If you missed my Monday program with Richard Norton Smith which was largely devoted to his new book Nelson Rockefeller: On His Own Terms, you missed a wonderful show and an education in the GOP wars of 50 years ago –and today. Thus the audio and transcript below are an early Christmas present to you:
HH: Today, I’m joined for the entire show by my friend, Richard Norton Smith, whom many of you hear every President’s Day in a show that we taped years ago talking about all the presidents. Richard, of course, is the extraordinarily gifted presidential historian and a biographer of Thomas Dewey and Robert McCormick, as well as Herbert Hoover and George Washington. He is the official historian of C-SPAN, he’s been my friend of 40 years. And Richard, welcome, it’s great to speak to you about your brand new book, On His Own Terms: A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller, good to have you.
RNS: Well, and Merry Christmas.
HH: Merry Christmas to you. This is a terrific book. And I’m going to quote Nelson Rockefeller on Page 255 of your book.
RNS: And that’s something you don’t do as a rule.
HH: No, I don’t. I wrote this down as soon as I saw it. The best way to read a book is to get an author to tell you about it. But dyslexia is at the heart of this book…
HH: And I think that’s one of the reasons he liked to talk about books with authors.
RNS: Yeah, and it’s one of those humanizing details that he shied away from during his lifetime. He was of that generation of men, well, you know, he’s a classic illustration of how the very rich get the worst medical treatment.
RNS: You know, he had this osteopath who was a sidekick, and an occasional procurer, but, well, Nelson probably would not have died when he did if he’d had a different medical regimen. But dyslexia was something, it’s interesting, because it did shape his life in ways that were profound. He, first of all, he never heard the word until he was 50 years old. And it’s, you know, it’s interesting, doing a life of Nelson Rockefeller, it’s not your conventional political biography.
HH: Oh, my gosh, no, but it is a biopic of the 20th Century.
RNS: Well, it’s funny. There is so many disciplines that you have to master. I mean, not only abstract expressionist art of the New York school, but dyslexia, the history of dyslexia, which in fact remained, really didn’t come into common usage until the middle of the 20th Century. He went through life thinking he had a deficient IQ. And his mother, who was, you know, just this remarkable woman, the pivot in a lot of ways of his own personality, she told him, you know, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And he did. And the interesting thing is we’ll never know, but on balance, I think it was probably a negative. If you’re running for president, it’s great if you’ve got a Jim Farley or a Louie Howe, or a Karl Rove. But Nelson, because of the resources at his command, could have 20 or 30 of those, which of course made them all essentially worthless. What he didn’t do was listen to his own gut, which according to the people I talked to, and I did about 150 interviews, was actually a whole lot better than most o the paid gurus.
HH: Well, I want to let people know the 140 interviews went over 14 years. This is an epic piece of work. And I want to begin by saying…
RNS: Well, there are people who would say Nelson was an epic piece of work.
HH: Well, he was, or as Happy said at the end, he was a great guy. I wish I’d know him. I never met Rockefeller.
HH: And despite the Nixon association and the Reagan association, he just wasn’t around, we never crossed paths, so I never saw him in person, even. But you begin the book, and I want to point this out, with a dedication for Brian Lamb and the C-SPAN family. And I want to echo that. So many books and authors would never get any attention but for the fact of their weekend work and their love of books. And so it’s…
RNS: That’s true. And indeed, shall I say reading itself…
RNS: …which in the age of Twitter, has at least been altered. And you know, Brian and those, because you know what’s interesting, in 35 years, you’ve never heard Brian Lamb use his own name on C-SPAN.
HH: How interesting.
RNS: Isn’t that amazing?
RNS: What does that tell you about the corporate culture, you know? It’s just, you know, it’s a time capsule in a whole lot of ways. And thank God for it, because as you say, there’s this great respect for the intelligence and the curiosity.
HH: Oh, curiosity, let me go there. Here’s a small list of things I had not known about Rockefeller.
HH: He saved the Old Executive Office Building. Richard Parsons was a Rocky protégé. Rockefeller was said to be the inspiration for George Grisby in the 1948, The Lady From Shanghai.
RNS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: He tried to save the Dodgers from leaving Brooklyn.
HH: He got Article 51 into the U.N. Charter, and the U.N. into Manhattan, and he knew that Hiss was working for the Soviets in ’47. He had an obsession with fallout shelters. I didn’t know about Salvador Agron. He invented, in a way, supply side economics.
HH: LBJ loved his wife, how’s my girlfriend, Happy, the Taylor Law, pure water, the Rocky Commission with Reagan during V.P., the rule 22 filibuster stuff, Richard.
RNS: Oh, I know. It’s astonishing. His fingerprint, this is the irony. The reviews have been for the most part very generous. And those who have stepped back and seen him as a, he’s kind of a Zelig, you know? I mean, he’s in the picture throughout…
HH: Oh, a Zelig with power, though.
RNS: You know, he’s, 30…but he’s an activist. He’s not just with the picture. He’s 32 years old when FDR gives him a continent, you know, South America, to play with.
RNS: He’s already helped his father build Rockefeller Center, and by the way, rent Rockefeller Center. I mean, he was a businessman before he was a politician or public servant or professional liberal, or whatever you can to call him. And of course, he really made the survival of his mother’s museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York possible.
HH: I am going to talk at length with Richard today. Richard Norton Smith is my guest about his brand new book, On His Own Terms, which is linked over at Hughhewitt.com, this life of Nelson Rockefeller. It is the perfect Christmas present. It is also, as I have told at least a half dozen people over the last two weeks involved in the 2016 election, essential reading for the Republican primary. It is almost, it’s like a cracked mirror image of what is going on right now in the Republican Party, and we’ll talk about that. But I have to pay you the ultimate compliment, Richard. As I was flying over, I am in Hawaii today, and I flew over with the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt yesterday, and I read straight for six hours. I had finished about two-thirds of the book before I got on the plane, and finished it off and made my outline. But I burst into laughter, the kind of laughter that is embarrassing on Page 423, a footnote about Doloris Bridges, Norris Cotton and Richard Kleindienst, which I had never read, which we cannot talk about on the air.
