TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I'm Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library and Museum. And on behalf of Heather Campion, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming. Welcome all those watching on C-SPAN, and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon,
Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation and our media partners, the Boston Globe, Xfinity, Viacom, and WBUR.
You're familiar with the story. It's the late 1950s, a young attractive presidential candidate, scion to financial fortune, a one-man force field of celebrity, good looks and charm fresh off electoral victory in his home state in the northeast, impatient with the status quo under President Eisenhower, itching to get the country moving again, and encountering his main impediment to the White House in the form of Richard M. Nixon.
The description applies, of course, to John F. Kennedy but equally fits our subject tonight, Nelson A. Rockefeller. In fact, the resemblance is more uncanny when comparing the two men’s intellectual interests in the arts, the environment, the future of Latin America, and their mutual belief in government action to improve working conditions, advance civil rights and promote nuclear disarmament.
“I'm not interested in what I can't do,” Rockefeller reminded his aids. “I want to know how I can do what I want to do and it is your job to tell me.” In Richard Norton Smith’s hand, Governor Rockefeller comes to life in this enthralling and deeply informative new biography, On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. Mr. Smith is the author of biographies on Thomas E. Dewey, Herbert Hoover and George Washington. No stranger to presidential libraries, he has directed five. He teaches at George Mason University, is a commentator on the News Hour on PBS and is the in-house historian on C-SPAN. It is always a pleasure to have him on our stage.
Mr. Smith opens his book – copies of which are on sale in our book store, and there'll be a book signing following the forum – capturing the compelling drama of Nelson
Rockefeller’s courageous address against the forces of extremism at the Republican Convention in 1964. One of our panelists, Larry Rockefeller, Nelson’s nephew, was there in the convention hall that evening.
Count Basie once introduced his friend, Governor Rockefeller as “rich enough to air condition a cotton field.” And defining a national sense of purpose, Nelson Rockefeller believed that his country, like his family, must justify its riches through good works and the sharing of wealth. Larry Rockefeller has followed his family’s long and proud history of dedication to important causes, in his case, as an accomplished environmental lawyer. He also lived and worked in Harlem for several years with the Vista program and served as an Army Reservist in the Vietnam era during which time he was mobilized by the president, not for war overseas, but for the great New York postal strike of 1970, finding himself one day personally delivering the mail to the Rockefeller family offices.
I learned from this new biography that under Nelson Rockefeller, the State of New York spent more on fighting water pollution than the federal government spent nationwide.
This reminded me of one of this commonwealth’s crusading Republican governors, Bill
Weld, who also believed in government’s ability to do good and especially to protect our environment. First elected in 1990, he was reelected four years later by the largest margin in Massachusetts history.
Now since the reference is clean water, I thought it appropriate to remind the audience of
Governor Weld’s ability to make campaigns fun, as captured by this photo of his impromptu dive into the Charles River during a press conference to tout the state’s environmental progress under his watch. It is an honor to have you here with us this evening, Governor. We have dry towels at the ready if the harbor looks enticing on your way out the door. [laughter]
Our moderator this evening is Sam Tanenhaus, writer at large for the New York Times, former editor of the Times Book Review, biographer of Whittaker Chambers, and like Richard Norton Smith, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Tanenhaus admits in a recent interview to certain superstitions including refusing to watch his favorite football team, the New York Jets, on TV because whenever he does, they lose. I noticed they next play the Patriots on December 21st, we hope Mr. Tanenhaus, you'll tune in. [laughter]
A native of Leominster, Massachusetts, Richard Norton Smith attended the GOP convention in 1968 in Miami as, in his words, “an annoyingly precocious 14 year old.” His hopes, to aid his chosen candidate, Nelson Rockefeller, pull off an offset and garner the presidential nomination, were of course dashed once again by Richard M. Nixon. These presidential defeats did little to deter Nelson Rockefeller over time. A man Mr. Smith describes as someone who never saw a problem he did not want to resolve, or a vacant lot he did not want to build on.
Until just recently, there was the equivalent of a vacant lot within the political biography shelves covering mid-20th century US history. Richard Norton Smith has now filled it with a book that is as magnificent as the life it describes, akin to a stunning architectural masterpiece; candid, colorful, and captivating like Nelson Rockefeller himself. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming to the Kennedy Library Sam Tanenhaus,
Governor William Weld, Larry Rockefeller and Richard Norton Smith. [applause]
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Thank you. Well, that was quite an introduction. I think we can all go home now.
SAM TANENHAUS: So tonight we have a great biographer, we have a great statesman and we have a Rockefeller. That's a pretty good combination. So let’s start with a key moment for those of you who have not yet read Richard's terrific biography of Nelson Rockefeller. It actually begins with a prologue, and I have to say as a fellow biographer, it’s a risky thing to do. Sometimes indicates a lack of confidence in your material, but in this case it actually shows that Richard has a big argument to make. And it’s really about the past, the present, the identity and the future of the Republican Party in the United States. And it opens with this crucial moment, the 1964 Republican Convention, National Convention, in San Francisco, the Cow Palace, the year that Barry Goldwater, the sunbelt conservative from Arizona receives the nomination over Nelson Rockefeller and fill us in, Richard, on what happened, what Rockefeller’s moment that was so defining.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: First of all, there was no doubt about the outcome of that convention. No one ever imagined anyone other than Barry Goldwater would be nominated, that any platform in any way unacceptable to Goldwater and his followers would be adopted. It was almost a formality. But Nelson Rockefeller, as was his wont, didn’t go along with the formality. At one point, Governor Bill Scranton, who was the other moderate candidate who’d gotten into the race at the last minute--
SAM TANENHAUS: From Pennsylvania.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: From Pennsylvania, recently deceased, sadly, great guy, great governor, his detractors mocked him as a Hamlet of Harrisburg. But in any event, he decided to run at the last minute because, like Governor Rockefeller, he was appalled by Senator Goldwater’s opposition to that year’s civil rights bill. That's a large part of the background.
Barry Goldwater, to be fair, was no racist. On the contrary, he had been a leader in
Arizona in integrating the National Guard in his own family’s department stores. But his brand of what I call sagebrush libertarianism took exceptence (sic) to the idea of the government, any government, in effect telling private individuals whom you had to associate with or sell to. The ’64 convention is about something. It's about big ideas, it’s about a fissure in the Republican Party that goes all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. It's the geographical-- the dominance of the south and west, which we today take for granted, at the expense of the old eastern establishment.
