“On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller”
A review in the form of fiction
The Senator, as he still liked to be called, decades after he had departed the absurdly grand chamber in the state capitol, three steps ahead of a federal prosecutor, or so they said, yawned.
He let the new biography of Nelson Rockefeller slip to his knee and reached for his scotch, all three ounces of it, all that his doctor would permit.
The Senator read nothing but biographies and histories. Not that he expected to learn anything from them. Quite the contrary. He already knew everything there was to know, more than the authors did, if he did say so himself.
No, he read these books not to learn about the past, but to be cast adrift in his own reflections and memories. He and his father, and his mother’s family before that, had been involved, however peripherally, with everything of consequence in this part of the state since the Civil War. He had always been in the know, whether it concerned the ulterior motives of some robber’s philanthropic act generations ago or the reasons why this morning’s editorial in the local daily argued so fervently on behalf of that new cement plant on the river. After campaigning against it month after month. Pusillanimous sons of bitches. But as they say, our sons of…
Outside, beyond the broad lawn, the street lights cast a benign glow as they guided the insurance company, bank and hospital employees homeward to the suburbs.
The Senator stood up, poked the fire, sat back and picked up his book.
That mess at the State Liquor Authority that brought Jud Morhouse down; what this fella writes isn’t the half of it. Most corrupt state agency, ever. They weren’t just shaking down bar owners in Harlem, they were coming up to Lake George. If you didn’t pay up, you were the one who got busted for serving minors.
But poor Jud. Up there in Ticonderoga running a plumbing supply business, watching Nelson run for president. And screwing it up, royally.
Without Jud and Malcolm, Rockefeller would never have become governor.
Pop still ruled the law firm when a call came in from Morhouse, a pal from the days in the Assembly when the Republicans all bunked at the Ten Eyck and ate at Jack’s or Keeler’s every night of Session. No wives. No families. Not that anyone lacked for company.
“Senator, we’re running Nelson Rockefeller. Malcolm’s taking him around. Round up some citizens. Introduce him,” barked the state chairman.
Malcolm, Malcom Wilson, the Yonkers assemblyman, the man of goofy mien belying the mind of a jesuit with enough information about every Plinyville to fill several filing cabinets. His reward would be his own shot at the Governor’s office. Together, they hit every town in that long green Buick.
The garden club ladies had something going on up at the hotel on the lake. Wouldn’t they like to meet Nelson Rockefeller? Of course they would. So would the husbands, who suddenly took an interest in their wives’ plans for an authentic Colonial Garden. You should have seen their faces when Nelson carried his own bags up the steps to the lobby. He didn’t have to say anything. Here was this billionaire carrying his own bags. A regular guy. Ha! As if.
Now the Senator began to form his phrases as though the little man, the author, whose photograph appears on the dust jacket, were interviewing him.
“Thus did I become Rocky’s county coordinator, to be drawn into an orbit that circled him for the next twenty years….”
But not too close. That way lay humiliation. Like that poor bastard on the plane back to Albany one night, a top official, too, weeping like a boy because he had been exiled to the antipodes for some minor cock-up. I withhold his name out of respect for his family.
I’m not mentioned. Of course I checked the index. Just as well.
Here’s that odd ball of a Conservation Commissioner, Harold Wilm, page 389. Nelson, as we know all too well, loved to see things being built, including the Northway, right through the heart of the Adirondacks.
Wilm orders a plane to change course so Nelson can see the damage being done to the Adirondacks, his Adirondacks, he calls them, by the construction. “Yeah, I see,” says Nelson. Two weeks later, Wilm is gone.
Or here, page 467. Nelson and his brother Laurance riding horses on newly-cut bridle trails through the Adirondacks. The papers ran some photos. What the papers didn’t know was that as soon as the photographers left, a waiter showed up with lunch.
Only a few pages devoted to the Adirondack Park bill. I voted for it; all I asked was that my local paper call me a great conservationist. Still, it was one of Nelson’s greatest achievements. The work of one of his commissions. Nelson created commissions to get things done, not to avoid doing something. I know. I served on a few of them. He’d hold private meetings with us in New York, awing us into submission with his art and his wealth. By then, that cold fish of a first wife was gone, replaced by Happy. Everyone loved Happy. She remembered our names! Nelson never did.
Especially after I recommended he appoint Charlie Goodell to Bobby Kennedy’s seat after the assassination. He was a plain, upstate Congressman who wouldn’t cause too many problems. After he was appointed, though, he thought he was Bobby Kennedy. That’s what Nelson said. Cost us a Senate seat we’ve never got back.
It amazes me to this day how much he did achieve. In Nelson’s orbit? The whole state was in Nelson’s orbit. He made universities rise out of corn fields and that South Mall rise, literally, out of the slums of Albany. The legislators supported it. Now there was enough space for everyone to have their own offices. No more desks in the hallways. Once we had offices, we wanted staff. And the staff wanted something to do. So we began creating our own programs, as big as Nelson’s own.
How do you make your state the most progressive in the nation and balance the budget at the same time? You can’t. As Nelson said, he drank the champagne and his successors got the hangovers.
We called ourselves Rockefeller Republicans. Still do. But there was only one Rockefeller Republican. Himself. And we won’t see his likes again, of that I can assure you.