RNS: Well, we can talk about it. We just can’t precisely quote it. But I’m not sure it would have the same impact.
HH: I don’t think it would.
RNS: You are not the first person to call attention…a week ago, I was in Manchester, New Hampshire, at, you know, up there at Saint Anselm’s College. They have this wonderful political institute, which of course is grounded in the long tradition of the New Hampshire primary. And without naming names, someone there, the first thing they said was exactly what you, because of course, Doloris is part of the New Hampshire political lore, but…
HH; Well, people need to go into the bookstore and pick up On His Own Terms. If you don’t even buy it, just go to Page 423 and read the footnote.
RNS: That’s right.
HH: So let me go to…
RNS: I’m actually, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear that you read it all the way through. I was afraid that most people would read the last chapter first.
HH: Oh, no. Oh, and I think, what I said earlier, do you agree with me that if you are a serious student of 2016, I told this to a National Journal reporter this morning…
HH: …youngster, 28 year old, not a youngster, professional.
HH: And he wanted to talk to me about Ted Cruz and a dinner we had for Ted on the West Coast and all this sort of stuff. And I said you bet, I’ll talk about the Senator, but you need to go read On His Own Terms, because ’64, 40 years later, is playing out again.
RNS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: What do you think, or 50 years later?
RNS: Oh, I think so, too. In fact, it’s funny you mention that. I did an essay not long ago for Time in which I actually personalized it through Justin Amash, the libertarian…
RNS: …civil libertarian Congressman from Gerald Ford’s old Congressional district, who has become, for better and worse, in many ways, the face of the younger Republican Party, and certainly the libertarian element of the Republican Party. I think just as the Goldwater movement was bigger than Goldwater, and they were perfectly prepared…for example, the original choice was John Tower. They thought let’s nominate Tower. And well, that wasn’t going to happen. And Goldwater was a reluctant draftee, as you know. But in any event, the Goldwater movement was always bigger than Goldwater. It was about a belated reckoning, if you will, with particularly the South and West, the evolving conservative quasi-libertarian, certainly anti-statist Republican Party.
HH: A reckoning that is back.
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HH: Ted Cruz made some more enemies and a lot more friends this weekend, and I noted just four minutes ago, Philip Rucker of the Washington Post tweeted out Republicans here in South Carolina say Jeb Bush needs to adapt. Jeb can remake that brand. You can have a new Coke. Ted made all these different enemies, and Eliana Johnson has a great story on him over at National Review.com. And I’m looking at Tim Alberta’s story from a couple of months ago about Chris Christie. Chris Christie previews 2016 campaign. It’s time to start offending people. I don’t care if I’m loved. I want to be respected. My guest is Richard Norton Smith, eminent historian, watcher of all things political, no stranger himself to the clash of presidential politics, long time advisor to Robert Dole and administrator of presidential libraries across the land. If you watch C-SPAN, you’ll know Richard. I’ve known Richard for 40 years. 40 years ago, he led a bus trip of young Harvard College students down to Washington, D.C., which had there been iPhones then, had we been able to record his description of Bridgeport as we drove through it, he would have been permanently banned from the city, I believe. But Richard, you know these…
RNS: I’m still leading bus tours, you know.
HH: Yes, I do, over at your website, people can sign up.
RNS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, anyway, if anyone is curious, we’re doing a couple historical tours next year. And just go to www.richardnortonsmith.net, pretty simple.
HH: You know what I would do, Richard? If you lead one around Manhattan, having read this biography of Nelson Rockefeller, if you…
RNS: You know what? It’s funny, I’ve got a trip in my mind, and it’s called Rockefellers and Roosevelts.
HH: Oh, I’ll go.
RNS: Wouldn’t that be great?
HH: I’ll go. But just Manhattan, because someone who’s grown up in Ohio and spends most of his life on the West Coast, I go to Manhattan a lot, but I didn’t know Rockefeller Center.
HH: I didn’t know the U.N. story.
HH: I didn’t know the Bridges story, the mayors, and you put it all into this book.
RNS: Well you know, and the funny thing, of course, the U.N. building, that’s important. And of course, there are generations of New Yorkers who have been stuck in traffic jams who have silently cursed Nelson for his role. But much, much more important, and much less well known, is what he did at the organizing meeting of the U.N.
RNS: San Francisco…
HH: Article 51.
RNS: Exactly. It was Nelson Rockefeller who stood up to his own country’s delegation, and needless to say, that is the Soviet Union, with the backing of his American allies, and they amended the U.N. Charter with, as you say, Article 51. Article 51 says very simply that the U.N. will authorize, recognize, regional defensive alliances. In other words, the Security Council is not going to be, as was originally envisioned, a kind of supra global government. What that practically led to was NATO. A few years later, John Foster Dulles, who was furious at Rockefeller at the time of the conference, sat next to him at a dinner, and he said you know, I owe you an apology. If it hadn’t been for Article 51, you know, we wouldn’t have NATO, and imagine the history of the Cold War without NATO or similar alliances. I mean, that’s just one of those…
HH: Amazing details. Also in your narrative, which I did not know, he had spotted Hiss as a community in ’47.
RNS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: I like to spoof young journalists when they come on. I ask them was Alger Hiss a communist, and they often don’t know who Alger Hiss was.
HH: But of course, it’s the fault line of American politics. And Rocky knew.
RNS: You know, the funny thing, Rockefeller was, Stu Spencer, who needs to introduction to you, you know, the great political strategist who is best known for his work with Ronald Reagan…
HH: And his wheel wagon party may be happening today, for all I know. But go ahead.