And so you had this perfect clash set up and it was personified in one man: Nelson Rockefeller, who was the face of everything that those southern and western conservatives hated. That's not too strong a word. They felt that their party, the old Bob
Taft party, had been repeatedly jobbed out of the presidency by people like Wendell
Willkie and Thomas Dewey and yes, Dwight Eisenhower. And here is Nelson
Rockefeller, knowing he doesn’t have the votes, knowing it can only hurt Goldwater in the fall, but nevertheless standing up to make a five minute speech on national TV denouncing political extremism, which he specifies as the American Communist party, the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society, at the mention of which the place erupts.
There are a lot of Birchers there, there are a lot of would-be Birchers there, theological Birchers if not necessarily formal members.
And it’s a moment that I would argue rarely in American history is a moment of transforming change. The place went on and on and on booing him. He understood instinctively, and more to the point, the Goldwater leaders understood, oh my God, this is extremism. We are making the argument, we are confirming Rockefeller’s worst allegations in a way that Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats never could. Arguably, Goldwater never recovered from that moment, but he did win. He formalized his victory.
The next morning, I would argue, the Republican Party was forever changed. And in many ways, it's almost also foreshadowing of even the Tea Party movement today. I mean, libertarianism, profound philosophical and emotional antipathy toward government, distrust of government, which in the last 50 years on the left and on the right has had no shortage of evidence to back it up.
SAM TANENHAUS: So, Larry Rockefeller, you were there that day, that night when Nelson Rockefeller spoke.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: I was and can bear witness that it was all true. And I was having been on the campaign trail both with the candidate and just on my own and--
SAM TANENHAUS: Now, fill us in. How old were you at that time?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: I was 19.
SAM TANENHAUS: You were a college student going to a little university up around here, is that right?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, well brother Bill Weld and I were college classmates, in fact, and this was the ‘60s.
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Worse than that, we were fraternity mates.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Sounds like the establishment to me.
SAM TANENHAUS: All this sounds very establishment. [laughter]
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: So anyhow, I'd been out there and also in New Hampshire campaigning in Oregon and there I was at the Cow Palace with my Aunt Happy huddled for warmth because this extraordinary scene which the television clips don’t really convey the volume and animosity and extraordinary anger. There are people standing on their chairs and veins bulging in their heads, shaking their fists and so this went on and so
Thruston Morton said, “Well, your time’s up.” But Nelson was not going to budge and you could just see the hair on the back of his neck.
SAM TANENHAUS: How far were you from him?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, we were up in the stands, but we could see--
SAM TANENHAUS: You had a direct line, a direct line of vision?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Oh, yeah.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Did Happy say anything during this?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, you know, this was so compelling, we were just sort of frozen watching this. But he was going to say his piece and they could not get him off of there. And then, of course, the next night Goldwater came back and said, “Well, extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Well, that sort of sealed the deal only to be tapped by LBJ’s daisy ad where a girl was picking petals off a daisy and it morphed into a countdown to an atomic bomb going off. I mean, it was to drive home the point.
Extremism is not a good thing to have as the presidency. So that's my observation.
SAM TANENHAUS: I'll have something to say about that. First, I want to ask you both before we go to Governor Weld, Richard I think you say in the book that Rockefeller loved that confrontation. He said, “I'm having the time of my life.” And Larry, do you remember, too, his being exhilarated by this? Did you speak to him afterward? Either or both of you talk about that.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He was a combative guy. Someone close to him said to me if he’d been born on the Lower East Side, he would have been the best street brawler of anyone. He welcomed a good fight, an intellectual fight, a political fight. And there was something about him, if you look at the YouTube clips, and I urge you all to do so, you can see at some point he gets into the rhythm of this thing, he’s taunting them. He understands instinctively that they are playing into his hand and confirming his argument.
And you're right, he wasn’t going to leave before he got his five minutes, but he also wasn’t going to leave before he polished off the Goldwater movement for 1964.
SAM TANENHAUS: Now Larry, did you speak with him afterwards? Did you speak with your uncle?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, no, and he was really--
SAM TANENHAUS: Was he exhilarated by this?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Yes, he was, and he felt he’d done the right thing, and he had, you know? And he felt good about that.
SAM TANENHAUS: Well now we'll go to Governor William Weld who actually is what's not supposed to have existed after many years ago a very successful what we would call moderate, or some would say liberal, Republican. Where were you at that moment, 1964?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: I was a classmate of Larry’s, but I was far from the Cow Palace. I think I was probably paying more attention to my duties as a member of the fraternity. [laughter] But, I remember reading Teddy White’s book, The Making of the President in 1964 which was a sequel to the famous Making of the President in 1960. And the part about Goldwater starts with a searching description of F. Clifton White, who was the chief delegate hunter for Goldwater. And it really was true. There's a geographic element here, lot of parts of the country did feel that the eastern establishment had been too powerful for too long and had been hijacking the goods from them.
When Bill Clinton nominated me to go to Mexico as ambassador and Senator Jessie Helms sank my ship, it wasn’t really because he thought I would be soft on drugs in Mexico, it’s because he hated everything that I stood for and starting with being prochoice and pro-gay rights. And worst of all, having gone to Harvard. Thank God Uncle Nelson didn’t go to Harvard or it would have completed the circle.
SAM TANENHAUS: Anybody know where he went to college? Dartmouth, yeah, as did Daniel Webster, as you point out. Let me mention just a couple of things here before we move on to another point. One is I'm glad Larry brought up Barry Goldwater’s famous words, his exhortation when he spoke, when he said, “Let me remind you that extremism in defense of justice is no vice, and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The interesting thing about those remarks is if you take them out of the context of that super heated moment, they're actually ideas most of us might agree with.
For instance, if we were looking at the days of Nazism or Stalinism, we would say-- or if we're trying to stop the ebola crisis, we’d say, “Well, you know what? Maybe we should go as far as we can go.” And the reason I mention that is I spoke with the author of those words-- does anybody know who it was? It was actually one of the greatest political thinkers of the modern era. It was Harry Jaffa, who was a student of Leo Strauss, Leo Strauss the political philosopher. And Harry Jaffa had actually been a liberal Republican, supporter of Charles Percy, who changed his mind in this period when the Republican Party was undergoing a revolution.
