ON HIS OWN TERMS
A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

By Richard Norton Smith

Random House. 842 pp. $38

Looking at him or talking with him, you wouldn’t know he was a Rockefeller. He was neither tall nor lanky; his default public expression was a smile, not a frown; he was friendly, loquacious, welcoming to strangers, irreligious, profligate and a serial philanderer. And yet, while Nelson Rockefeller lived life “on his own terms” (the apt title of Richard Norton Smith’s biography), he never forgot, nor did anyone who came into contact with him, that he was a Rockefeller: privileged, wealthy beyond imagination, surrounded by retainers and advisers, at the center of his own universe.

Smith, the author of several ­well-received biographies, including my favorite, “The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick,” has given us a strenuously researched, fully contextualized, comprehensive life of the Rockefeller who epitomized, for friend and foe alike, the now-defunct species of Republicanism that proudly defined itself as liberal.

Unburdened with having to make a living, Rockefeller skirted dilettantism to dedicate himself to public service, first as a promoter and patron of modern and primitive arts, then as an appointed and elected government official. His government career was launched in August 1940 when, just weeks after his 32nd birthday, he was appointed Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, charged by President Franklin Roosevelt with designing economic aid and cultural programs for Latin America.

‘On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller’ by Richard Norton Smith (Random House)

He spent most of the next decade and a half in Washington as a special adviser, undersecretary and Cabinet member for three successive presidents, two of them Democrats. With a steady infusion of ideas, strategies and written proposals from experts leased, as needed, from business and the academy, he built a reputation as a man on the move, a visionary connoisseur of innovative thinking. Ambitious to make his mark, to get things done, to establish credentials as his own man, not just another Rockefeller, he set his own agenda and was fully content only as the ringmaster cracking the whip.

In the summer of 1957, eager to run his own show, he sought election as governor of New York and easily defeated Averell Harriman, the millionaire patrician the Democrats nominated for reelection. Revisiting Rockefeller’s years in Albany and reexamining his presidential platforms, Smith takes us into an alternate political universe, the mirror image of our own. In his first year in office, Rockefeller, the Republican, called for increases in gas, diesel fuel and cigarette taxes; slashed the state’s standard tax exemption; added three new high-income brackets; and instituted automatic withholding from workers’ paychecks. In his second year, he won approval for a state arts council, passed the state’s first minimum-wage law, set up a New Deal-style conservation work camp, increased workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, and proposed, though failed to secure, new civil rights legislation.

In 1960, after declaring that he was not a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, he reversed himself at the last minute and unleashed a series of aggressively ambitious position papers which, “snubbing . . . the conservative activists already preparing to fill the post-Eisenhower vacuum,” aimed to push the Republican Party to the left and catalyze a “Draft Rocky” movement. He endorsed “government-funded health care for the aged . . . economic stimulus through targeted tax cuts . . . federal aid to education . . . and a strong commitment to civil and voting rights for every American, regardless of color.” Setting the stage for John F. Kennedy’s later “missile gap” charges, and thereby undercutting his party’s chances for victory in November, he criticized Richard Nixon — and by implication, Eisenhower and the Republican Party — for ignoring the Soviet threat and spending far too little on the military.

Needless to say, in imperiously attempting to impose his idiosyncratic platform on the party and its nominee, Rockefeller made more enemies than friends in 1960. His inability to grasp the essentials of politics — that it is a team sport — and his oblivious disregard of the growing and angry strength of Western and Southern conservatives combined to doom his chances for party leadership and the nomination in 1964 and 1968. His 1962 divorce and his 1963 marriage to a woman who was 18 years younger than he, and who had given up her four young children to get her divorce, did further, perhaps irreparable, damage to his standing among Republicans.

While Smith does not wallow in salacious details, neither does he close his eyes to Rockefeller’s flagrant adultery and its personal and political consequences. He pulls no punches in this biography. He comes close to ridiculing some of Rocky’s more outlandish ideas, including his intoxication with the efficacy and necessity of building air raid shelters. He is critical, if not contemptuous, of the governor’s performance in his last years in Albany, particularly his conversion from responsible “pay as you go” financing of building projects to an increasingly myopic reliance on bonded debt; his ill-conceived, draconian drug laws; and, most inexcusable of all, his decision not to go to Attica prison after it was taken over by inmates in 1971. Instead of negotiating with the inmates personally, he ordered a poorly designed and executed state police assault that resulted in the deaths of 32 inmates and 10 corrections officers.

As Rockefeller aged, he became even more confident in his superiority, more self-indulgent (difficult as that is to fathom) and more oblivious to his marginalization within his party. His next-to-last humiliation occurred when, after he had served less than a year as the nation’s unelected vice president, President Gerald Ford informed him that his “political advisers . . . feel that your presence on the ticket [in 1976] would be a liability. . . . I think it would be helpful if you would withdraw.” After nearly 45 years of government service in Washington and Albany, Rockefeller was sent into permanent political exile.

Back in New York, he proudly told friends and family alike that he planned to live to 100, three years more than his grandfather had. He made it to 70. In the end, his life — achievements and failures alike — was eclipsed by the events immediately preceding his death, memorialized in a thousand raunchy jokes about “coitus massively interruptus!!!”

If Smith’s biography is sometimes less than fully satisfying, it is the fault of the subject, not the author. The more we read about Rockefeller, the less we admire, respect or even like him. His failures were monumental (literally so, when we consider the brutally modernist, oversize structures of Albany’s Empire State Plaza, Rocky’s “Brasilia on the Hudson”), but not tragic. A tragic figure must embody some measure of heroism, nobility, grandeur or virtue, all qualities that Nelson Rockefeller lacked.

David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Centers. His most recent book is “The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.”

ON HIS OWN TERMS

A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

By Richard Norton Smith

Random House. 842 pp. $38