RNS: And is just a wonderful, wonderful guy. Anyway, Stu said of all the people he’d ever worked with, Nelson Rockefeller was by far the most militant anti-communist.
RNS: And Bill Buckley tells the story about Rockefeller saying look, at heart I’m a conservative. No one has more to conserve than I do. So he was this odd combination. One reason why he’s tough to kind of label is he was in favor of fallout shelters, but he was in favor of foreign aid. You know, he was an enlightened anti-communist. And you know, we have trouble, I think, finding a pigeon hole.
HH: Well you know, Richard, as I concluded this, and I was thinking about him last night, because you had sent me an email earlier what do you think, is he still the center-right conservative? Because of his belief in study groups and his studiousness…
HH: …he would have come to understand that big government doesn’t work. He said, as you said memorably, said of Hugh Carey, he got to drink the champagne, Rockefeller, and Carey got the hangover.
RNS: Also, you know, there’s a trajectory here. You know, after all, this is a life story. And none of us, you know, he was governor of New York for 15 years.
HH: It is remarkable.
RNS: I mean, I defy anyone to be unchanged, you know, whatever their experience of life, in 15 years. And there is no doubt that in his last years, he became more “conservative”. He became, he recognized that he had pushed to the limits and perhaps beyond what a state, even a rich state like New York, could do on its own. You know, in the mid-60s, New York State was spending more money to fight water pollution than the federal government was in 50 states.
HH: I want to read from Page 673. Again, this is On His Own Terms, Richard Norton Smith’s brand new biography of Rockefeller and his age, which is available, I’ve linked it over at www.hughhewitt.com. By any standard of measurement, you write, Richard, the tangible results of his governorship were historic. The state university expanded from 38,000 to 244,000 students, 55 new state parks, 109 hospitals and nursing homes, 200 water treatment plants, trails blazed in funding the arts, protecting the consumer, restoring the environment, and advancing transportation, human rights, highway safety and a dozen other causes that led to political and policy analyst Neal Peirce, in his highly regarded 1972 work, the Mega States of America, to label Rockefeller the most remarkable and innovative of the post-war governors. And I served ten years on the California Arts Council. I didn’t know that was Rocky that started that whole thing.
RNS: Yeah, and the first thing, the Arts Council in America, and you know, but the great test came ten years later, when New York really had its first significant fiscal crisis under Rockefeller. And of course, the first thing everyone wanted to cut was the Arts Council, for obvious reasons. And it was, he was adamant, it was absolutely adamant, and he was not an eloquent man. You know, the dyslexia played havoc with his ability to read a speech. But he was very good off the cuff. And things he cared about, and he cared about the arts, and he cared about culture, and he believed that you know, this is not, legislators make jokes about, you know, one of his associates said the only reason they got the state Arts Council was they traded judges for ballet dancers.
HH: Judges for ballet dancers. That was a great line.
RNS: It is a good line. But for Rockefeller, it went to the heart of who we are, and particularly in this fragmented culture of ours, it’s our common culture, our uncommon common culture that he thought was deserving of support.
HH: So what does 1960, 1964 and 1968 have to tell us in 2014 and through 2016? A lot.
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HH: You know, Richard, it was absolutely eerie reading about Attica, or even if you go back to Salvador Agron…
RNS: Yeah, the Capeman.
HH: Yeah, and the Capeman, and all the way through the civil rights marches, and his bailing out the protesters in Selma…
RNS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: And all this stuff against the backdrop of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and what Nelson thought was a bubbling up of really the political sensibility of the time, it’s sort of a replay of that, too.
RNS: It is. It’s amazing. You know, I have, I don’t know about you, but I have come to realize more profoundly, I guess, in recent years as a kid, I mean, I remember I was 9 years old watching the march on Washington, and watching Bull Connor’s police dogs, you know, and the water hoses in Birmingham, like so many Americans. And you know, I was an odd child, and annoyingly precocious, and very interested in public affairs and so forth. And if there was ever a time when literally there were good guys and bad guys, you know, that was it. And it’s all these years later, I have to tell you, there are days when I’m appalled. It seems as if things that I thought we’d settled 50 years ago are not settled. I mean, language that I thought I would never hear again, you know, assumptions that I thought had been effectively disproved, it’s, history does repeat itself.
HH: What’s quote that Rockefeller had? He’d been buried so often, he always used it as a rest time? We always think some issues are buried, and they come back out of the grave. But just this weekend, in your hometown of Boston, the protesters marched to the jail…
HH: …where they chanted back and forth to the inmates. And you’ve got a terrific description of Attica. For anyone who doesn’t know anything about it, that’s worth the book itself. But you wonder if the same kind of cycle isn’t going to happen, and I put the book down at one point thinking gosh, I wonder if this unrest is going to travel into the prisons?
RNS: Yeah, you know, that’s a fascinating point. I will tell you, the Attica chapter, I thought the last chapter would be the hardest to write. But no, the chapter on Attica was the hardest because you know, one reason this took 14 years was because it isn’t simply for a biographer learning new things. Equally important is unlearning all the sorts of things you thought you knew, you took for granted.
HH: Oh, interesting.
RNS: And Attica has entered, you know, the realm of legend.
HH: Yeah, Al Pacino, yeah.
RNS: And…absolutely, Al Pacino, for a whole generation, you know, it’s Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. And the fact is, this was the first time that the Rockefeller perspective had been incorporated not to the exclusion of the others. I mean, that’s what makes the chapter, I think, first of all, what made it so difficult to do was to try to credibly, authentically, you know, without a bias one way or the other, recreate what is a very complicated story.
HH: It’s great storytelling, and let me tell you, as I was reading this, the Sydney hostage thing was going down.
RNS: Yeah, well…
HH: And you pointed out had they kept going on the first day of Attica, they might have averted the massacre.
HH: And after, and they had no medical personnel around.