And Jaffa sat in on the platform debates and the word extremism came up, he said, over and over again. So he wrote this speech for Barry Goldwater. And if you take it out of context, if you just look at the words on the page, what Jaffa actually wrote was, “a defense of natural rights,” as a political philosopher like Leo Strauss might express them.
The difference was it came at this very super charged political moment and it’s the difference between philosophy and politics. As soon as the word extremism was presented as a virtue, at that moment the Republican Party became a different thing.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Again, you cannot divorce it from the broader context. In 1964, we were less than two years away from having survived the Cuban missile crisis. As the Republicans met in San Francisco, there were searches going on in Mississippi for murdered civil rights workers from the north. Extremism was not an abstraction. We saw it on our TV screens, we’d seen it in Birmingham with police dogs and water hoses. And to the extent that Goldwater fairly or unfairly got tarred with the brush of racism, unreliability if his finger was on the nuclear button. I mean, all of those factors came into play. He didn't have to confirm the worst image that people had, and he chose to do so by using Professor Jaffa’s words.
SAM TANENHAUS: Oh, absolutely, and they knew the moment he said it, that it was lost. He’d walked into the trap. Let me ask you, Governor Weld, when we look at politics now, and actually Barry Goldwater over time, it looks a little better. He was very tolerant, because he was a libertarian. He was one of the first, some will remember when there were the debates about letting gays serve in the military, Goldwater spoke up actually in defense of it. It was a kind of libertarianism that's been removed from our politics now. Governor Weld, where is that politics today? When we think about a libertarian movement, or an anti-government politics, is this something that's now become really destructive to the way our society works?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: You know, I always described myself in office as governor as a libertarian and I wasn’t entirely joking. I mean, one reason why I was for lower taxes is because there's something coercive about taxes. And if you can reduce the tax bite, that's pro-citizen and it’s perhaps at the expense of the government. But I always used to say there's no such thing as government money, there's only taxpayers’ money.
At the same time on the social issues, I was a rabid liberal on abortion rights and gay rights. I'm a rabid liberal on immigration. I think anybody that isn't has not read a page of history. So, literally a fiscal conservative and pretty conservative on crime issues because of my time as a prosecutor, but a liberal on everything else. And that describes a lot of people in the northeast part of the United States. I'm very much at home here.
When I worked in the Justice Department under Reagan in Washington, as we sat around the conference table every morning, one-half of the people were self-described libertarians. The other half were self-described movement conservatives who were very unattractive people, who all wear federalist society ties and just were filled with-- hatred is not too strong a word. I mean, there was a lot of negativity there and that's what's unappealing about the Tea Party. I personally think that most of the people in the Tea Party are just people who have spending fatigue and taxation fatigue and they're not led by social issues. There's a few that got out there and waved the banner and make a lot of noise who give the Tea Party a bad name. But my hope is that underneath it, they're going to be discovered to be libertarians. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with Rand Paul in 2016 because he’s going to make a bid. I can't see ever getting there because of the foreign policy issues, but lot of other people may not care about foreign policy and Senator Paul may have some showing.
SAM TANENHAUS: Larry Rockefeller, you sent me an ad that you made for a gubernatorial candidate in New York, but he’s not a Republican.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Yeah, no, that's true. I mean, maybe partly inspired by the convention there, which was one of the last unscripted conventions, I think, partly as a result I've been at-- I'm one of the last remaining Rockefeller family Republicans but I've stayed in the party. But have been willing to speak up from time to time. And in New
York, a Republican candidate is opposed to women’s right to choose and marriage equality, and even for commonsense background checks on guns in terms of the mentally ill. So yes, I did that and, you know, there it is.
SAM TANENHAUS: Go ahead, Richard.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I was going to say, this actually feeds into a larger issue, which I think is the frustration that so many people feel today, people who don’t define themselves first and foremost by ideology, people who are not terribly comfortable wearing a label. People who are at heart pragmatists, problem solvers, like Governor
Weld, who feel very comfortable with a “conservative” position on some issues, and a “liberal” position on others.
The fact of the matter is, that's a Rockefeller Republican. And although you may not use the phrase, it’s become almost a pejorative in some quarters, or at least an oxymoron, but the fact of the matter is tens of millions of people frustrated with the polarization and the oversimplification of the political process are, in fact, if not in name Rockefeller Republicans. But the parties then were totally different. Fifty years ago, there was a Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party. There were liberal Republicans, not just in Massachusetts or at the Harvard Club, they were to be found all over the country.
But by the same token, they were conservative Democrats, you know? Particularly in the south, but not limited to the south. And I think one of the reasons why so many people today are so turned off is because people as disparate as Franklin Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater each got their wish. They each got a homogenized ideologically cohesive to the point of purity party. So you have a truly conservative party, a truly liberal party and guess what? That fails to account for millions of people who don’t want to adopt so simplistic a view of the world.
SAM TANENHAUS: Yeah, there's something else to add to that, too. First of all, I think what you're referring to, Richard, is that FDR, Franklin Roosevelt, I think in 1944, said, “What this country really needs is a liberal party and a conservative party,” because he was being thwarted by southern Democrats in the Senate in particular. So he actually thought it would be an advantage if the two parties were more ideologically aligned.
Well, guess what? He got what he wished for and we have this moment today.
But an interesting aspect of all this, and Governor Weld will know it very well because of that absurd battle over his nomination, back in the day, until fairy recently, the conservatives seemed to have a stranglehold on the Senate and the House was actually the more diverse body. And now that's changed somehow. Why is that? Anyone here, why do we have a House that seems more conservative than the Senate?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Well, Sam, I think the interesting thing happening in the
Republican Party is the two wings are, if you will, the governor’s wing and the Washington wing. Not so much a distinction between House and Senate. And the wonderful thing about Nelson Rockefeller, I consider him a mixture of Bob La Follette of Wisconsin and Al Smith of New York, two of my favorite politicians. And the reason they're favorites is because they went out and they saw what were the problems besetting the people, and they said, “Damn it, I'm going to solve that problem.” That's the epitome of Nelson Rockefeller as Mr. Smith’s biography lingers on that point.
