The Original Rockefeller Republican

Nelson_RockefellerNelson Rockefeller. (Official photograph by William Fitz-Patrick, via Wikimedia Commons)

On July 8, 1908, Nelson A. Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, where his family was vacationing. Just over fifty-six years later, on July 14, 1964, he would defend the principles of the Republican Party in a famous last stand against the party’s takeover by Senator Barry Goldwater and his radical supporters.

Rockefeller became one of the most powerful and important figures of the post-World War II Republican Party. A four-term governor of New York and Vice President under Gerald Ford, Rockefeller’s best known legacy is still the term “Rockefeller Republican.” This now-derogatory term is used by Movement Conservatives for centrist Republicans they deem too moderate. The defining characteristic of Rockefeller’s career, however, was not moderation but courage. While his career illustrates the demise of the eastern moderates within the national Republican Party, it is also a portrait of a man willing to fight for his principles.

Nelson Rockefeller, grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and powerful Senator Nelson Aldrich, grew up in a cultured environment in which leaders shunned attention. Yet, he found himself drawn to the world of politics and public service. During the war years, Rockefeller served in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Later, he served under presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Repeatedly running into the notorious Washington red tape, a frustrated Rockefeller decided to focus his attention on his home state of New York. In 1958, the heir of J. D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil fortune gave railroad heir W. Averell Harriman a run for his money in the gubernatorial race. Rockefeller won the governor’s mansion as a Republican. He came to serve in Albany for almost fifteen years, transforming the state, for good and bad, with his ambitious visions and politics.

His ambitions, however, reached beyond Albany. With Richard Nixon the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, advisors told Rockefeller he should not upset the vice president that year. Still, Rockefeller held off from endorsing Nixon and flexed his muscle in national politics. During the convention, Nixon tried to win over the New York governor, meeting him at his Manhattan apartment and negotiating a joint position on defense. The so-called Compact of Fifth Avenue created controversy at the convention; conservatives saw the treaty as a backdoor surrender of conservative principles to the moderate Rockefeller.

After Nixon’s defeat at the hands of John F. Kennedy, many saw the more moderate Rockefeller as the logical choice for 1964. But the New Yorker shocked the political sphere in May 1963, when he married Margaret “Happy” Fitler, just a year after divorcing his wife of 32 years. The reaction was immediate: Prescott Bush, former Senator from Connecticut, denounced Rockefeller as a “destroyer of American homes.” Both conservatives and moderates reproached the governor. Rockefeller knew all along that his remarriage would be controversial, but took the chance his political career could withstand the fallout.

It couldn’t, at least in 1964. With Rockefeller tainted by the scandal, conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But in the Republican Party of 1964, Goldwater was ideologically out of the mainstream, which had galvanized around the Modern Republicanism of Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the same time, Rockefeller was not ready to store away his presidential ambitions with his overflowing art collection at the state executive’s mansion in Albany.

Even though he was well aware of the political toll his remarriage had taken, Rockefeller was the only prominent representative of the moderate wing of the party willing to take Goldwater on in the primaries. Several Republicans, including Nixon and President Eisenhower’s brother Milton, hoped to emerge as the nominee at the convention without having dirtied themselves with retail politics in the small towns of New Hampshire. Rockefeller, however, welcomed the chance to refute the conservatism of Goldwater all over the Granite State. The voters seemed to accept his critique of the conservative senator, but not the divorced Rockefeller himself. They showed their support for moderation in a write-in victory for Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the former senator from Massachusetts, UN ambassador, and 1960 vice-presidential candidate currently serving as Ambassador to South Vietnam. Rockefeller was wounded, but not dead.

Following primaries and conventions around the country, Rockefeller and Goldwater would face off decisively in California. Rockefeller represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party, yet struggled to line up the endorsements of the prominent leaders worried about Goldwater. President Eisenhower did not want to risk tarnishing his reputation with a public repudiation of the conservative darling. Others, such as Nixon, Michigan Governor George Romney, and Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, still hoped to arrive at the convention as a compromise candidate after Rockefeller would slay Goldwater. They kept quiet to avoid alienating Goldwater’s supporters.

Then Californians, who made up the heart of Movement Conservatism, handed Goldwater a slim victory in the primary. Rockefeller had failed in his efforts to stop the conservative takeover of his party. The New Yorker knew he could no longer be the standard-bearer of the moderates, but offered all of his help to anybody willing to pick up the mantle. The task fell on Governor Scranton. Enjoying Rockefeller’s resources and staff, the moderates tried to rally around one of their own. But it was too late. Republican consultant Stuart Spencer noted how Moderate Republicans wanted to “summon that fabled nexus of money, influence, and condescension known as the Eastern Establishment.” “You’re looking at it, buddy; I’m all that is left,” Rockefeller shot back. Despite desperate efforts to stop him, Goldwater had enough delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot.

The moderates refused to turn their party over to extremists without a bang. That bang, and Rockefeller’s proudest moment, was his speech on extremism at the convention. Speaking on July 14, amid loud boos and chants of “We want Barry,” the New York governor cherished his chance to take a final stand. “There is no place in this Republican party for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice, such fabricators of fear…. There is no place in this Republican party for those who would infiltrate its ranks, distort its aims, and convert it into a cloak of apparent respectability for a dangerous extremism.… The Republican party must repudiate these people.” Rockefeller’s party had abandoned its principles, but Rockefeller could sleep knowing he had not.

Rockefeller’s legacy within the Republican Party is a complicated one. In the wake of Watergate, and to the chagrin of Movement Conservatives, he had been appointed vice president as a seasoned and stable choice. As Ronald Reagan launched a conservative challenge to Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, Ford asked Vice President Rockefeller, the bête noire of conservatives, to step down from the ticket. Later, Ford came to recognize and regret his role in handing over the party to the Movement Conservatives, calling his decision to select another vice president over Rockefeller “one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.” The might of the Eastern Establishment waned with Rockefeller, who died in 1979, taking his principles and courage with him.

About the Author

Oscar Winberg

Oscar Winberg is a Ph.D. Candidate at the history department of Åbo Akademi University, in Finland. He is working on a dissertation on politics and television entertainment in 1970s America, focusing on the sitcom All in the Family. His research interests include media history, history of conservatism, and modern political history. He is also the host of the academic politics podcast Campaign Context.

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1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed your article on Nelson Rockefeller. I was his son’s (Nelson Jr.) roommate at Dartmouth. I admired his father despite the fact that we really did not talk about him. I consider myself a Rocky Republican and saw some of him in Mitt Romney. Wish either one was the current presumptive nominee.

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