HH: I mean, there are stories…
RNS: You see, you’ve just put your fingers on the problem. Over the years, people have understandably tended to conflate Rockefeller’s refusal to go to Attica, to join the “negotiations”, although frankly, you know, when you’re talking about the likes of William Kuntsler and others…
HH: Bobby Seale, yeah.
RNS: …as outside observers, they were not exactly negotiations, with TV cameras to boot. I mean, it’s almost a Paddy Chayefsky script, you know, waiting to be filmed. But the fact is, you could argue both ways. I think he should have gone, but I understand why he didn’t go. Okay, the problem was people have conflated that with the horribly botched retaking of the prison the next day, when as you say, there was no apparent preparation against the contingencies, including, you know, the death of over 30 people.
HH: As opposed to last night in Australia, they had all the medical services on site in Sydney outside of the restaurant so that when the storming of the hostage situation happened, they got as many people to…that’s why reading On His Own Terms is so relevant to everyone. It’s like every chapter is that way.
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HH: I just want to bring up one more eerie moment. I did not realize that Nelson Rockefeller chaired the commission investigating the CIA for Jerry Ford, and Ronald Reagan was on it post-the Colby Report. And here we are this week, last week, all the CIA scandals are coming out. And I’m thinking back, I wonder if anyone’s dusted off the Rockefeller Report?
RNS: Yeah, well, plus the irony is Rockefeller didn’t want to do it.
RNS: Rockefeller was convinced, I think at one point, it was an amazing scene where he refuses to accept a letter from the president of the United States outlining, you know, in some details, exactly what he wants, because Rockefeller convinced himself that he was being set up. And he always pointed the finger at Don Rumsfeld, his, you know, bete noir in the Ford White House. He believed that he was being set up to take the fall when the word leaked out that the CIA was in fact somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination. I mean, a really strange…
HH: You know, it’s eerie, it’s just eerie. There’s one detail in the book that is simply, you just mentioned Rummy, who’s been a frequent guest on the program.
HH: So I want to bring up Dick Cheney. The Vice President’s been on a lot as well.
HH: And I worked for Lynne Cheney. There’s a 1976 Convention anecdote…
HH: …in which Rockefeller’s screaming at Cheney, and you say Lynne Cheney is reduced to tears. I can’t believe that. I can’t imagine it.
RNS: I know, but that was my reaction as well. In fact, that’s the universal reaction. People who believe everything else in the book, they have trouble swallowing that. It does give you an idea of how bad it must have been.
HH: Did you ever ascertain to your own benefit whether or not the convention handlers had turned down Rockefeller’s microphones on purpose?
RNS: No, and in fact, but I talked to people who had the same experience he had, who could not hear him. And I’ve also talked to people who insisted that you know, nothing of the sort was done. Who knows? But what we do know is, I say, we can talk about this later, he didn’t age well. And he had a lot of resentments banked up by that night. And unfortunately, they all came pouring out when he was told his role at the end of the convention, and the tableau in front of the convention hall, was to escort Bob Dole’s mother.
RNS: And he just lost it. And unfortunately, he pointed his anger at Dick Cheney.
HH: You know, but you’ve just reminded me, at another point where he encountered someone else’s mother, he won somebody over. I can’t remember what that was.
RNS: Oh, Al D’Amato.
HH: There you go, Al D’Amato.
RNS: Al D’Amato’s mother hated him until she met him. And what he did is he said you’re, you have a son who’s graduating from a law school? And D’Amato said from then on, she was in love with the guy.
HH: You know, that’s one of the things that comes through, a lesson for every elected official out there, how to do retail politics. It’s abundant on every page.
RNS: Well, it helps is you like people.
HH: Did Rockefeller like them?
HH: Or did he just know he had to like them?
RNS: No, no he did. You know, it’s a combination. He liked, and remember, imagine yourself a Rockefeller, okay, and you’re looking over the wall at the rest of the world. And part of you wants to be suspicious, because you’re told everyone wants something from you. I mean, it was a real act of will, and yes, a faith on his part to climb over the wall and venture out, and in effect, expose himself to that. But it’s because he really, he inherited that from his mother.
HH: You know, there’s this movie out right now about John Dupont…
HH: And how his mother had to…
RNS: I hear it’s good.
HH: Oh, it’s wonderful. His mother had to buy him friends, had to rent him friends. And there’s one part in On His Own Terms where Rockefeller reflects upon the fact that when you’re really wealthy, you never know who your friends are.
HH: And that is very destructive of intimacy.
RNS: And he was, that was very uncharacteristic of him. A) He was, you know, politicians are not by nature reflective, and he was no exception to that rule. But he, again, he didn’t want people to know about the dyslexia. He didn’t want anything that might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. And certainly, complaining about the fact that, I mean, he had nothing to complain about, let’s put it that way.
HH: No, a good Baptist never lies, Page 486. We have Baptists in Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, both PK’s, right, pastor’s kids running. But you are obviously a philanderer, by the way, funny story on the sword that was presented to him, very funny story.
RNS: Oh, yeah, wonderful story. He’s at a big Republican gathering in Westchester County. The head of the dinner presents him with this gorgeous, glass sculpture of Excalibur. And Rockefeller starts laughing in front of everyone, a thousand people, and he can’t stop. And he says are you telling me in front of my neighbors that I’m a great swordsman?
HH: Yeah, and so he’s a great, but he’s not really religious, is he?
RNS: You know what? That’s a great question. I asked Happy Rockefeller that question, and I got the same response I got from someone else who was very close to him. When he lost his son, Michael, remember in…
HH: Oh, it’s the saddest part of the book.
RNS: Yeah, he came back, and he just said I hope Michael meets mother in Heaven.
HH: Betsy would take, my wife would take the book from me at points where I told her about things, and she was aware. I was unaware that Michael Rockefeller had died in New Guinea. I had never heard the story, Richard, didn’t know it.
