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The first in a two-volume, full-length biography of Nelson Rockefeller offers a complex portrait of the energetic, ruthless, and magnetic politician, statesman, capitalist, and public figure, based on government archives, hundreds of interviews, and family papers. 35,000 first printing. Tour.
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What a great President he would have been! How he would have ennobled us! What an extraordinary combination of strength and humanity, decisiveness and vision!
--Henry Kissinger, "Words of Commemoration," Memorial Service for Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, February 2, 1979
He irritated the shit out of a lot of people. It was a combination of things: all that wealth, that opportunism, that arrogance, rolled up together.... Sure, there are other arrogant politicians, there are other rich politicians, there are other opportunistic politicians. But where do you get such a gorgeous combination of them as in this one figure?
--William Rusher, conservative commentator and publisher
More than a decade and a half after his death, and two decades after he departed public life, the invocation of Nelson A. Rockefeller's name still conjures up a host of powerful, distinct images.
First, there is the image of his progressive and profligate New York governorship, with Rockefeller as a latter-day Cheops, building such monuments as the State University and the billion-dollar South Mall in the capital, introducing a multitude of far-reaching programs, and bequeathing to the state's taxpayers an awesome mountain of debt.
Then there is the storied "Rocky": garrulous, backslapping, eye-winking, offering a gravely "Hi ya, fella" to one and all and tossing any manner of ethnic treats down his cast-iron gullet. And, in vivid counterpoint to that, there is the imperial Nelson Rockefeller, commanding limitless wealth, presiding over his magnificent Georgian manor house in the very private 3,500-acre family preserve in Westchester--merely one of his five residences--and assembling one of the twentieth century's great private art collections.
And, of course, for many, the image that first comes to mind is the one engendered by his mysterious, much-gossiped-about demise: that of a lusty septuagenarian, meeting his maker while, apparently, in hysteria libidinosa with a lady almost half a century his junior.
In history, Rockefeller has left his mark as the perennial Man Who Would Be President, an object lesson in the limits of what money can buy. No politician of his era, it is commonly agreed, was better equipped, by temperament and background, for the presidency; none had as formidable a machine at hand to realize his dream. But three times he tried, and three times he failed. In the end, the closest he would come to the White House was a brief lame-duck turn at the Vice Presidency.
But probably the most enduring and pervasive view of Rockefeller is steeped in irony, for it is the one cherished by his adversaries, American conservatives, for whom it has been a precious talisman passed on from one generation of the right wing to the next: the Rockefeller of "Rockefeller Republicanism," that reviled and discredited amalgam of tax-and-spend big government liberalism and avid internationalism. It is a totem of seemingly undiminished potency, as witness its use as a conservative rallying cry against the prospective presidential candidacy of General Colin Powell, a reputed Rockefeller Republican. "If he should get the nomination," warned one conservative activist, "it would be as if Ronald Reagan had never lived and Nelson Rockefeller never died." (Another conservative spokesman saw fit to remind his audience that Rockefeller, the general's supposed ideological mentor, was "a conspicuous philanderer.")
This power, the power to fire up the most incendiary political passions at the mere mention of his name, is ample testimony to the grip that Nelson Rockefeller--vintage progressive, unabashed spender, master builder, thwarted presidential contender, "conspicuous philanderer"--continues to hold on the popular imagination. One way or another, he is still with us.
He was born into awesome wealth, a fortune so vast that his very family name was synonymous with stupendous sums. And yet, throughout his life, he exhibited the relentless drive of the self-made man: he was every bit the go-getter, a patrician Sammy Glick. Asked once by an interviewer what he would have done if he hadn't been born into fortune, Rockefeller instantly replied, "I would think of making one." Possessed of boundless reserves of energy, soaring ambition, and an unshakable will, Rockefeller would have achieved great things regardless of his material circumstances. "He was interested in accomplishing," reflects his brother David, "and he spent a lot of time in seeing where he wanted to go, and then developing a strategy to get there. In other words, things did not happen by accident in his life."
"His life was dedicated to moving ahead," says his onetime aide William Alton, who had known Rockefeller since boyhood. "There was always a mission, something to be done. He was always building, building, building."
Those associated with Rockefeller over the years tend to describe him in terms usually reserved for hustlers from the Lower East Side tenements. "He was a fighter, a real scrapper right from the start," remarks commentator Thomas Braden, who first came into Rockefeller's orbit in the late 1940s. "It's hard to believe that a guy with all the natural advantages Nelson had would be remembered as someone who overcame obstacles, but that's how I remember him. That was his strength, the thing I always admired."