The way he got jurisdiction in family matters and political matters was he would see what had to be done, he would go do it and people would kind of have to follow along with the law of the case. And governors are right in front of the people they represent. They're not 500 miles away or a thousand miles away. So if they don’t go out and find out the problem and solve it, their constituents are going to know right away and vote them out of office. So it makes them almost by definition much more practical.
My former colleague, Charlie Baker, who’s running for governor here, is the ultimate hands on guy. He's a policy wonk, he has a restless intellect, kind of like Nelson
Rockefeller, and he’ll be very much one of those solve the problem type of people if he gets into office. And that's the distinction I draw more than between the House and the Senate.
SAM TANENHAUS: Well, it’s interesting you say that because until very recently, the assumption was that governors would always have the inside track on presidential nominations and elections. Yet in 2008, no matter who won, a senator would be elected president, the first since John Kennedy and before him Warren Harding, and those are the three who’ve only-- right? The only three who’ve done it, who've jumped from the Senate to the White House.
Now we look at a period where senators seem to have built their own bases as presidential figures, whether it’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz and does anybody have anything to say about why this has happened? Larry, do you have any thoughts on that? What happened to the great age of the executive governor?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, maybe it’ll come back. And it’s true, Nelson never saw a problem that he didn't think he could solve that could be solved. And that was in the pragmatic tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, who Richard Norton Smith in a really brilliant book, so spot on and accurate, fascinating arc of American history, brings out. And FDR actually was a hero and role model for Nelson.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: For which a lot of Republicans never forgave him.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, okay. So answer your question, maybe it’s going to return in the future. The pendulum will swing back--
SAM TANENHAUS: Bill, yeah?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: I would agree with Larry. I think it’s going to come back in the Republican Party. I think you're going to see your nominee will not be one of these firebrand senators. It’s going to be a Jeb Bush or a Mitt Romney or a Scott Walker or
John Kasich. It’s going to be a governor, which could be an advantage for the Republicans in 2016 for the reasons I was getting into. Governors have to solve problems. Governors know that they need to measure outcomes, improvement in people’s lives, not inputs, which is how big is the budget item. And if you put the question that way, I think they could carry in 2016.
SAM TANENHAUS: Richard, one of the fascinating things you say in the book, and one would have taken it for granted many years ago, but now it’s almost a shock to read it, is that Nelson Rockefeller, though he’s pretty good not at the presidential level, he never got how campaigning worked, he was a brilliant campaigner in New York running for governor. But what he really liked was governance, just like Bill Weld. That's what he thought it was all about. The politics was almost secondary, which is--
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Oh, no, that was Baker. I liked the campaigning.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: In some ways, Nelson’s finest hour is one that very few people would think of in the abstract. And it’s funny, because he had a parallel here. There are people maybe of long memories who remember Governor Volpe who in the mid’-60s fought what today we could not conceive of; a heroic battle to enact a sales tax, the idea being if you want X amount of government, let’s be honest and pay for it and not saddle our children and grandchildren with the debt.
Okay, 1966, Nelson runs for a third term. He starts out, as he always did, 30 points behind anyone, because all the people could think of were the taxes. And there's no doubt that taxes had gone up. The extraordinary thing about that campaign which may be the most brilliant in modern American history, is because Nelson Rockefeller spent it going around New York state convincing people that the taxes they paid were producing tangible benefits. SUNY, the great university that he built out of a handful of--
SAM TANENHAUS: State University of New York.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: --of community colleges. Pure water is a billion dollar bond issue. You mentioned he was spending more money to fight water pollution than the federal government did nationally. The Hudson River today, and New York harbor, they may not be pristine, but the fact that they are what they are really began. Program after program.
Now, it’s a different era. You know, it’s a Republican version of the great society. But it was the kind of governor Nelson Rockefeller would have been. But the point is, the media allowed him the luxury of making a sustained, intellectual statistic-weighed argument.
SAM TANENHAUS: How did they let him-- what do you mean, they allowed him to do it?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You couldn’t do it today. First of all, all your political spin doctors and paid amoral campaign advisors, you know, would tell you all the reasons why last night’s poll showed you can't talk about this. I mean, and I'm not talking about Massachusetts, but how many campaigns this year are noted for the substance? I mean, how many people are talking about the future? You know, cable TV unfortunately to a large degree has set the tone of discourse and it’s--
SAM TANENHAUS: And we don’t mean C-SPAN.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: C-SPAN is the exception that proves the rule, I'm afraid. The other thing that was brilliant about ’66, go online and look at the campaign commercials. Are you sick of campaign commercials? I suspect you're sick of them in part because there's no content, they're predictable, et cetera, et cetera. They insult your intelligence. In 1966, Nelson Rockefeller ran a slew of the most clever substantive argument-advancing commercials. There was the talking fish who told everyone about how much his life had improved since the governor’s water pollution efforts.
There was 60 seconds of highway shot from above moving to the music of-- unmistakable music of a Hawaiian luau, okay? Governor Rockefeller had built enough roads to go to Honolulu and back. I mean, on and on. These ads talked up to people, they entertained. At the same time, believe it or not, they informed and they persuaded.
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Richard, I remember an ad from that campaign. I was living in New York at the time, and the opponent was Frank O’Connor who was the head of the city council of New York City. So there was one ad, a 60-second Rockefeller ad played during the baseball games, which is all I ever watched, and it was three shots of white copy on a black screen. The first one was-- this ran statewide-- the first shot was
Frank O’Connor from New York City is running for governor, period. Slide number two:
Frank O’Connor says he thinks the subways in New York City should be free, close. Slide three: guess who he thinks should pay for them. Nobody outside the five boroughs could vote for Frank O’Connor after that ad.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, he also made the case how government can work for you. And that's something today’s Republican Party, there's just so much mileage further that is left to get for an approach to starve the beast, as the phrase came in President
Reagan’s term to just cut the deficit, cut the budget rather, and then cause government programs to be unfunded. Now, what happens when the nation’s infrastructure continues to crumble? You know, people will get it, once again, that we need to pay for this to make it work.