RNS: Oh, really? Yeah.
HH: And she said…
RNS: And the great tragedy was that was the child he was closest to. That was the child in whom he had invested all of his dynastic hopes.
HH: Let me tell you, the one thing that stuck out, the Yellowstone, watching the car go over the canyon, Pike’s Peak train ride, running out of control, plane through the wall of a Lima Airport as it lands…
HH: Putting Laurance in through the fog to get his appendix out…
RNS: Being in the Hindenburg.
HH: Getting on the Hindenburg.
RNS: Remember what he thought? He said that was the scariest experience of his life with Eddie Rickenbacker. How’d you like to ride the Hindenburg with Eddie Rickenbacker?
HH: Only to be told we’ve got to get the hell off of this thing?
HH: But Michael, of all those things…
RNS: He’s a stoic.
HH: The thing that I thought would have stopped him would have been Michael Rockefeller’s death.
RNS: Yeah, he was a classic stoic. And he went through life, and in some ways, I think it cut him off from people. And in some ways, it’s only now, you know, someone close to him told me at the beginning of this, 14 years ago, they said Nelson Rockefeller was a 16 slice pizza pie. And no one except Happy had access to more than two or three slices. And now, I know what he meant.
HH: Wow. And you know, when we come back in our short segment, I want to find out about the 14 years, and whether or not you ever saw to putting it aside, because Richard Norton Smith once told me he would never write a biography of Richard Nixon, because he was afraid he’d never finish it, and he’d fall in and wouldn’t get out. I don’t know how you got out of Rockefeller. I don’t.
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HH: Is Ted Cruz Barry Goldwater? Is he Ronald Reagan? Is Chris Christie a new Nelson Rockefeller without the hundreds of millions of dollars? Is Mitt Romney a much more balanced and winsome Richard Nixon? All that and more coming up in the next two hour with Richard Norton Smith, the author of On His Own Terms: A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller, which is going to be the most talked about book in D.C. in among at least Republicans, I think, and probably anyone who cares about American history But my question that I alluded to, Richard, and you mentioned it earlier. 14 years you’ve been working on this. In my whole life, I once read one book on modern art, Jackson Pollock biography, because LeAnn Sappy was a lifeguard who loved modern art, and I was trying to get a date. So I read a book about Jackson Pollock. I don’t know how you could have accomplished it. I mean, did you almost come close to quitting ever?
RNS: Well, a biographer has to be open to all sorts of experiences. There’s no doubt about it. I actually, I probably find it less offensive or off putting. I’m not sure what word you’re after.
HH: I’m not…
RNS: But certainly non-engaging.
HH: Not modern art so much as just the overwhelming task of understanding a person as complicated as Nelson Rockefeller.
RNS: Well you know, Rockefeller actually talked about it, because of course, he had a press secretary in his first term, who said the American people will never elect a president who collects Picasso. And you know, that may have actually been the most profound thing that anyone around Rockefeller said.
RNS: And people were always asking him, now remember, he’s dyslexic. And he would tell reporters, you reporters, you’re word people. You’re word people. You want everything explained in word. You want it spelled out. You see, to a dyslexic, abstract expressionist art is an alternate language of sorts. He said it expanded your mind. I don’t know what that means, but I do think it had something to do…
HH: Oh, I just got a note…
RNS: …with his dyslexia.
HH: And I want to make sure people understand, you cover warts and all. I just got a note from Grant Sterrett, a young friend, who loved the Wall Street Journal review about Rocky wanting to set up a meeting with Thomas Aquinas. So you’re not…
RNS: Do we have time to tell the story, or…
HH: Yeah, the Wall Street Journal told the story that you told in reviewing your book. Grant Sterrett read the review. By the way, has it been widely and well-reviewed? This could be, I think this is a Pulitzer book. What’s the reaction?
RNS: It’s been, actually, it’s been very well-reviewed. One exception, there was a pissy review in the Times and the New York Review of Books, which doesn’t exactly come as a surprise.
HH: A shock.
RNS: Neither, shall we say, appreciated Rockefeller as a historical figure. They were determined to look at the Rockefeller in contemporary terms. They look around as a journalist does, you know, and they say well, where’s the tangible evidence of his continuing political influence?
HH: Oh, my gosh. When we come back, we’re going to talk about that, because he exposed and lived the seam in the Republican Party, which remains so vibrant today, and may in fact condemn us to another ’64, maybe to another 1980. We don’t know.
— – – – –
HH: Richard remains resolutely not on Twitter, am I correct, Mr. Smith?
RNS: I can’t even spell it.
HH: There you go. www.richardnortonsmith.net, though, if you’re interested in all things Richard. Richard, let me read you two headlines that will remarkably think, make you think of parts of your book, I believe.
HH: Rand Paul on marijuana, I made mistakes. He gave an interview today in which he admits smoking dope.
HH: Mark Levin to the GOP – I am one inch away from leaving you. Mark’s a good friend of mine, extraordinarily gifted talk show host, and he is deeply angry. In both of those, I am reminded both of Rockefeller’s strident anti-drug absolutism and of the Goldwater challenge to Rockefeller that is obviously still alive in Mark’s anger.
RNS: Oh, not only alive. I mean, it literally, one of the remarkable things about this story, and I’ve written a lot of books over the years, and I can’t think of a similar moment that is such a crossroads, but you know, the book opens with that night, the second night of the Republican Convention in the Cow Palace, July 14th, 1964. It’s after Midnight, and Rockefeller is standing in front of a convention that he manifestly does not own, ostensibly on behalf of a platform plank decrying extremism. Where have you heard that before?
