Nelson Rockefeller

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Official White House photograph of Vice President Rockefeller, 1975

Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (July 8, 1908 – January 26, 1979), of the famous American Rockefeller family, was an American politician, philanthropist, and businessman. He led the moderate wing of the Republican Party as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and as the 41st vice president of the United States of America from December 19, 1974 to January 20, 1977.

Rockefeller brought a compassionate and socially-aware perspective to Republican politics, which often put him at odds with the more conservative Goldwater Republicans. In some ways he broke stereotypical political molds. He was driven by a desire to serve his country despite the fact that he was free to use his personal wealth on himself. As governor of New York, Rockefeller brought a New Deal level of spending to New York state government with increased focus on areas such as education, health care, and state construction projects. His vice presidency under Gerald Ford, however, was disappointing to Rockefeller, especially after a lifetime of striving for the presidency.

Early Years

Rockefeller, nicknamed "Rocky," was born during his family's vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine on July 8, 1908, which, coincidentally, is the birthday of his famous grandfather. A member of the prominent Rockefeller family, he was the son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller and United States Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island, for whom he was named. According to Rockefeller, his parents had each brought a different element to his upbringing: "My father's life was guided by a great sense of ethics, purpose, responsibility. My mother was much more cosmopolitan. She gave us a love of art and beauty. We benefited from the crosscurrents of both."[1] As a child, Rockefeller emerged as the unquestioned leader and strongest personality amongst his brothers, John, Laurance, Winthrop, and David.

Rockefeller was a poor reader and student, often confusing words and transposing numbers.[2] If he had been born a generation later, he probably would have been diagnosed with dyslexia, but at the time, his tutors did not know the cause of his scholastic difficulties. Rockefeller struggled in his studies but managed to work hard enough to gain acceptance at Dartmouth College. There, he was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity, the Dartmouth Glee Club, and the Casque & Gauntlet Society. He graduated in 1930.

Political Career

Did you know?
Nelson Rockefeller served as governor of New York State from 1959 to 1973 and as the 41st vice president of the United States of America from 1974 to 1977

Rockefeller worked for a time in several family-run businesses and philanthropies before entering public service. He became an assistant secretary of state during World War II, where he was coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, an anti-Nazi alliance for Central and South America under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. After the war, he headed the International Development Advisory Board, part of President Harry Truman's Point Four program.

The election of fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower to the presidency saw Rockefeller appointed first as chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Government Organization and later as an undersecretary in the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

Rockefeller's greatest success in the Eisenhower administration was convincing the president to support a program called "Open Skies," which would open U.S. and Soviet territories to aerial inspection to reduce the risk of surprise attack. Significantly, the program had been devised and the proposed to Rockefeller by then Harvard professor of government Henry Kissinger.[3] Aside from his brother Laurance, Kissinger was probably Rockefeller's closest friend.

Governor of New York

Rockefeller left federal service in 1956 to concentrate on New York state politics, where he served in various capacities. In 1958 he was elected governor by over 600,000 votes, defeating incumbent and fellow multi-millionaire W. Averell Harriman, overcoming the overwhelming Democratic trend in elections throughout the country that year. Rockefeller's extravagance managed to exceed even that of his predecessor:

For his inaugural celebration, Nelson imported the New York City Ballet to Albany to perform at the inaugural ball in a state armory. As he prepared to journey to the capital to assume his prize, he bought a sleek Lincoln limousine. He ordered the license plate '1' installed on it. His chauffeur returned from the State Department of Motor Vehicles, [saying], 'Governor, Motor Vehicles says no privately owned car can have number 1.' Nelson saw no problem. He donated the Lincoln to the state, the bureaucrats promptly placed plate number 1 on it and assigned the car to the Governor.[4]

Rockefeller served as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 (elected to four terms, serving three and a half). As governor, he successfully secured the passage of strict laws against the possession and/or sale of drugs. These laws—which became known as the "Rockefeller drug laws"—took effect in 1973 and are still on the books. They ranked among the toughest in the United States. Despite his tough stance on drug-related crime, Rockefeller was still considered one of the leaders of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, and is hailed as an example of one of the chief figures of the "1960s and 1970s Republican" movement, when most state Republican organizations were dominated by social moderates. Compared to other Republicans, Rockefeller was especially liberal in areas such as spending and civil rights; Republicans sharing similar views were often referred to as "Rockefeller Republicans." In response to Rockefeller's moderate to liberal social policies, a group of conservative New York Republicans bolted from the state Republican organization and formed the Conservative Party.