SAM TANENHAUS: Is there some way in which Nelson Rockefeller-- one of the things that's amusing in your book, Richard, is when first Franklin Roosevelt and then
Harry Truman tell him, “You really ought to be a Democrat.” And then he’s running for president, or thinking of it, and Adlai Stevenson says, “Nelson Rockefeller is a great liberal,” all the things, in some sense, he doesn't want to hear. So is there some way that he comes out of a progressive movement in politics that we will have to achieve again before the Republican Party moves in this direction?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The day after the 1956 election that Eisenhower and Nixon won in a landslide in reelection over Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller sits down, he writes a letter to Nixon who before that became adversaries. Had actually been allies in the Eisenhower administration. And he writes to Nixon and he congratulates him on the victory and he says, you, together with the president, are making the Republican Party the great liberal party of the future. Now, those are two words, liberal and future, that one does not often associate with today’s Republican Party.
But the fact is, guess what? Because history goes a certain way, we're tempted to think that's the only way history could have gone. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower carried 40 percent of the African American vote, a majority of Catholic voters, and guess what? It wasn't Barry Goldwater who broke the solid Democratic south, it was Dwight Eisenhower. That same year carried a majority of southern electoral votes. That's the history that could have been. Race intervened in a major way, something as seemingly ordinary as a telephone call from the Kennedy camp to Mrs. Martin Luther King in 1960 at the time that Dr. King had been arrested expressing their concern while Nixon remained conspicuously silent.
SAM TANENHAUS: Which is not to say that the Kennedys were so progressive or enlightened.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, but the politics of-- again, the super heated atmosphere. Our own Henry Cabot Lodge, who Nixon put on his ticket that year, and who, with all due respect, may be the only demonstrable example of a modern vice presidential candidate who wound up costing his ticket votes, but for the good reason. He went up to Harlem and he promised that there would be an African American in the cabinet if Richard Nixon became president, which immediately threw the Nixon campaign into a tailspin. Which was symptomatic of their problem.
The Republican platform in 1960 contained the strongest civil rights blight in the history of the party. But guess what? Richard Nixon went to Atlanta and 125,000 people turned out. He could taste Republican victory in the south. And in the end, he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be Henry Cabot Lodge or Strom Thurmond.
SAM TANENHAUS: Well, to some extent, he tried to be both. He put through the first affirmative action policies in government, and then he tried to appoint segregationists to the Supreme Court when he became president. Governor Weld, let’s talk a little bit about the future. What does the Republican Party look like to you now? How similar or different does it seem, the party that you were a major figure in?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Well, if the governor’s wing gets into the ascendant, as I was predicting, I may be getting old. You know, I've done two events with Governor Dukakis in the last week, so I may be coming around to this view, as you were saying, and Larry was saying, about what government can do for you. Michael Dukakis and I were meeting with a group to support the Boston Harbor Islands because we think we've doubled the usable areas of the city of Boston. That came in part because of the Big Dig creating the walk to the sea and knocking down the barriers to the Boston Harbor. Until we did that and the Big Dig, nobody knew the Boston Harbor Islands were there, and it was not a source of recreation.
So, and I think that is going to be seen in retrospect as the biggest thing since the filling in of the Back Bay in terms of the topographical history of Boston. That's something government can do for you, and it’s the sort of story that governors are going to be able to tell because they’ve been there and done that and lived through it. It’s not like they were in Washington and cast a vote for some program and then the tangible benefits were felt 1,500 miles away. So I hate to sound Pollyanna-ish, but that’s the direction I see the Republican Party optatively going in.
SAM TANENHAUS: Larry, if you were to look at New York State where you and I both live, is there anyone in the Republican Party that to you, or nationally, seems to embody these ideals, Governor Weld’s ideas, Nelson Rockefeller’s, the ones that Richard has articulated so elegantly here?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, we had Governor Pataki for 12 years who was an outstanding moderate Republican governor. There's no one at present I know of, and on the national scene, I thought for a while, well maybe the recipe is that the party would crash and burn and arise Phoenix-like from the ashes in a new form. But it may be with Congress, that type of Republican majority in both houses, and the chance for a Republican governor becoming President Bush or Romney, that there'll be a different way for it to work out, just as Eisenhower’s, you point out, could have done. And the president leading it in a new, more positive, pragmatic direction. That could be a hope, which is not to say that's going to happen. But it’s an idea.
SAM TANENHAUS: Now, are we ready to go to some questions? Do we have--? Yeah, we have a microphone. Are there questions from the audience? Here's your moment. All we ask is that the question actually be a question. And if it’s not, I will rudely interrupt and turn it into one. So have we got someone? While we're getting somebody miced up, one of the things I had not realized it’s in Richard's book, is how much Eisenhower disliked Rockefeller. And Rockefeller didn't like him, either. And then at one point, “Well, Governor, you've got to pose with Eisenhower.” And he says, “Yeah, but that guy hates me.” So explain briefly what--
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And then they actually did the photos, and they were unusable. and Rockefeller said, “See? That guy hates my guts.” [laughter] It's a shame, it’s one of the might have beens of a life littered with them. Because on paper, they should have been allies. They were both comfortable in the same area in the political spectrum, but you know, they had profound differences of principle.
Nelson Rockefeller was a serial alarmist. In the ‘30s, he was sounding the alarm about the Nazi threat in Latin America. But in the ‘50s, he was also an ardent Cold War warrior who believed that Dwight Eisenhower-- Dwight Eisenhower was not adequately tending to the nation’s military defenses. There's an amazing scene in the book where they both attend one of these meetings, top secret, once a year meetings, where everyone sits around and they project ten years in advance, try to imagine what Soviet military strength will look like versus American military strength. And Rockefeller found it alarming because we're talking about intercontinental ballistic missiles and sputnik was in the air, literally.
Anyway, as soon as it’s done, the alarmist in Nelson took over. And outside the meeting, he pulled the president aside, said, “Mr. President, you've got to go on TV, you've got to use the bully pulpit. You have to, in effect, spend your immense credibility and prestige as the man who won World War II and tell the American people how much sacrifice they're going to have to accept for years to come.” You know, this kind of quasiChurchillian message. And Eisenhower looks at him and he says, “Why do I always have to be the one to bring the bad news to the people?” [laughter]
SAM TANENHAUS: We have a question right here.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: I was just going to add, here we are at the JFK Library,
JFK another personal hero of mine, and he picked up on Nelson Rockefeller’s commissions, recommendations about the missile gap, ran with it. The two of them actually could have been running against each other had things worked out differently.