RNS: He defines extremism, however, quite explicitly, as the Ku Klux Klan, the American Communist Party, and the John Birch Society. Well, yes. The rest, as they say, is history. And this was the first television convention. And although the planners knew that it was important for them to push that appearance as late as possible, they even underestimated the impact that it had. Of course, what it did was it tended, for millions of people who are not accustomed to seeing people behave like that, it tended to confirm Rockefeller’s point about extremists. Now, but here’s the thing, that’s the night the Republican Party changed. I would argue nothing is forever, and nothing is permanent, but it’s never gone back. The next morning, it was a different party. It was Barry Goldwater’s party. It was a Southern and Western Party. It was a party poised for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich, and yes, the Tea Party. So here we are, 50 years later, and I would argue that just as the Goldwater movement was always about more than Goldwater, I would say the libertarian branch of the conservative movement, of the Republican Party, is larger than Rand Paul, although at this point, I think it has its primary vehicle as Rand Paul. And I would not be at all surprised in 2016 if the latter day version of the Goldwater grassroots passionate movement were to take on the party establishment and enjoy as much success as it did 50 years ago.
HH: Although I don’t know that Senator Paul has a Cliff White, and we’ll explain what that means.
HH: And I also believe that the front page of the New York Times tonight is about ISIS. And yesterday was Australia. And Rockefeller was for 9% of the GDP going into the Defense budget, right?
RNS: Yeah, oh yeah.
HH: Isn’t that remarkable?
RNS: He was the ultimate cold warrior.
HH: Yeah, and so there is this uber national security wing of the party.
HH: …which remains largely unrepresented in the lists right now. There isn’t anyone, you know, Ted Cruz will speak about it a little bit, Marco Rubio is full-throated. Mitt Romney was very full-throated and warned about Putin. But there isn’t, there really isn’t the internationalist yet wanting to run on internationalism the way that Rockefeller did.
RNS: Yeah, but it’s also, it’s interesting, because Paul is tapping into more than just war weariness. I mean, there is war, I mean, there is this unusual confluence on the left and on the right. There are populists on both extremes, if I may use that term, and there are isolationists, or at the very least, that’s such a loaded term, there are people who are profoundly reluctant to see history, recent history, repeat itself. How about that?
HH: And there is also, this is a little inside baseball for the people who know, there is also a Henry Cabot Lodge in the wings, waiting as he waited in ’64, in the form of Ben Carson, I think, Richard Norton Smith. The unlikeliest person to destroy someone’s ambitions can be the person who you never saw coming.
RNS: Yeah, of course, and remember, Lodge turned out to be a one primary wonder.
RNS: And of course, the great story about the campaign was he was run almost as a joke, remember?
HH: Oh, tell people the story. No one will believe this.
RNS: I know, I mean, there’s a great movie somewhere in the Lodge campaign of ’64, which was cooked up out of thin air by some gagsters, really, who from their own limited political experience believed the biggest problem in any campaign was the candidate. If you could run a campaign without the candidate, you’d be in much better shape. So Henry Cabot Lodge was the non-candidate. He wasn’t here, no one knew what his views were.
HH: He was in Vietnam as the ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam.
RNS: Exactly. He was Lyndon Johnson’s ambassador to Vietnam. And so, and of course, he came from Massachusetts, so lots of people in the first of the nation primary in New Hampshire, thought of him as one of them.
HH: And so when he actually upsets Rockefeller, and basically derails his candidacy…
RNS: It was all downhill from there.
HH: Yeah, but Rockefeller later coops the staffer who put together the joke campaign, and he said what would it have taken you not to do it, and the guy said a bribe. And Rockefeller said how much, and the kid says ten grand. And I quote now, it’s a quote, so don’t be offended, Christ, Rockefeller said, I spent three million. But it’s, he went on…tell, we’ve got to tell the three campaigns, Richard, for the benefit of the Steelers fans listening.
RNS: Yeah, sure.
HH: 1960, 1964, 1968, Rockefeller is in the mix every time.
RNS: Oh, yeah.
HH: Let’s go to 1960.
RNS: You know, and ’60, of course, it could be argued, in fact, I think, I didn’t do it in the book, but a strong case could be made. Nelson Rockefeller’s greatest chance of being nominated by the Republican Party was before he took the oath of office as governor of New York. And remember, in 1958, it was a disaster for the Republicans. It was a six year election, and you know, the Eisenhower administration was running out of gas. And they lost a bunch of seats everywhere. Two people emerge from ’58 as national figures. One was Nelson Rockefeller, who had upset Averill Harriman to win the governorship of New York. During the race, one of Harriman’s supporters at the New York Post suggested that Harriman should have the campaign slogan don’t swap multimillionaires in the middle of a stream, because they both were multimillionaires, and of course, Barry Goldwater, who was reelected in Arizona. The problem was come January, 1959, Nelson Rockefeller had to govern New York. Now remember, 1959, we’re 50 years closer to the New Deal. It’s the cradle of the New Deal. The Democratic Party in New York is really beholden to Mrs. Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman, not Carmine De Sapio and Tammany Hall. So for Nelson Rockefeller to succeed in New York in that era, almost guaranteed in the long run west of the Hudson, he would come to be seen as a very suspect figure indeed. And that’s pretty much what happened. But the irony is, though, fiscal responsibility was defined differently in those days.
HH: Why did he turn down Nixon’s offer to be his vice president? No one would do that now.
RNS: Now some would say arrogance. He could not see himself, he said later on, I’ve known every vice president since Henry Wallace, and they were all miserable. And he knew himself, you know, he’d been offered a race for the Senate. And he said all they do there is talk. Nelson Rockefeller, first of all, was an executive by nature, by temperament. And secondly, he was a Rockefeller, okay? I mean, you combine those, plus the fact is, there was no love lost between he and Richard Nixon. Ideologically, there’s a wonderful scene, two scenes, about 1960. Bob Novak, the late, great Bob Novak, told me about off the record interviews he had with Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater and the advice that each of them gave to Richard Nixon. And you can write it yourself, you know? Goldwater said whatever you do, don’t go chasing northern black votes. And Rockefeller said whatever you do, don’t go chasing southern segregationist votes.
