John D.'s grandson, an heir to one of America's great fortunes, was also one of the great street campaigners of American polictics -- but that was perhaps the least of the paradoxes in the public life of Nelson A. Rockefeller.
He was an unusual blend of shrewdness and insensitivity, of driving energy and self destructive indecision. He hired and used soem of the best minds and talents in the world, but let himself be manipulated and blocked by men he considered -- not without cause -- his inferiors.
In the end, although his career of almost four decades included some notable achievements, there was a sense of incompleteness to it -- and of frustration.
In an interview during his final days as vice president, two years ago, Rickefeller allowed himself a few sardonic comments on the right-wingers in his own Republican Party who had three times blocked his bid for the presidential nomination, and then drove him off the ticket as vice president in 1976.
"I tried to tell the Ford people they weren't after just me, they were after him," Rockefeller said, after obtaining the reporter's pledge that his comments not be published "while they might embarrass anyone."
"But they [President Ford's advisers] thought that if they threw me out, that might satisfy them [the party's conservatives]. They learned, when [Ronald] Reagan ran, that nothing will satisfy them except total control."
"Jerry Ford never asked me to get off the ticket," Rockefeller said. "But it was clear that his people had convenced him that he'd have an easier chance getting nominated and elected without me. Ironically, as it turned out, he probably could have won the election if he'd carried New York, and I think I could have helped him."
But Rockefeller lift without protest, saying nothing publicly to embarrass Ford and -- fact -- providing what insiders say was some of the best political counsel anyone offered at the meetings in Vail, Colo., in August 1976 to plot the almost successful comback campaign of Ford and his ultimate choice for vice president, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
But that was the end of the line for Rockefeller in politics. In the last two years of his life, he tuned entirely back to the art collections that wer his great avocation. When Ford visited New York last September to campaign for the Republican state ticket and was guest of honor at a fund-raising reception hosted by Rockefeller's protege, Henry A. Kissinger, Rockefeller was conspicious by his absence. For 20 years, however, he and his men and his money had dominated the New York GOP and played a provocative -- if rarely prevailing -- role in national politics.
When Rockefeller plunged into his first campaign for givernor in 1958 -- already a 20-year veteran of federal appointive service under three presidents -- he did so with an energy that was overpowering.
Democratic Gov. Averell Harriman, the patrician millionaire public servant he was opposing, never had a chance.
Rockefeller instantly showed himself an uninhibited master of backslapping, hand-grabbing street campaigning, and the spectacle of the Standard Oil heir wolfing hot dogs and punging into Coney Island crowds was endlessly engaging to the photographers and television camermen.
He won that first race -- in a year of Republican devastation -- by 573,000 votes. He was on his way.
But the same man who was so good at dealing with people in crowds could be curiously insensitive to personal feelings. His customary greeting. "Hi, fella," was accorded to people who had been around him for years as much as it was to strangers.
One New York reporter who had spent years writing about Rockefeller rebelled one day against the salutation and demanded of the governor, "You don't know my name, do you?"
"Yeah," said Rockefeller, "It's some king of Polish name, isn't it?"
The same sort of tone-deafness impaired his relations with fellow politicians. Always lavish in hiring (and rewarding) people on his staff, Rockefeller would sweep into meetings of the National Governors Confereence, in his early years as a member, with platoons of press secretaries and flunkies at his flanks -- upstaging and aggravating his collegues.
But, like others, they learned there were rewards for those who could bear his imperial style. Were it not for the staff resources Rockefeller committed to the fight for general revenue-sharing, for example, it is doubtful that the governors could have pushed the bill through Congress.
His talent for overlooking the political amenities had important consequences for his career -- and those of others. In 1968, the then nationally unknown governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, was the lonely leader of an unsanctioned Rockefeller-for-president movement.
When Rockefeller scheduled a televised press conference to announce his political plans, Agnew -- assuming that he was in on the ground floor of a blooming candidacy -- gathered reporters to watch Rockefeller.
To Agnew's (and everyone else's) shock, Rockefeller took himself out of the running (temporarily) without bothering to warn his most ardent supporter. Angry and feeling ill-used, Agnew switched to Richard M. Nixon -- and the rest is history.
The indecision and hesitation exemplified by that incident were characteristic of Rockefeller's course in presidential politics. The man who was supremely self-confident in the Empire State -- winning four straight elections in which he began as the underdog -- never learned to trust his own instincts in the national arena.
In 1959, he began traveling the country to organize opposition to the nomination of Nixon, but was intimidated by the threats from conservatives, and backed off. Then, too late, he tried to reinsert himself into the situation through a set of platform demands, only to be blamed -- probably unfairly -- for causing Nixon's defeat in the 1960 general election.
In 1964, he failed to recognize the impact of his divorce and remarriage on his political support, and plunged into a futile -- and embittering -- battle with Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (Ariz.).
In 1968, after losing Agnew and other prospective supporters through hesitation early in the year, he tried, once again too late, and lost again to Nixon.
Things reached the point in that period that James Desmond of The New York Daily News, who knew Rockefeller well, wrote one story that began, "Gov. Rockefeller said today he will never run for president again, but he does not mean it."
For all the years he was governor, Rockefeller's public appeal and personnel resources made it impossible for any other figure from the GOP's progressive wing to operate effectively in national politics. But because he was such an archetype of the eastern international financial power they had grown to distrust, the heartland Republicans would never accept him as their nominee -- no matter the polls showing he could be elected.
They knew -- and Rockefeller's entire record proved -- that he was, at heart, a bog government man. For the essentiald Rockefeller was not the gladhanding, hi-fella street campaigner, but an executive who bolieved in planning and building on a huge scale.
Wheter assembling an extraordinary group of scholars to examine the policies needed for the survival of the free world to the end of the century or constructing the massive multibillion-dollar Albany Mall, Rockefeller's visions were even lrager than his bankroll.
As a boy, he recalled once to a reporter, he had visited Yellowstone Park with his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and as they drove out the south gate of the park, both father and son were struck by the magnificence Jackson Lake.
"'This is beautiful,'" Rockefeller recalled his father saying. "This must be preserved.' So he bought it," he said, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.
Rockefeller was equally uninhibited in his view of the public role. In his 14 years as governor, he probably did as much to expand and extol the welfare state in New York as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson did on a national scale.
Yet for all his accomplishments, it may be that Rockefeller was at his best in his moments of defeat -- and defiance.
Plagued by a vision problem that he never really overcame, Rockefeller read most speeches in a flat and halting voice that mangled the work of the expensive authors who created them.
But he needed no ghostwriter when he faced the shouting, booing delegates at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco's Cow Palace and told them that -- however long it took and however much they hated his guts for saying it -- he was going to speak for the civil rights plank that represented to him and his family the heart of their personal and political commitment.
Embarrassed and on the spot, platform Chairman Melvin R. Laird finally gaveled the defiant delegates into something approaching order.
And in that moment, at least, Rockefeller was supreme.
Four years later, when a radio reporter asked him why a politcial party supposedly hungry for victory had never given a great vote-getter like him its presidential nomination, Rockefeller looked at him with utter incredulity.
"Have you ever been to a Republican convention?" asked John D's grandson.