On September 9, 1971, after four days of riots at the state prison in Attica, NY, Rockefeller gave the order for 1,000 New York State Police troopers and National Guardsmen to storm the prison. Over 40 people died, including 11 of 38 hostages (most of whom were prison guards), the largest loss of life in armed conflict between groups of Americans since the American Civil War. Most of the deaths were attributed to the gunfire of the National Guard and State Police. The prisoners had been demanding better living conditions, showers, education, and vocational training. Opponents blamed Rockefeller for these deaths, while his supporters, including many conservatives who had often vocally differed with him in the past, defended his actions as being necessary to the preservation of law and order.

Aerial view of Empire State Plaza with The Egg performing arts, Corning Tower, the Cultural Education Center combining the New York State Library & Archives, New York State Museum and an art gallery, and four identical "Agency" buildings.

Rockefeller engaged in massive building endeavors that left a profound mark on New York State, so much so that many of his detractors claimed that he had an "Oedifice Complex." He was the driving force in turning the State University of New York into the largest system of public higher education in the United States. He demanded the imposition of tuition at the New York community and city colleges in return for conferring university status on them. He also led in the creation and/or expansion of many major highways (such as the Long Island Expressway, the Southern Tier, the Adirondack, and Interstate 81), which vastly improved road transportation in New York State. To create more low-income housing, Rockefeller created the unprecedented-in-its-power New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which could override local zoning, condemn property, and create financing schemes to carry out desired development. (UDC is now called the Empire State Development Corporation, which forms a unit, along with the formerly independent Job Development Authority, of Empire State Development.)

Rockefeller's massive construction programs—such as the U.S. $2 billion Albany South Mall, later renamed the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, a vast campus of government skyscrapers and plazas, was the most expensive project that had ever been undertaken by any U.S. state government—and his generous pension programs for many public workers in the state (firefighters, many police officers, sanitation workers, and corrections officers), and highest-in-the-nation minimum wage greatly drove up costs and debt in the state. Public-benefit authorities (some 230 of them, like UDC, were brought into existence by Rockefeller himself) were often used to issue bonds in order to avoid the requirement of a vote of the people for the issuance of a bond; such authority-issued bonds bore higher interest than if they had been issued directly by the state. During his tenure as governor, the New York state budget went from U.S. $2.04 billion to $8.8 billion in 1973-74. This occurred despite a state economy that was in significant decline in some areas; whether Rockefeller's spending practices contributed to this decline or prevented it from being far worse than it was is a subject of debate.

Rockefeller also reformed the governance of New York City's transportation system. He bankrupted the New York City Transit Authority and then created the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1965, merging the New York City subway system with the publicly-owned Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Railroad, which were purchased by the state from private owners in a massive public bailout of bankrupt railroads. In taking over control of the Triborough Authority, Rockefeller overcame Robert Moses, who controlled several of New York State’s public infrastructure authorities. Under the New York MTA, toll revenue collected from the bridges and tunnels, which had previously been used to build more bridges, tunnels, and highways, were shifted to support public transport operations, thus shifting costs from general state funds to the motorist.

Presidential Campaigns

Rockefeller's ambition was the presidency, and he spent millions of dollars of his own money in attempts to win the Republican nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968. His bid in 1960 was ended prematurely when then Vice President Richard Nixon surged ahead in polls. After quitting that campaign, Rockefeller enthusiastically threw his support behind Nixon and concentrated his efforts on introducing more moderate stances into Nixon's platform.