HH: When we come back, we’re also going to talk about the key lesson for everyone involved in 2016.
— – – – –
HH: I’ll just go to it, Mark from Twitter, Richard, ask about Rockefeller giving the middle finger to someone in a widely circulated photo. This is the 1976 campaign.
HH: …at, I think, SUNY, right, at Suny?
RNS: Yeah, it was in Binghamton, New York, and the irony, of course, was the protesting students were themselves students at SUNY Binghamton. Well, Nelson Rockefeller’s arguably greatest accomplishment as governor of New York was SUNY, which was a university in name only when he became governor. And he really poured resources into it. So anyway, he was there with Bob Dole. They were campaigning in upstate New York, and there were student protesters who you know, after Attica, which was in 1971, Rockefeller never really fully escaped the consequences of that. And particularly, you know, he’d always been a real favorite on college campuses. Well, needless to say, that was a thing of the past. So anyway, they were interrupting, and he was trying to speak, and introduced Dole and so on and so on. He said afterward, he simply was returning the one-figured salute that they gave him. But in any event, America was shocked to see on the front page the next day the vice president of the United States engaging in such a gesture.
HH: But for a while, he would autograph that picture. I wonder if…
RNS: Oh, he would. Well, somebody went into him a few days later, and they found him at his desk autographing the picture, and said Mr. Vice President, you can’t do that. You’re the vice president of the United States. And this was part of what made Rocky delightful. He said why not? He said I got more good mail about that than anything since the ’64 Convention. The wonderful sort of asterisk to this is Malcolm Wilson, an underrated, truly conservative lieutenant governor for 15 years, he said he’d been number two longer than Avis, and he had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. When this happened, Malcolm, who was very, very close to the Catholic hierarchy in New York, anyway, he said he was sure that Nelson mistook his fingers, and he intended to give them a thumb’s up sign.
HH: Now I would love to know if in the world of political memorabilia, Frank Luntz has this extraordinary collection in his home in Los Angeles, if there’s a signed Nelson Rockefeller giving the bird out there somewhere. I don’t bet, I bet it doesn’t come on the market very often.
RNS: Well, that would be like, you know, the stamp with the upside down airplane.
HH: Exactly, exactly. Now let me go back to the observation you made on Page 427. He had a fundamental misunderstanding of the presidential nominating process, and I always bring this up to people who talk about drafts and all sorts…
HH: There are filing deadlines. You know, Romney can’t sit on the sidelines. If he’s going to run again, he’s got to run, because you’ve got to get delegates. And I think that’s why On His Own Terms is such a valuable primer for a young person. The world of presidential nominations is about delegate getting.
RNS: Yeah, and you know, it’s funny, classic example, some of it was a quasi-aristocratic, old-fashioned notion that you know, the offices…well, you know, Ronald Reagan used to say, you know, the man doesn’t seek the office, the office seeks the man, until Stu Spencer said he was full of you know what. I mean, people who really know politics know better. Part of it was Rockefeller never really understood, and I think here, New York was a factor. Remember the electorate that he was playing to in New York. And the fact is he had great success. You know, he got 40% of the African-American vote in New York. He got huge percentages of the Jewish vote. People who were part of the old New Deal coalition, the only Republican they voted for was in some cases, was Nelson Rockefeller.
RNS: The problem is over time, I think that dulled his sensibility about what it took to go to Wyoming or Nebraska or Indiana or Louisiana and appeal to a very different kind of Republican. And so he always ran a November campaign. He always ran campaigns that were geared toward the general electorate, toward independent and Democratic voters. The classic example is 1968 after Bobby Kennedy was killed. There was a void, and Nelson Rockefeller, it’s widely agreed, moved very skillfully to fill it. He picked up all sorts of endorsements from the Kennedy supporters, big crowds of African-Americans, Hispanics. In other words, much of the Kennedy constituency was prepared to cross the street and support Rockefeller. The problem with that is, it wasn’t going to get him a single delegate.
HH: By contrast with his 1964 Oregon state primary campaign, the model retelling of which…
HH: You have a little bit of art in this book. You have a lot of art in this book, but one small masterpiece, like the Picasso etching he gave to Buffy Chandler…
RNS: Isn’t that great?
HH: Yeah, it is, is Bob Price going to Oregon with John Deardourff, right?
HH: Or is it Doug Bailey? I think it’s Deardourff.
HH: And basically winning Oregon with a two-man show and an unlimited budget and envelopes of cash…
RNS: Yeah, look, part of this book naturally is a how-to. It’s a life, it’s a story of a life, but that life interacts over and over again with the process. And the great challenge, of course, it’s a lot easier to make a life colorful than a process. But in this case, you know, you’re dealing with wonderful, colorful characters, and a wealth of news available, information. And the fact is the Oregon primary was, along with Rockefeller’s reelection in ’66, that’s the great campaign. That’s the campaign that still affects how he elect people because of its use of television, its use of experts, its use of direct mail, computers, targeting. You know, long before the Obama and Romney people were targeting to neighborhoods, the fact is 50 years ago, Rockefeller was pioneering at this.
HH: You know, I’m going to talk to you about this next hour. It’s also a primer on staff, whether it’s the irascible Emmet Hughes…
HH: …or Ronan or all the…
HH: We’ll talk about that next hour. But anyone’s who ever staffed an office, I think of all these 14 Senators coming to Washington, D.C.
HH: They need to read this because of what the great benefits and downsides of staff mean. Who’s best…
RNS: And also, hopefully, sometime, we can talk about presidents.
HH: Oh, we will. I want to go back to Robert Price, though. Rocky grabs him after he wins Oregon. I love you. Will you go to California? He turns him down…
RNS: Because of…
HH: …because of John Lindsay.
