FORMER VICE PRESIDENT Nelson A. Rockefeller, who died of a heart attack in his office on Friday night, was not an especially or predominantly philosophical man. He was an activist, a doer, a repository of great political energy, very much alive, very quick, always ready to go. And yet, Mr. Rockefeller had obviously given a great deal of conceptual, almost metaphysical, thought to that institution -- the Republican Party -- with which he enjoyed a tumultuous and important love-hate relationship over the past several decades: Mr. Rockefeller had a very strong concept of what that party could be and should be, and his own biography in post-World War II public life pretty much adds up to an effort to make a political reality of this concept.
Was it, after all, a quixotic campaign? Well, there certainly was a lot of unrequited ardor; there were rebuffed advances and initiatives; there were terrible public scenes and squalls. But we would argue that, from beginning to end, Nelson Rockefeller did in fact make a large and invaluable and lasting impact on the party that he cared so much about -- as a progressive and enlightened worker in the HEW of the Eisenhower years; as the governor of New York State and leader of his party there; as a national candidate and potential candidate and power to be reckoned with who, over the years, variously dictated the improved terms of the 1960 GOP platform and, in 1964, stood at the microphone on the stage at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and forced his hissing party colleagues to hear, out loud and for the record, what they were doing and what they were in danger of becoming; and finally, as vice president during the brief, healing, reconstructive Ford years.
He never got nominated by that party for national office, and even the approval by the Congress for the vice presidency Mr. Ford sought for him was granted grudgingly and only after a protracted ordeal. There was resistance to his personality and his style. A kind of yawning culture gap existed between the more Grant Woodish element of his party and Nelson Rockefeller -- the modern art enthusiast, the primitive-sculpture lover, a the exuberant man who, astounding the world with his divorce and remarriage at a time when these things were thought to be forbidden to a public figure, bubbled to journalists after his infant son had been born about how wonderful it was to hold a baby in your arms again and how he had almost forgotten that thrill. It was defiant, politically reckless and probably crucially destructive of Mr. Rockefeller's ambitions. And yet there was something importantly healthy and liberating, not just to him but to out public life as a whole, in his devil-may-care refusal to hide or squelch or apologize for or renounce the sources of his emotional strength and the objects of beauty (objects of many other people's derision) that pleased him most.
But Nelson Rockefeller was promoting something far more important than what we should nowadays call a question of "lifestyle." From his earliest days as a party figure he sought to enlarge his colleagues' sensibilities where matters of social and racial justice were concerned. This was a constant theme of his political career. Those outsized, rollicking, warmblooded and sometimes reckless responses he made to people and to life had their public payoff in his capacity to reach out to and empathize with people whose circumstances and concerns were alien -- and sometimes distasteful, and often threatening -- to others in the party he was always trying to reform and reconstruct.
Yes, it is true that in Nelson Rockefeller and his brothers and innumerable other scions of the great fortunes in this country there was always an element of noblesse oblige, a sense of having been more or less conscripted into public service and public beneficence by way of assuaging guilt and redeeming and justifying great personal wealth. But for Nelson Rockefeller -- whether it was a passionate concern with American foreign and defense affairs or with the economic health of New York State or with the lifting of the heavily repressive laws and customs that had permanently punished the racial minorities in America -- there was always, at least as strong, a personal impulse for involvement and engagement and for making things better than he had found them.
God knows, he did not always succeed. We can think of a long list of things we wish Mr. Rockefeller had done differently or not at all, and there are surely some pretty spectacular monuments to failure, along with those to success, in his mixed legacy. But that is usually the way it is with a public figure of size. And Nelson Rockefeller was a big man.