SAM TANENHAUS: Right. For those of you who don’t remember, John F. Kennedy ran to the right of Richard Nixon on communism in 1960. Yes, sir?
Q: Hi. It's a double-barreled question for Governor Weld. The first barrel is that I have probably a handful of friends that I can tolerate to describe themselves as libertarian. But none of them has ever been able to describe to me how being a libertarian is consistent with being interested in being in government. So that's the first question.
The second question is on your remark that paying taxes is somehow coercive, and my question is how is that more coercive than the Grover Norquist philosophy and that of all the Republicans who have signed his pledge never to have any taxes when our infrastructure is tending toward third world status and we need to do things. There have been good proposals including private/public, which is probably going to lose the
Republicans a senatorial seat they could have had in North Carolina because the Republican candidate is being undercut. So how is refusing to raise a tax less coercive on the population?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: I got it, I got it. On the first barrel, I think one of my favorite political philosophers was a guy named Louis Hartz, who was a Harvard professor. He wrote a book called The Founding of New Societies, and he’s talking about what's the essence of democracy. And he said the essence of democracy is that the individual shall not be thrust in a corner, and that summons up all kinds of thing about minority rights and majority rule. But I really do agree with him. And when I see the full force of government power being brought to bear to thrust an individual into a corner, it just really gets my goat.
Early on in my tenure, I spent a lot of time with gay and lesbian groups who talked about what it was like having to hide out in these underground bars. And it was like being Anne Frank in Hitler’s Germany. You were always hiding. The immigration issue gets me similarly exercised today. There are people who are in the shadows. They're afraid of the government. That is not good for the polity, if for no other reason than prudential reasons I think we need to vastly liberalize our immigration system. So those are all things that I was interested in getting into government to do.
On the so-called conservative side, Proudhon, the French anarchist, as you may recall, declared that property is theft and in one waggish moment I turned that around and said that actually coercive taxation is theft. It’s not theft because we've elected the government, so the consent of the government is a defense to that charge. But in law school and thereafter, I was quite a voracious reader of Friedrich Hayak, who wrote The Road to Serfdom and there is, if we're not careful, we won't have all these wonderful freedoms that we have. So that's why a libertarian could want to be close to, or engaged, in government.
SAM TANENHAUS: Yeah, I'd add a couple of things to that. One is that if you just go back to the origins of the republic and excellent historians and political writers like Garry Wills have written about this in his book A Necessary Evil, there has always in America been a suspicion of a powerful government. It's one reason the country was formed, as a kind of anti-colonialism and anti-monarchism. Jefferson called his enemies monocrats, then was called one himself. That's a long strain in our culture, not just our politics. And I think sometimes, there's a tendency to think that what we hear of labeled, or what we hear labeled as libertarianism, is something really alien to the higher values in the society when it’s not necessarily. So if either of you would like to comment on that, amplify on what Governor Weld said, that would be great.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, something as simple as the tenth amendment to the Constitution, which basically reserves to the states all powers not expressly enumerated to the federal government, there's no doubt that those who wrote the constitution, and indeed it’s doubtful it would have ever been ratified but for the expectation that George Washington, a man who had already voluntarily walked away from the crown, someone who could be entrusted to limit his own personal use or abuse of power, would be there to interpret it and give it legitimacy.
But there's no doubt that the prevailing arguments in Philadelphia saw a constitution as a means of limiting government, defining limits, and protecting liberty, however defined.
SAM TANENHAUS: And we've got another question.
Q: Could I ask the speakers to comment on the end of the fairness doctrine, the rise of
British style advocacy journalism in this country, and the effect on polarity in the parties?
SAM TANENHAUS: Great question. Who wants to go first?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: I think that's known as the Fox effect. And it’s been corrosive and pervasive at the same time as competing views are out there. It would help if we all weren't in our sort of informational silos so we only hear the voice we want to hear.
SAM TANENHAUS: Governor Weld, any thoughts about that?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: You can avoid these problems by watching very little television except for sports. So I'm unscarred by the fairness doctrine. And also as a libertarian, my view is so there's a lot of rubbish on TV, so what? It’s the playoffs, let them play, you know?
Q: Governor Weld, where are you on Citizens United, on the decision that the court made? Do you come down anywhere? The one that lifted, essentially overturned the McCain-Feingold campaign spending?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: I think it’s been mischievous.
SAM TANENHAUS: You think the decision was mischievous?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Yeah. It’s had real impact.
SAM TANENHAUS: You know, there are a number of movements in various states, including Vermont, to have a constitutional convention-- and we're going to talk to somebody tomorrow, Larry Lessig at Harvard, who thinks that's been the single most poisonous aspect of our democracy, is the influx of huge campaign spending. Nelson Rockefeller would have disagreed, all that money he had.
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, it’s a-- go ahead.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, the constitutional convention is fascinating because I think you've seen a professor who’s written a hundred years ago there was, at the height of the progressive era, a bottleneck, a sense of frustration, that special interests controlled the United States Senate, one of them being Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, for whom Governor Rockefeller was named. And the answer to this was popular election of United States senators.
SAM TANENHAUS: Right, everybody gets that before that senators were chosen by state legislatures.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Which were eminently purchasable by the economic powers that be. Well, needless to say, the Senate has to approve a constitutional amendment. And there was very little chance the Senate, as presently constituted, was going to, in effect, sign its own death warrant by approving this.
So what happened was a grass roots, spontaneous national movement arose to call a constitutional convention specifically about this issue and they got to within one state and then the Senate blinked. But that's what it took to break the political logjam a hundred years ago.
SAM TANENHAUS: For the super geeks in the audience, and some of you will know, this will get to your question, article five of the Constitution says there are actually two ways to change the Constitution. One is if it’s ratified in Congress and then the states further ratify it. But also, the states themselves can call for a Constitution-- I think it’s two-thirds of the number you need to call it. Then Congress is summoned to convention.
