In New York state’s long history, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller’s influence in state politics takes a back seat to none: not the Roosevelts or the Clintons (that’s George and DeWitt), not William Seward or Martin Van Buren.
And, when it comes to leaving a tangible legacy, Rockefeller is undoubtedly the kingpin. The Empire State Plaza, the 10 buildings and 98 acres of land that Rockefeller said created “the most electrifying capital in the world,” was his idea. The man and his vision will be celebrated Tuesday, his 100th birthday, in a special ceremony on the fourth floor of the New York State Museum at 10:30 a.m.
“I was familiar with what that area looked like, and it was mostly a collection of tenements and bars that we all called the gut,” said author Joseph Persico, who served as Rockefeller’s speech writer for 11 years. “The Empire State Plaza is a great example of the vision of the man. Where other people would see an acorn, he saw an oak tree.”
To help celebrate Rockefeller and his legacy, the New York State Museum, the Office of General Services and the New York State Archives have joined forces for “Rockefeller at 100,” a series of exhibits throughout the Empire State Plaza that will remain on display until Oct. 12. Along with various pieces of art showcased on the fourth-floor terrace, there will be political memorabilia and a model of the Empire State Plaza will be on display in the lobby of the museum. Also, the limousine that carried Rockefeller through his 14 years as governor (1959-1973) will be available for public viewing at the south end of the concourse.
Persico, who wrote “The Imperial Rockefeller: A Biography of Nelson A Rockefeller,” will be among the special guests on hand to share reminisces of the man who three times ran for president and served as Gerald Ford’s vice president from 1974 to 1977. Among the other speakers will be OGS Commissioner John Egan, one of the individuals Rockefeller selected to help form the OGS back in 1960.
“In my judgment, he was way ahead of his time,” Egan said of Rockefeller. “He felt that public places should also have beautiful art. Now, some people disagree with his taste in art, but his notion was that the artwork should complement the architecture. He made believers out of all of us. Before we all met Rockefeller, we built buildings to be functional and any artwork was secondary. Now the artwork and the architecture go hand in hand.”
A life in politics
Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1908, and died on Jan. 26, 1979, three years after being left off the ticket for Ford’s re-election because many members of the Republican party felt him to be too old and too liberal, and some critics accused him of not being a team player. The grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, he went to Dartmouth College before working in several of his families businesses, and in 1940 embarked on a political career, serving Franklin Roosevelt as director of the Office for Inter-American Affairs. From there he moved into the State Department and eventually became director of the International Development Advisory Board, working under both President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1958, he ran for governor of New York and won, defeating the incumbent, W. Averell Harriman.
In 1960, ’64 and ’68, he tried to win the Republican nomination for president but failed each time. In 1973, during his fourth term as governor, he resigned, allowing Lt. Governor Malcolm Wilson to take over while Rockefeller, moving on to become the chairman of the National Commission on Critical Choices for America, set his sights on running for president again in 1976. When Ford became president after Nixon’s resignation, he selected Rockefeller as his vice president. That was as close as Rockefeller would come to the oval office.
With the conservative element of the Republican Party adamantly opposed to Rockefeller and his liberal leanings, his presidential aspirations seemed on the wane. Then, at a Republican rally in Binghamton, Rockefeller, heckled by anti-war protesters, was photographed giving the group an obscene gesture, and the episode signaled an end to his days as a legitimate candidate for the presidency. As he quietly receded from the political stage, Rockefeller returned to his first love, the arts.
passion for art
“He was born with a love for the arts,” said Egan. “He grew up loving it because art was a big part of his family activity. They were all involved.”
One piece of art that will be on display for the first time will be a portrait of Rockefeller by Andy Warhol donated for the exhibit by Rockefeller’s widow, Happy, who still lives in New York City.
“That is a really cool piece of art,” said Cliff Siegfried, director of the New York State Museum. “Rockefeller really supported the modern art movement, and his whole intention was to create a collection of modern art that would be on public display. So, we’re very happy to have that Warhol painting. It’s great that Happy is allowing us to borrow it for the exhibit.”
While Happy will not be able to make the ceremony Tuesday, the wife of current Democratic governor David Paterson, Michelle, will be on hand, as will other luminaries from both political parties.
“I think Rockefeller did a lot of good for this state, and I’m a Democrat — so I don’t have to say that,” said Egan. “The Empire State Plaza was a huge project, and it was something that had never been done before.”
While Rockefeller today may have fans from the political right and left, according to Persico, if the governor were alive today he’d have a hard time recognizing his own party.
“There aren’t too many people out there today who describe themselves as Rockefeller Republicans,” said Persico, a Gloversville native who recently came out with ‘Franklin and Lucy,’ a book about FDR and his relationship with Lucy Mercer.
A Rockefeller Republican would be a member of a party which “has progressive, even liberal views, which have not been in fashion among Republicans for 15 years now or more,” Persico said. “I think our former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is about the only one who has the courage to call himself one.”