Book review: New insights on Rockefeller

Clear, witty writing and capable research make “Oreos & Dubonnet” — this whimsically titled book abo

Clear, witty writing and capable research make this whimsically titled book about Gov. Nelson Rockefeller one of the best about New York state government.

“Oreos & Dubonnet” is named for a snack that Rockefeller asked his staff to provide in the hotel room when he was on the state or national campaign trail. James Boyd, a longtime Rockefeller aide, and Charles Holcomb, a Rochester newspaper reporter who covered the governor, offer this detail early in the book.

It is a touch of whimsy, complete with a footnote each devoted to the aperitif and the cookie. It personalizes a man who was a major influence on state and national politics and policy.

The format is mostly chronological. The book opens with Rockefeller’s appearance in Albany in 1956. While he had already served Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower in appointed posts, he came into state politics quietly. He was a compromise choice by Gov. Averell Harriman and Republican leaders in the state Senate and Assembly to head a commission on changes to the state constitution.

‘Oreos & Dubonnet: Remembering Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’

Authors: James Boyd and Charles Holcomb

Published by: SUNY Press, 172 pages

How much: $19.95

It appears that when he was appointed to this position he knew he wanted to run for governor. But he used the post not just as a stepping stone but to learn how state government worked.

The book is relatively short, yet Boyd and Holcomb make every word count. Their writing has a wonderful rhythm. They start a chapter with narrative information on a policy issue or Rockefeller’s management style, and before the reader tires of the narrative, they bring in quotes and recollections from the many Rockefeller staff members they interviewed or they relate an appealing anecdote.

Campaign stories

For example, there are chapters on how he campaigned for governor and for president in 1964. They add zing with a story about how Rockefeller was late for a political appearance in the Finger Lakes because a friend invited him to drive a mechanical grape harvester. They explain that Rockefeller shook hands so energetically that he had to rest his hand in an ice bucket between campaign stops.

Rockefeller has already been chronicled in excellent books such as “The Imperial Rockefeller” by Joseph Persico and “Dancing with the Queen, Marching with King” by Alexander Aldrich. He appears in other books, such as Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” about Robert Moses, and William Kennedy’s “O Albany!” And Rockefeller is still remembered by many Capital Region residents.

But Boyd and Holcomb offer much new information that is not simply a rehash of other books.

In addition to chronicling his achievements, the authors cover his shortcomings. They discuss his penchant for costly projects and programs, his harsh antidrug laws and his management of the hostage crisis at Attica Correctional Facility.

One of the best sections is the account of Rockefeller as vice president. The conventional view about this part of his life is that it was a political wilderness, and Boyd and Holcomb confirm this. They even offer new details about his dealings with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

However, they also note that in his role as president of the U.S. Senate, Rockefeller limited the ability of senators to use the filibuster by helping change the Senate rule on the subject to require 60, instead of 67 votes, to end a filibuster. He also played a pivotal role in 1975 in renewing the Federal Voting Rights Act.

“Oreos & Dubonnet” is a superb book about an important time in New York politics and history. It also offers a model for other writers who want to bring our state’s wonderful history to life.

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