likely had something to do with that.) Seeking a second term in 1962, he easily defeated federal prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, described by one Democrat as “maybe the worst single candidate that ever ran for public office.” However, the election also gave rise to an anti-Rockefeller backlash on the right; the standard bearer of the newly established Conservative Party, an obscure Syracuse businessman, gained enough votes to earn that party a ballot spot, which it has never relinquished.
Rocky was at his most vulnerable four years later, after a fresh wave of big tax hikes. He managed to win reelection in 1966 with barely 45 percent of the vote, only because Democrat Frank O’Connor, president of the New York City Council, had part of his natural support siphoned off by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., conveniently tapped by Liberal Party leaders to run on their line. Meanwhile, in a sign of rising unhappiness with the governor, the 1966 Conservative candidate more than tripled that party’s 1962 total.
Rebounding strongly in his final campaign, Rockefeller won a fourth term in 1970 by better than 700,000 votes, his biggest margin, over former U.S. Supreme Court justice and U.N. ambassador Arthur Goldberg. The “windy and self-regarding” Goldberg, as Smith refers to him, wrongly assumed his strong pro-labor background would enable him to steal union support from Rockefeller, a favorite of construction trades, in particular.
Rockefeller’s political slogan in 1970 boasted, “He’s done a lot. He’ll do more.” But in his final years, Rockefeller saw his efforts to “do more” repeatedly thwarted. In 1971, a revolt by legislative Republicans forced him to slash his budget. While an historic expansion of the SUNY system was completed as he had hoped, his annual call for universal health insurance went nowhere. He was widely second-guessed for his handling of the 1971 Attica prison riot, which culminated in a bloody retaking of the facility by state police that cost 43 lives. Voters rejected his proposed $2.5 billion transportation bond issue in 1972. Disturbed by skyrocketing crime rates and the failure of therapeutic approaches to drug addiction that he had previously championed, Rockefeller changed gears and in 1973 signed the draconian drug laws that still bear his name.
When Rockefeller resigned as governor in December 1973 to become head of a self-created Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, New York was far down the road on a collision course with fiscal reality. By then, the state income tax rate had risen to 15.35 percent, at a time when neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut still had no income taxes of their own. Slightly over a year after Rocky left office, the state Urban Development Corporation (UDC), one of his pet projects, defaulted on a moral-obligation bond payment, triggering a collapse of confidence that ultimately contributed to the 1975 New York City fiscal crisis. (The UDC survives, under a different name, as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s economic-development finance agency; much of its outstanding debt relates to 1980s prison construction under his father, Governor Mario Cuomo.)
While Rockefeller was not directly culpable for New York City’s fiscal breakdown, he helped set the stage for it. Starting in the early sixties, when Robert Wagner was still mayor, the governor signed laws allowing the city to borrow to pay operating expenses. With increasing reluctance, he would approve a series of city tax hikes and state aid increases for Mayor John Lindsay, whose candidacy he and his brothers bankrolled. One of the virtues of Smith’s book is its colorful portrayal of the tense Rockefeller-Lindsay relationship. Rockefeller thought Lindsay was ungrateful and incompetent, and on the evidence of this book, it’s hard to disagree.
Throughout his tenure as governor, Rockefeller’s one continuing obsession was the South Mall, the office complex in downtown Albany that would represent the purest expression of his governmental and architectural vision. Its basic justification was prosaic: a need for more state office space. Dewey and Harriman already had begun housing the state’s growing bureaucracy in a new office campus ringed by highways on the outskirts of Albany. Rockefeller wanted something dramatic downtown, next to the rococo nineteenth-century state capitol, to spiff up the capital city’s tired appearance. The plan he chose required the bulldozing of homes, businesses, schools, and churches densely sprawled across a 100-acre ravine, which would be bridged with a quarter-mile-long platform housing a multi-level parking garage and covered pedestrian concourse, and topped by a marble-clad plaza featuring long reflecting pools flanked by five office towers with narrow trapezoidal footprints. There would also be new legislative and judicial buildings, an ovoid theater (eventually known as “The Egg”), a new state museum and library, and a headquarters for the Department of Motor Vehicles—using design elements inspired by models as disparate as the modernist capital city of Brasilia; the Potala Palace of the Dalai Lama at Lhasa, Tibet; Hatshepsut’s Temple at Deir el-Bahari; and, not least, Rockefeller’s own back-of-the envelope sketches. Initially conceived as a $250 million project that would take four years to finish, the South Mall would consume over a decade and $2 billion, including interest. The project’s cost was no obstacle, however, once the governor and Albany’s mayor, Erastus Corning II, figured out how to circumvent borrowing limits by having Albany County finance the complex with its own bonds and then lease the whole thing back to the state to cover the debt service.
An eerie parallel to the South Mall’s overruns unfolded, quite literally, in the governor’s own backyard. In 1969, Smith writes, Rockefeller began construction on the Pocantico grounds of a Japanese-style home he envisioned using in his retirement. Expected to cost $650,000, “it took six years and $5.5 million to complete.”
Even before the South Mall was finished, architectural critics vied to outdo one another in ridiculing the complex. Rockefeller strained to come up with superlatives, at various times describing it as “wonderful” and “the greatest thing to happen in this country in a hundred years,” and “our generation’s vision of what a great state capital should be.” Costly to build, expensive to maintain, prematurely obsolescent, and out of scale with its surroundings, the South Mall (formally named the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza) is an irresistible metaphor for the government its creator left behind.
Yet Rocky continues to inspire nostalgia in some quarters—not just among America’s dwindling band of liberal Republicans, but also in the growth-starved state he nearly ran into the ground. As a recent headline in Westchester County’s Journal News put it, WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, NELSON ROCKEFELLER? The answer is that he never really left. For both better and worse, we live with his legacy.