A Review of “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson RockefellerOn His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller by Richard Norton Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Such a terrific book on a political giant, who played an enormous role in American politics, and whose name and philosophy came to represent a major point of divide in the Republican Party. Author Richard Norton Smith immediately entices you by opening with Rockefeller getting booed off the stage at the 1964 GOP Convention, crystalizing the split in the GOP that continues to exist today. (A shout out to “Before the Storm” by Rick Perlstein, who covers the rise of Goldwater and the conservative takeover of the GOP)
In reading another review of this book I found a criticism that struck me as essentially correct: there is so much to write about that even at 800 plus pages a multi-volume effort would have allowed a more detailed look at some truly fascinating pieces of Rockefeller’s life. As I started I hoped for additional detail on the Rockefeller/Robert Moses relationship, although it is covered. (Of course the Caro masterpiece “The Power Broker” gives plenty of detail)
Smith gives us a good overview of the personality and politics, with the major flaws not hidden, but balanced by much of the good parts of the overall record. He covers the family, Rockefeller’s love and devotion to art, and of course the politics. For those that love the politics this is an area that could have used more, but what is there is just terrific. Rockefeller’s stop and start effort to secure the 1960 GOP nomination showed the personal political flaws that were to remain with him in every one of his efforts to secure the Republican presidential nomination (1960, 1964, 1968). My own view is that 1968 could have been the year where the greatest potential existed for Rockefeller, but he was out-flanked and out thought by Nixon, starting in 1964, when Nixon campaigned tirelessly for the doomed Goldwater candidacy, and Rockefeller refused to do so. Nixon played the long game, and Rockefeller got caught up in the deep Party split that happened to the GOP in 1964. He never recovered his national footing, and his failure to achieve his life goal of being President weighed on him later in life, leading to some introspection and self criticism as he neared the end. The “mutation” that occurred in the GOP came just in time to derail Rockefeller on the national scene.
Looking at Rockefeller’s efforts in 1960 the Goldwater wave of 1964 was just forming.

“The incident was nevertheless revealing of a top-down mentality driving the Rockefeller campaign to pursue Republican kingmakers, many of them barely able to stomach Theodore, much less Franklin, Roosevelt. At the time, his chilly reception was attributed to inferior organization and hardball tactics employed by Len Hall and other Nixon strategists. This overlooked something much larger, a mutation occurring within Republican ranks, as the party’s center of gravity shifted right and the polarizing emotions of the sixties evicted Eisenhower-style moderation.”

And yes, there are similarities between yesterday and today. As that Goldwater wave started to become visible after the election of JFK, Kennedy observed: “….President Kennedy, in a Los Angeles visit coinciding with Rockefeller’s heartbreaking trip to New Guinea, to decry “those on the fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution, an appealing slogan, or a convenient scapegoat.”

As Rockefeller looked to 1964 the wave hit, and the description rendered in this book, once again, shows the similarities to today.

“Nothing better illustrated the Rockefeller campaign’s outmoded approach toward winning Republican minds, let alone hearts. In many a boardroom and country club, 1964 boiled down to an unequal contest between Goldwater passion and Rockefeller prestige. So while Hinman cultivated his peers in the GOP hierarchy, below the radar, in precinct meetings and district conventions, an entirely new Republican electorate swarmed the barricades. It wasn’t the Eastern Establishment alone targeted for elimination by Clif White’s army; it was the Republican Establishment personified by all those lawyers and bankers and oil barons whose loyalty to their class, and to the social and cultural status quo, rendered them ideologically suspect to the emerging conservative movement.”

Despite Rockefeller’s failures at the national level Smith shows what a successful political Governor Rockefeller was in New York. As time wore on Rockefeller had major problems, which were covered, including the debacle at Attica. Rockefeller’s move to the right is chronicled, and the internal contradictions that manifested themselves are shown expertly by the author. The author does not shy away from Rockefeller’s womanizing, giving an unvarnished view of his personal foibles in this area, including coverage of his death.

Rockefeller served as Vice President to Gerald Ford, and that painful chapter is covered in detail, including his great animus towards a pair of Ford staffers named Cheney and Rumsfeld. Rockefeller’s personal political failures as a national politician come through loud and clear, leading his friend President Ford to dump him from the ticket in favor of Bob Dole in 1976. That ignominious end brought the curtain down on Rockefeller’s political career, and left him embittered. Much of the blame for his problems, despite the hostility of Cheney and Rumsfeld, belonged to Rockefeller, who could just not be a second banana.

I highly recommend this book, which is integral to understanding the political period that shaped much of what America is today. Rockefeller may not have succeeded in his ultimate goal, but he can be remembered as one of the giants of his era.

View all my reviews

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