Every domain he entered was a new world to conquer, every realm something to be subjugated to his will--starting with his very own family. From his earliest years he strove to dominate the Rockefeller empire. While his siblings were great strivers in their own right--one the world's preeminent commercial banker, another among America's most successful venture capitalists, another a philanthropist of global renown and the prime mover behind Lincoln Center--rarely did any of them dare to challenge his supremacy.
And as it was for the Rockefellers, so it would be, for almost a generation, for the state of New York. "Nothing stands in Rockefeller's way," his political contemporary U.S. Senator Jacob Javits would say. "Nothing. He always gets what he wants."
And so, too, would it be for the coterie of men and women--many of them illustrious figures in their own right--who would serve Nelson Rockefeller. No less a personage than Henry Kissinger--who owed much of his ascension in public life to Rockefeller's sponsorship--would complain that "the problem with Nelson was that he was such a dominant personality, and he tended to draw you into his orbit, and he tended to become all-consuming. So it was very hard to keep your identity with him."
"I think Rockefeller got interested in politics," opines his longtime conservative foe, National Review publisher William Rusher, "because it was one of the few things in the world that resisted his approach."
Surely precious little else did. In Nelson Rockefeller's world, no gratification was ever deferred for long, no whim ever went unsatisfied--be it in art, in automobiles, in real estate, or in women. Expressing admiration for a rare replication in tapestry of one of Picasso's masterworks, he thought it would be grand if the artist's other masterpieces were similarly rendered for him in cloth--with the artist himself supervising, of course. Picasso obliged. Coveting a yellow Phantom Five Rolls-Royce, and finding that the company had made only one and it wasn't for sale, he bought a gray Phantom instead and contrived to paint it yellow. When the manufacturer refused to go along, Rockefeller had his agents hire a former Royal Air Force intelligence operative to sneak into the Rolls-Royce garage and scratch a paint chip from the yellow vehicle, so that the exact shade could be analyzed and reproduced.
Flying one night over Mount Rushmore in his private plane, Rockefeller asked his traveling companion, "Have you ever seen Mount Rushmore?" When the man said no, Rockefeller said, "Just a minute," and picked up a phone on the plane. Suddenly, beneath them, the presidential likenesses were bathed in spotlights.
Then there was the time Rockefeller played host to the national conference of governors and decided to fÛte his guests at the Metropolitan Museum of Art--in the days when parties at the august institution were strictly forbidden. A Rockefeller assistant met with museum director Thomas Hoving, and, the aide recalls, "Hoving kept telling us how impossible it was, you can't possibly put chafing dishes there, and all that. Finally, I told Hoving that as far as Nelson was concerned, nothing was impossible. And he just sighed and said, 'Well, if that's what Nelson wants...'"
Having his way in all things, he seemed like a veritable King of New York. Never did he approach his private plane on the tarmac when it wasn't poised for takeoff, propeller churning. Never on a rainy day did he have to ask for his topcoat; no sooner did he raise his arms than the coat would be slipped over them. "Rockefeller was a royal presence," admits one of his political foes. "The whole aura was overwhelming." And not just for New York pols. Once, the Earl of Mountbatten, mentor of Prince Philip and Prince Charles, became embroiled in a vigorous dispute with Rockefeller at his Pocantico Hills estate. "But, Your Majesty," Mountbatten remonstrated, before he caught himself.
The grandeur of Rockefeller's surroundings--the Manhattan triplex whose fireplaces were decorated by Matisse and LÚger, the Pocantico Hills estate with its Calders, Moores, and David Smiths filling the porches and manicured lawns, the Seal Harbor, Maine, residence hovering over the granite outcroppings like a great beached schooner--added further to the regal aura. Even other Rockefellers stood in awe. On one occasion brother David was touring the private underground gallery architect Philip Johnson designed...
the biographer's art, The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller is the first full-length biography of one of the most powerful, magnetic, fascinating figures on the twentieth-century stage.
Of all the great American dynastic families, few could match the combined wealth, power, and influence of the Rockefellers. And of all the Rockefellers, none was more determined to use these advantages than Nelson A. Rockefeller.
Nelson was never content to live off the fame and fortune due him as a Rockefeller. His imperious grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, and intimidating father, John Jr., set standards and boundaries that Nelson blithely ignored. He pushed for position within the family, and then broke a family taboo by taking his ambition to the forbidden world of politics. A devoted family man, he took many lovers with an almost casual sense of droit du seigneur. He surrounded himself with brilliant, devoted subordinates; he flattered and cajoled more powerful peo
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