Books

Book review

‘On His Own Terms’ by Richard Norton Smith

New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller shown at the signing of the Immigration Bill
Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images
New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller shown at the signing of the Immigration Bill in 1965.

There never was another governor — or another art connoisseur, vice president, or force of nature — quite like Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, whose colorful life (and death) loomed so large during his time and then — poof! — disappeared from public consciousness.

The other giants of his time — Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, even Averell Harriman, whom he defeated in a landmark New York gubernatorial race more than a half century ago — are remembered more vividly than Rockefeller, who more than any of them embraced life with ardor, approached politics with passion, lived large, and dreamed big. The only figure of his generation who approached Rockefeller in those respects was Lyndon Johnson, and he has proven not only unforgettable but also is enjoying a modest 21st-century rehabilitation.

Not so Rockefeller, until perhaps now. Richard Norton Smith, a historian who directed five presidential libraries, has written a magisterial biography of Rockefeller that recaptures the man and his times — and the peculiar, now vanished, brand of Republican conservatism and governmental activism that once was an important fixture in American politics. At a time when no Rockefeller Republican, saving perhaps Senator Susan Collins of Maine, strides the earth, it is time, and a tonic, to revisit that faded creed and glorious era.

Advertisement

More than anything else, Rockefeller, in a life and career that included service in FDR’s administration and a social-spending outlook that predated and perhaps exceeded in scale LBJ’s, was a “hyperactivist,’’ a term Smith employs to describe the breathless high-hurdles event that was the Rockefeller years in Albany — and the three halting presidential campaigns he mounted in the 1960s.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Social welfare, housing, transit, energy, education, and arts initiatives were the leitmotif of the Rockefeller years, and that list is only a brief summary. He remade Albany and the New York political world. Irrepressible and irreverent — Smith tells us of Rockefeller’s shocked response when his dining partner, George C. Wallace, extinguished his cigar in a perfectly respectable custard dessert — Rockefeller defied both convention and description.

And yet Smith captures the essence of Rockefeller, a man preoccupied with having “the best ideas, the boldest innovations, and the brainiest associates,’’ all put to work on projects combing “[f]iscal prudence and social conscience.’’ The result is a biography that, despite its size (a veritable brick) and comprehensiveness (hardly any Rockefeller-inspired conference or tête-à-tête is omitted) nonetheless is compelling and provocative, an old-fashioned life-and-times of the grand style, eligible to stand up straight on a bookshelf with the Douglas MacArthur of William Manchester, Robert Moses of Robert Caro, and John D. Rockefeller (Nelson’s grandfather) of Ron Chernow.

Smith sees Rockefeller as “less a politician who collected art than a frustrated artist for whom the exercise of power fulfilled his creative needs.’’ He was, in fact, one of the last true plutocrats in politics, with the economic advantages of John F. Kennedy, the grace of George H.W. Bush, the exuberance and appetites of Bill Clinton, the creativeness of Franklin Roosevelt, the restlessness of Lyndon Johnson, and the genuineness of Ronald Reagan.

Smith reminds us why Rockefeller is worthy to be remembered, if only for the audaciousness of his ambitions and his vital role as ideological foil to Nixon and Reagan. Too conservative for liberals and too liberal for conservatives, he occupied an uncomfortable middle ground, itself a reminder of the old chestnut that the only beast found in the middle of the road tends to be road kill.

Advertisement

But Rockefeller’s journey along that road, including 15 years as governor of New York, was one of the great joy rides of American political history — though Smith argues he left the state peculiarly vulnerable to fluctuations in economic conditions.

Some readers will find Smith’s accounts of Rockefeller’s stints at inter-American affairs and Health, Education, and Welfare hard going, but they are ground work for Rockefeller’s romp through his 135-speech 1958 gubernatorial campaign, the Albany years, the presidential-campaign disappointments, the Attica prison fiasco, and the vice presidency. And attentive readers will see that Rockefeller, whose daily movements were fueled on cheese blintzes, bagels, briefing papers, and bull, anticipated Jimmy Carter (carrying his own suitcase) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (the “listening tour’’).

All this established Rockefeller improbably but indelibly as a man not so much of money as of the people, positioning him to mount gubernatorial offensives on civil defense, health insurance, the arts, airport development, housing initiatives, energy plans — and a vice presidential initiative to buy Greenland from Denmark. His was a horizon that stretched forever.

In a book that sometimes seems as if it might go on forever, Smith leans on the unfinished biographical work of Cary Reich, who completed his first Rockefeller volume in 1996 but died in 1999 — a debt Smith acknowledges generously. His own biography is of a different sort entirely, treating Rockefeller’s transition to fiscal conservatism as market and economic conditions changed.

By book’s end, Smith increasingly sees Rockefeller as much a movement as a man — though a movement of one, and a fading one, too. “With governing elites increasingly discredited,’’ Smith writes, “Rockefeller-style pragmatism generated diminishing enthusiasm among Republicans for whom government was fast becoming an object of mistrust, if not outright hostility.’’ That is an important American passage, and Smith has provided an important contribution to understanding it. Plus of course he provides ample detail of how Rockefeller died. Enough said in a family newspaper.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.