Nelson Rockefeller meeting with President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the White House Cabinet room, 1968

Rockefeller was considered the front-runner for the 1964 campaign against the more conservative Barry Goldwater of Arizona (Nixon had declined to run after losing to Pat Brown in the 1962 California gubernatorial election). However, Rockefeller's divorce and quick remarriage to a woman (who had until then been married to someone else) nearly 20 years his junior offended many. Polls predicted that Rockefeller would win the California primary, but he lost by a slim margin and dropped out of the race, endorsing Goldwater (but more hesitantly than he had previously supported Nixon). Many of Rockefeller's supporters then coalesced behind an "anybody but Goldwater" movement led by Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, but this bid was defeated by the conservative tide rising in the Republican Party in 1964.

Rockefeller lost again to a resurgent Nixon in 1968, unable to overcome Nixon's superior organization and support by most state Republican Party mechanisms outside of New York and Nixon's apparent conversion to a more moderate conservatism, making him acceptable to many of the Goldwater activists of four years earlier without making him appear to be unelectable on a national basis as Goldwater had proved to be. The 1968 race proved to be Rockefeller's last bid for national office. Even though by the time of the 1968 Republican National Convention Nixon's nomination seemed to be a foregone conclusion, some of the delegates Rockefeller had won during the campaign nonetheless voted for him. Also at the 1968 Republican National Convention, his brother, Winthrop Rockefeller, received backing from members of the Arkansas delegation as a "favorite son" presidential candidate; he received all of the Arkansas's delegation's 18 votes. Nixon secured the nomination on the first ballot.

Vice President of the United States

Following the resignation of President Richard Nixon, successor Gerald Ford nominated Rockefeller to serve as the 41st Vice President of the United States. Rockefeller is the last governor to date to have served as Vice President.

Rockefeller underwent a lengthy series of Congressional hearings but ultimately was confirmed, beginning his service on December 19, 1974. He became the second Vice President to be appointed to the position under the 25th Amendment, the first being Ford himself.

Less than a year later however, on November 3, 1975, he notified President Ford that he would not seek election to the vice presidency in 1976, saying that he "didn't come down (to Washington) to get caught up in party squabbles which only make it more difficult for the president in a very difficult time..."

While Rockefeller was vice president, the official vice presidential residence was established at Number One Observatory Circle on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory. This residence had previously been the home of the Chief of Naval Operations; prior vice presidents had been responsible for maintaining their homes at their own expense, but the necessity of massive full-time Secret Service security had made this custom impracticable to continue. Rockefeller, though, already had a luxurious, well-secured Washington residence and never actually lived in the home as a principal residence, although he did host several official functions there. His wealth enabled him to give millions of dollars of furnishings to the home, which he allowed to remain there after his term ended, and which have been made available to any subsequent vice presidential families who choose to use them.

Rockefeller's vice presidency is infamously known for his reaction to heckling during a public speech in Binghamton, New York. A group of hippies started to heckle him, to which he retaliated by giving the group the finger, in a widely circulated photo. Senator Bob Dole, who would be the Republican nominee to succeed Rockefeller as vice president in the 1976 election, was on hand at the speech. When questioned by a reporter as to why he did not make a similar gesture, Dole replied, "I have trouble with my right arm," referring to his right-side paralysis, an injury he sustained in World War II.

Personal Life

On June 23, 1930, Rockefeller married Mary "Tod" Clark, having five children with her: Mary, Steven, Ann, Rodman, and Michael. The Rockefellers, like many couples of similar age and socio-economic status, were husband and wife mostly in name only.

Nelson carried out numerous affairs during their marriage, finally falling deeply in love with a married woman eighteen-years his junior named Margaretta "Happy" Murphy in the late 1950s. Early in 1961, Rockefeller decided to divorce Tod and marry Happy. He and his second wife had two children, Mark and Nelson Jr., and he remained married to her until his death in 1979. His divorce and subsequent remarriage probably destroyed his chance at obtaining the Republican nomination for president in 1964.

Personal and Family Wealth

Nelson Rockefeller lived a privileged life. At his birth in 1908, his grandfather's fortune was estimated at $900 million, a huge fortune for the time. In 1934 John D. Rockefeller Jr., Nelson's father, created trust funds for all of his children worth an estimated $40 million each, thus guaranteeing, at the very minimum, financial security for the next generation of Rockefellers.[5]

Nelson Rockefeller's net worth was approximately $1 billion at the time of his death. As of 2004, Forbes Magazine estimated that the overall Rockefeller family fortune could be worth as much as $9 billion.