Q: Hi, this is for Richard. Why did President Ford drop Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket in 1976 in favor of Bob Dole? And had Rockefeller stayed on the ticket, could Ford have won?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, the second is one of those what ifs. I personally am doubtful. By that point, remember, this was Nelson Rockefeller post-Attica. Nelson Rockefeller--
SAM TANENHAUS: Explain Attica.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, Attica, 1971, a prison uprising that was put down badly and over the years, unfortunately, people have conflated the horrible conditions in the prison, his refusal to go and negotiate on TV with outside observers who were, in fact, anything but observing. And then, of course, the way that the retaking of the prison was botched. And all of that came together and basically he was blamed and it’s--
SAM TANENHAUS: It’s what many people in New York remember most about him.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, and it’s much, much more complicated than
that. But I think his political appeal, even in New York, 15 years, can you imagine being governor, Governor Weld, can you imagine being governor of any major industrial complex entity for 15 years?
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Not even eight, now that I think about it. [laughter]
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The reason why he dropped him, which by the way he very publicly confessed to having been the one instance he said, of cowardice, in his political life, and he greatly regretted it, the Ford people had badly underestimated-- first of all, Governor Reagan’s determination to run, and secondly the appeal that he was going to have. The early campaign was going badly. They went through several campaign managers. They weren't raising money.
SAM TANENHAUS: This is when Reagan challenged Ford.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Challenging Ford in 1975-76. It is fair to say that Donald Rumsfeld and Nelson Rockefeller were put on the planet to piss each other off and each succeeded admirably.
SAM TANENHAUS: And there was another guy involved in that too, right?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, Richard Cheney. Governor Rockefeller, I'm told by people who were there, in the morning-- he had a sense of humor. In the morning, he would walk by Rumsfeld's office, open the door, stick his head in and shout, “Rummy, you're never going to be vice president,” knowing or believing that that's exactly what Rumsfeld hoped in 1976. Rumsfeld was only one of a number of Ford intimates who convinced the president that unless he dumped Nelson from the ticket, that they could very well lose the nomination to Reagan. And, you know, I think there's a very good chance that they were right.
SAM TANENHAUS: How many of you remember that challenge by Reagan? He came very close to unseating Ford.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And Rockefeller played the ultimate good soldier.
Ironically, in the end, Ford was nominated with votes that Rockefeller supplied, both in New York State, Pennsylvania and to a lesser degree in Connecticut. Publicly, he was the ultimate good soldier. Privately, the only time I could find that he gave vent to frustration was when Charles Mathias, a liberal Republican senator from Maryland, called him the day after this was announced, to commiserate. And in the midst of his condolences, Rockefeller cut him off and said, as Mathias recalled it, “Oh, who would want to hang around with these shits anyway?” [laughter]
SAM TANENHAUS: Yes, sir?
Q: My question regarding Nelson Rockefeller [unintelligable] transportation. I know in his later years his stances on crime and welfare changed greatly. I'm just wondering, Richard in your research, did you find that this was genuine evolution or is this political opportunism?
SAM TANENHAUS: Drugs as well, right?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, we all agree he was a pragmatist. He was not an ideologue. Well, that works both ways. So for example, over time he would-- he ran for governor in 1958 sworn to oppose any welfare residency law. In fact, he imposed that position on the Republican Party. By the time he left Albany 15 years later, he was boasting of the fact that for the first time since World War II, the overall welfare caseload had been reduced.
That's pragmatism. It may also be, frankly, in tune with the increasingly conservative times. Remember, the Conservative Party of New York was created on Nelson
Rockefeller’s watch and by 1970, it was able to elect a Buckley, not your Buckley, but another Buckley--
SAM TANENHAUS: James Buckley.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: -- the United States Senate. I would argue Nelson remained a liberal and an activist and a believer in government’s capacity and more, obligation to bring about social justice to the end of his life. Being a practical politician who hoped to extend his tenure in office, he was, I think, rather skillful in moving with the times and the fact that the people of New York reelected him four times and the fourth time by the biggest margin yet, suggests that they were perfectly comfortable with where he was.
SAM TANENHAUS: Larry, did you sense Nelson Rockefeller moving to the right in his later years, did it strike you that way?
LARRY ROCKEFELLER: Well, probably so, but I just want to at some point here say had he become president, I think he would have been a terrific president. And I say that not just as a proud nephew, but you all decide, and Richard Norton Smith’s magnificent book just sets it all out. And it's a fascinating saga, and I recommend it to you.
SAM TANENHAUS: You know, something Henry Kissinger said to me once, and of course Nelson Rockefeller essentially created Henry Kissinger, for better or worse, maybe for both, but he said Nelson Rockefeller was a great leader of men when he sat in those early commissions that were evaluating foreign policy and strategy.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I wondered, I was intrigued, and I wondered whether-- because Rockefeller was such an enthusiast. I mean, everything was the best, you know? I mean, he could get excited about a tuna fish sandwich. Literally, people, he’d say,
“Boy, isn’t this the best tuna fish sandwich you ever had?” I mean, some of that was communicated.
I'll tell you one quick story which presents the duality of the man, and then you can go home and do your own portrait. I've been told, and he was very close to his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, from who he got his ebullience and his openness to new ideas and people and art. Of course, she really created the Museum of Modern Art. Anyway, I was told when she died, he kept her ashes in a room at Kykuit, the big house at Pocantico. And Mrs. Rockefeller, Happy Rockefeller, was kind enough to spend some time with me and she gave me a tour of the house.
And we get to what's called Mother’s Room. And I figured, well, you know, no time like the present, and I asked her. She said, “Oh, that's true.” And I said, “Really? But Mrs. Rockefeller, how could that be? There was a funeral, and Abby’s ashes were interred in the family cemetery.” And she said, “Oh, Nelson just reached in and grabbed a handful.” Now, that suggests two things to me. One, an almost childlike impulsiveness and a lack of self-consciousness which helps to explain why he was such a dynamite campaigner. He could walk into any room, he was as comfortable in a union hall as a Soho art gallery. But it also suggests a sense of entitlement that borders on the creepy. And you could imagine where that goes in a would-be president.
SAM TANENHAUS: Yes, sir?
