Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, was born July 8, 1908. The grandson of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, he was perhaps the greatest representative of post–World War II liberal Republicanism. Years after rejecting the vice presidency under Richard Nixon, he attained the same position under Nixon successor Gerald Ford. Despite several efforts, however, he never grasped the golden ring of the presidency. Meanwhile, he transformed New York State during his 15 years as governor and played important roles in foreign and domestic affairs under four presidents.
John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s second-born son was the natural leader among his five brothers. He served as director of Rockefeller Center during the 1930s and 1940s, and he used his staggering financial resources to, among other things, expand and develop the Museum of Modern Art that his mother helped to found. His experiences investing in Standard Oil's Venezuelan subsidiary led Rockefeller to become interested in South American development. He and some friends formed a company in the late 1930s to finance local industrial development in Venezuela, hoping to raise the general standard of living through responsible capitalist expansion. This theme was to remain prominent in Rockefeller's involvement with foreign aid throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1941, he was appointed to the position of coordinator of inter-American affairs in Franklin Roosevelt's administration. Later in the war, he became assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs.
Rockefeller remained involved in South America following his return to private life in 1945. He believed that the best way to fight the Cold War was through nonmilitary means like foreign aid, and he continued to promote his cause in the halls of government. President Truman's Point Four program had its origins in a conversation between Rockefeller and a State Department speechwriter, and the president appointed him chairman of the International Development Advisory Board in 1950.
In 1952, President Dwight Eisenhower named Rockefeller chair of his Special Committee on Government Reorganization. He also became undersecretary of the new Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Resigning in December 1954 to reenter the field of foreign relations, he served for a time as special assistant to the president for foreign affairs. Determining, however, that elective office was the key to achieving real power, Rockefeller resigned this office as well and returned to New York to lay the groundwork for a 1958 gubernatorial campaign.
Rockefeller's first electoral victory came in a very poor year for Republican candidates across the country. This notable success, coupled with the fact that the New York governorship was generally considered the most powerful in the nation, instantly propelled him into consideration for the 1960 presidential nomination. Newspapers and magazines—and the Republican Party—speculated for months about whether he would run. Following a series of polls and a lengthy probe of national opinion, however, Rockefeller withdrew from consideration at the end of December 1959.
In succeeding months, however, the governor continued to sound like a candidate. A month before the Republican National Convention, he let loose a string of statements criticizing the probable nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon. Intending to placate the New York governor, Nixon traveled to Manhattan to meet with Rockefeller and discuss the Republican platform. The two came to an agreement on 14 largely progressive recommendations to the GOP platform, but brought down the wrath of the conservative wing of the GOP in the process. It took all of Nixon's considerable political skills to reestablish order. While Rockefeller did stump for Nixon during the general campaign, his actions had solidified conservative Republican sentiment against him.
Rockefeller went on to attempt presidential runs in 1964 and 1968, but faced the wrath of conservatives within the party organization and was unable to achieve success. Meanwhile, however, he continued to govern New York, and his administration wrought major changes to the fabric of state government over the course of his 15-year tenure.
Rockefeller's administration of New York has been described as a prime example of increases in executive power at the state level in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a paradigmatic example of “pragmatic liberalism.” Rockefeller shied away from ideology, going so far as to say in a profoundly inaccurate 1968 prediction that he felt the country was becoming less ideological and more pragmatic. Despite having won election in 1958 on a promise of “pay as you go” government, no other governor in the twentieth century submitted so many requests for tax increases, and no other New York governor spent so freely to meet societal needs.
Rockefeller's accomplishments included massive improvements to New York's infrastructure, including 90,000 new low- and moderate-income housing units, four-and-a-half miles of new highway every day he was in office, space for 208,000 new students in the State University system, and the construction of a billion-dollar marble-clad government complex in Albany. He pioneered the use of public benefit corporations to take on large tasks including construction, power, and transportation. His administrations also saw New York's debt rise from $900 million in 1959 to $3.4 billion by 1973, and he presided over the enactment of harsh “lock 'em up for life” drug policies and the 1971 tragedy at Attica State Prison.
A fiscal crisis hit the state in late 1973, and the federal government proved unwilling to provide as much assistance as Rockefeller requested. Rockefeller argued that the ability to meet the needs of New Yorkers was no longer in the hands of the state, but rested with the federal government—and he resigned the office of governor. Following Nixon's resignation in 1974, President Ford selected Rockefeller as his vice president. By the end of 1975, however, the same conservatives he had angered 15 years earlier effectively forced him off the 1976 ticket. Rockefeller died on January 26, 1979, in New York.
See also Presidential Election of 1960; Presidential Election of 1964; Presidential Election of 1968.
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