Art Collector

Rockefeller inherited a taste for modern art from his mother Abby and collected it throughout his life. He continued his mother's work at the Museum of Modern Art and turned the basement of his Kykuit mansion into a first-class museum. While he was overseeing construction of the State University of New York system, Rockefeller built, in collaboration with his lifelong friend Roy Neuberger, a museum on the campus of SUNY Purchase College. The Neuberger Museum, designed by Philip Johnson, hosted several paintings collected by Neuberger and helped to popularize several artists.


On January 26, 1979, at age 70, Rockefeller suffered a heart attack and died. This took place in the company of staff member Megan Marshak, with whom it appeared he was having an affair. Nelson Rockefeller was cremated at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, less than 48 hours after his death, and his ashes were scattered in Lower Manhattan just a few hours after the cremation was completed.


Rockefeller received numerous awards during his lifetime. Of special note are the Légion d'honneur, Commandeur, France, in 1960 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.


Many have praised Rockefeller, despite his flaws. Henry Kissinger, close friend and former U.S. secretary of state, said:

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![6]

Conservative commentator and publisher William Rusher said:

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?[7]

It has been suggested that Rockefeller was better suited than anyone of his generation to be president.[7] However, his attempt to use his personal wealth to win the presidency failed. Ironically, his tax and spend policy would subsequently become associated more with Democratic Party than the Republican, which would emphasize small-government.

Rockefeller's main achievement was his massive expansion of the New York state university system, SUNY. However, he overspent while governor of New York state and left it almost bankrupt when he departed from office. He loved to flaunt his wealth and power. Yet, he had a desire to serve his nation that appears to have been strengthened by his personal fortune. He need not have worked at all, and spent his fortune on himself and his hobbies, but he wanted to use his privileged position to serve his country.


  1. Joseph E. Persico, The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller (Thorndike, ME: Thorndike Press, 1982, ISBN 0896213714), 26.
  2. Persico, 25.
  3. Persico, 36.
  4. Persico, 39.
  5. Persico, 30.
  6. Henry Kissinger, "Words of Commemoration," Memorial Service for Nelson Rockefeller, February 2, 1979. Retrieved August 2, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cary Reich, The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller (Doubleday, 1996, ISBN 978-0385246965).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cobbs, Elizabeth Anne. The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992. ISBN 0300051794
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth A. "Entrepreneurship as Diplomacy: Nelson Rockefeller and the Development of the Brazilian Capital Market" Business History Review 1989 63(1): 88-121. ISSN 0007-6805
  • Connery, Robert H. and Gerald Benjamin. Governing New York State: The Rockefeller Years. New York, NY: Academy of Political Science, 1974.
  • Firestone, Bernard J. and Alexej Ugrinsky (eds.). Gerald R. Ford and the Politics of Post-Watergate America. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. ISBN 0313279748
  • Kramer, Michael S. and Sam Roberts. "I Never Wanted to Be Vice-President of Anything!": An Investigative Biography of Nelson Rockefeller. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976. ISBN 0465031943
  • Light, Paul. "Vice-presidential Influence under Rockefeller and Mondale." Political Science Quarterly 1983-1984 98 (4): 617-640. ISSN 0032-3195
  • Perlstein, Rick. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Nation Books, 2009. ASIN B003P2VCDY
  • Persico, Joseph E. The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller. Thorndike, ME: Thorndike Press, 1982. ISBN 0896213714
  • Reich, Cary. The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller Vol. 1 to 1958. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996. ISBN 038524696X
  • Reichley, James. Conservatives in an Age of Change: The Nixon and Ford Administrations. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1981. ISBN 081577379X
  • Rivas, Darlene. Missionary Capitalist: Nelson Rockefeller in Venezuela. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN 080785350X
  • Straight, Michael. Nancy Hanks, an Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988. ISBN 082230869X
  • Turner, Michael. The Vice President as Policy Maker: Rockefeller in the Ford White House. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982. ISBN 0313232296
  • Underwood, James E. and William J. Daniels. Governor Rockefeller in New York: The Apex of Pragmatic Liberalism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982. ISBN 0313213356

External Links

All links retrieved November 11, 2022.


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