Q: I'd like to ask, we've learned today from the panel that Nelson Rockefeller was a Cold
War warrior. We've also heard President Kennedy say we’d pay any price. And I think we're, of course, taking a look at significant prices that we have paid and I guess we're willing to pay in foreign policy today. And I was wondering, is there a difference between what the Republican Party – both Tea Party and the rest of the Republican Party – and the Democratic Party, what are the differences in foreign policy today between the parties and is there anything that we can bring back to Nelson Rockefeller and Jack Kennedy regarding those different stances, if there are different stances?
SAM TANENHAUS: Governor Weld, you were talking before about Rand Paul's foreign policy. Why don’t you kind of walk us through some of the foreign policy--
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Well, I'm not an expert at all. My sense is he would not be as much in the engagement camp as, say, John Kerry or I would be. I do believe in constructive engagement. I think both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry have been very good and very strong on that. Where the administration has perhaps flagged a little bit is in the setting of markers and then not following through. That runs like a virus through the community of international opinion.
I spent a reasonable amount of time the last few years in the Middle East and the Arab countries over there just watch like a hawk everything that the United States does and every time that the United States doesn't follow through on something it says it’s going to do, they just go wild. I mean, the same is true in little countries like Albania and Mongolia. I spent two months in Mongolia a couple of years ago in connection with some business mining enterprises. But the whole world watches every time the president of the United States lifts an eyebrow, and that's about as much as I have to--
SAM TANENHAUS: Well, here's a question for all three of you, then. Have we entered a moment where the United States doesn’t have the kind of global authority it did? You know, it’s striking to read in your book, Richard, that I think in 1959, I think you said, there was a poll that showed seven out of ten Americans expected an imminent nuclear attack, as a result of which Nelson Rockefeller, the great filler of holes, wanted to build fallout shelters all over America. And there was a kind of high anxiety. But at the same time, confidence in American power, the kind of thing Governor Weld is talking about. Do we no longer just bestride the globe in the way we did and what we now nostalgically call the American century, that period after World War II through the end of the Cold War? Anybody can comment on that one.
GOVERNOR BILL WELD: Well, we were hurt by Syria, you know? And I don't think President Obama wants to bestride the Earth like a colossus. A lot of other people, I think, are so sickened by what's going on around the globe that they're moving away from constructive engagement, which I think is a bad development.
SAM TANENHAUS: Have we lost some of the authority to engage the way we once could, Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it depends on how you mean engagement. If you mean sending in the Marines, it’s questionable the authority, aside from national interest- you know, I think we're in a murky twilight period when there are crosscurrents at work. People are war weary, there's no doubt about that. People question the validity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and at the same time, call it nostalgia, call it patriotism, call it principal engagement, whatever you call it, there are many Americans who expect a president to be bolder, more assertive, just to be in the bully pulpit perhaps more explaining the situation, if nothing else.
I think one of the surprising things to many of us who, quite frankly, admire the president and particularly admire--
SAM TANENHAUS: President Obama?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: President Obama and his intellect, and his willingness-
- I'll make a prediction. Historians should never make predictions, it’s hard enough to understand the past without predicting the future, but I think history will be kinder to this president than we are today in part because with the passage of time, and the fact that the next administration, whoever it is, will have to deal with the same issues, no longer will be Obama, in effect, be judged against himself. But just as George W. Bush has come to look better-- anyway. Well, look at the poll numbers, okay?
But the fact is it’s not what we expect of the presidency. Plus, it’s also a totally different media market. The bully pulpit is a thing of the past if you mean Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur
Schlesinger, FDR, JFK. In 1970, Richard Nixon’s White House could call three men in towers in New York that afternoon and have an audience of 70 million people that night. And Richard Nixon could speak about Vietnam at a time of real popular anxiety and he could move the numbers. He could move them 10 or 12 points in whatever direction he wanted. That is gone.
SAM TANENHAUS: And yet, it was his vice president, Spiro Agnew, who made the case that the networks were biased against him.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Which was a very politically shrewd if a factually questionable case.
SAM TANENHAUS: We have one last question. So this is going to be the best question yet, right?
Q: I hope so. My question is apart from President Eisenhower, what did Nelson Rockefeller think of other presidents that he encountered, and what did each of them think of him?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: One thing. One reason why it took me 14 years to
write this book was it took that long to get through Nelson’s outer defenses. It went beyond compartmentalizing his life. He liked to quote his father, who said never show more surface than needed. And his own daughter, Mary, had been quoted as saying somewhat, “I wish we,” referring to the family, “knew him as well as the voters of New York.” Well, the voters of New York only knew what he wanted them to know. Why did he keep flirting with running for president in 1960 and ‘68 and not do it? He did get in after getting out in ’68. Why did he not go to Attica? This activist who inserted himself into every imaginable situation?
And I found a quote about 12 years into this project from an oral history he did. He was in hock to his trust for $10 million and so he decided he would write a memoir, make some cash. He didn't write the book, but he did over 500 pages of oral history. I was the first person to have access to it. And in it, there's a sentence buried which comes closer than anything else, I think, to getting to this mystery. And he said something to the effect, too good to ruin, but he said that, “Whenever I found myself in a position where I was uncomfortable and not in control, that I was perfectly willing to pull back until such time as I felt I could be in control.”
That, it seems to me, humanizes Nelson Rockefeller more than anything he said. It suggests vulnerabilities in the man that were at least the equal of his soaring ambition. But it also raises some real questions about what kind of candidate or president he would have been. Why? Nelson Rockefeller never got over Franklin Roosevelt. There was a warmly inscribed picture of FDR in his office. He told someone he was a very great man, and he explained how he understood, as Roosevelt had understood, you have to give people hope. In a democratic capitalist system, there are inequities. You have to be willing in a proactive way to identify and address those inequities. You have to be a reformer to prevent revolution.
That's the message he took, that's the heart of Rockefeller Republicanism. But beyond that, he wasn’t running against John Kennedy or Richard Nixon, he was running against the ghost of Franklin Roosevelt. And his closest political adviser, a man named George Hinman, once explained it was FDR who was the president. He could never quite imagine himself, for all of his apparent self-confidence, for all of his enthusiasm, for all of his resources and talent, and accomplishment, there was something in him that held back from identifying-- not identifying with FDR, but in effect equalizing himself with FDR.
SAM TANENHAUS: Well, after hearing that, how could you not want to read Richard Norton Smith’s biography of Nelson Rockefeller? Thank you all, and thank everyone in the audience as well.