RNS: Because of John Lindsay. One thing if you know nothing else, John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller were put on this planet to piss each other off.
HH: Oh, and you know what I love about this book? Biographies rarely include other biographies, but there’s enough, I now know enough about John Lindsay not to, and I liked him. I used to like him.
RNS: Yeah, yeah.
HH: Now I don’t like him at all. I mean, you demolished him. You rode him over in this book.
RNS: He is a disappointing figure, yeah.
HH: That’s mild compared…when you finish On His Own Terms…
RNS: Nelson said if he wasn’t so tall and good looking, he’d be pushing a mop somewhere.
— – – – –
HH: I want to get off for a moment at the end of the book where you talk about how Rockefeller’s death in essence unleashed the new journalism on the personal lives of politicians. I had never thought about that, but you’re right. Prior to that, only the most diffident of touches were applied to people’s private lives. But after that, Gary Hart, everything else became fair game.
RNS: You know, I think so. I think that’s the, I’ll never forget, I had a conversation with the late, great Hal Bruno, who was really the class of his field, in my opinion, a great journalist. And he was on the bus, he was on the Kennedy bus tour of Wisconsin in 1960, and was aware of the Senator’s extra-marital interests. And in fact, you know, and these were reporters, working reporters, who really liked JFK. And they came up with their own slogan for the campaign, which was let’s shack with Jack.
RNS: But nobody in a million years would have thought about writing that or talking about that. And one reason, and call me naïve, I finally came to realize after talking to a number of journalists over the years, guess what? For journalists, a presidential campaign was every bit as much a temporary vacation from their marital vows.
HH: As you write in the book.
RNS: …as a candidate. So it was, you know, they were all, they had a vested interest in maintaining silence.
HH: Oh, that glimpse, though, into the, and people can read the last two chapters of, you can go to the bookstores. I don’t recommend it for the benefit of the author, but On His Own Terms, the last chapter, if you want to know about the way Rocky went out, and the media screw up, and it taught transparency and waiting, Richard.
RNS: Oh, yeah.
HH: As you said, this is a tutorial.
RNS: You know, the sad thing was, there are a number of sad things. First of all, there’s one significant question that we need answered about that night, and it’s very simple.
RNS: What, could anything have been done differently? Leave aside the cover-up that unraveled. Leave aside all the embarrassing jokes. But you know, was there anything that medically could have been done? And I’m convinced the answer to that is no. One thing that people did not know, and that the book reveals for the first time, the fact is he was dying. He knew he was dying. A couple of nights before he died, said as much…
HH: Oh, his conversation with Happy as he leaves the dinner that night…
RNS: Yeah, no, it’s extraordinary. So that said, 40 years later, the difference between, again, between journalism and history, historians rely on journalists enormously. I certainly did for, famously, The First Draft Of History. But historians have the advantage that journalists don’t have, and that is the perspective that comes with, in this case, 40 years of intervening events. And the real significance of that night, in my opinion, is that it did give rise to a whole different school of journalism. That night, journalists began redefining what was personal and private, and what the public had “a right to know.” I think it’s a murky distinction. I think you could raise a good argument on either side as to whether it’s been healthy or not for our political process. But you know, there it is. You’re not going to roll the clock back.
HH: There is also, I mean, there is a very short bit in there on the 124 card which tells young journalists there is no substitute for going to the precinct and talking to people.
RNS: Well, and that’s it. Great reporters, and in this case, John Goldman of the L.A. Times, he heard this news that Nelson Rockefeller, remember, the original story was he had been stricken at his office in Rockefeller Center working on an art book, and so forth and so on. Okay, he thought, that sounds odd, and he called a friend in the police department who whetted his curiosity. So he headed, what did he do? He headed to the precinct house. And he got this document which by law at that point was mandated in situations like this. And it became very clear that Nelson Rockefeller did not die at Rockefeller Center, but at his townhouse on 54th Street. And with that, the improvised, hastily improvised cover-up, which by the way, was not something the family wanted. It was something that Hugh Morrow, who was Rockefeller’s communications director, thinking that he would spare the family embarrassment, came up with on his own. And of course, it turned out…
HH: It failed.
RNS: …terribly off.
HH: And boy, did it fail spectacularly.
RNS: And it diminished him. It diminished Rockefeller. It made him a joke for a while.
— – – — –
HH: I repair, Richard, to the 1964 campaign again.
HH: Goldwater and Rockefeller, Lodge wins New Hampshire, Rockefeller comes back in Oregon, and it call comes down to California, and the great, legendary political pitch man, Stuart Stevens, is in charge. And he, by the way, his Wheel Spinner’s party is underway this week, as a matter of fact. He is in charge, along with Bill Roberts, and they end up losing to Barry Goldwater, 51.3 to 48.7, or something like that.
RNS: And you know one reason why it was so close? Amazing, Stu told me, he said I’ve never seen it in any election before, and I’ve never seen it since, God’s honest truth. They threw, they had a small, they thought for 50 people, a breakfast for African-American people with a particular connection to Spelman College or the United Negro College Fund, Rockefeller family charities, if you will. And like 300 people showed up. Well, it spiraled out of that. 55,000 voters, almost all in L.A. County, and almost all of them black, changed their registration…
RNS: …from Democrat to Republican so they could vote for Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican primary.
HH: But the warning, and I said Stuart Stevens, who is Romney’s consultant. I meant Stuart Spencer.
HH: The warning Spencer has is of second-guessing from out-of-staters over going soft at the end. They canceled the movie, The Extremist.
RNS: Yes, yes.
HH: It’s such a great lesson for political operatives.
RNS: Well, and let’s not forget, you know, three days before the primary, Nelson Rockefeller, Jr., was born. And the thing that I discovered that I still find, I find hard to believe, but I’ve been assured by people at the highest levels of the campaign, it was decided that if necessary, they would induce labor.
HH: You see, that makes no sense. The Happy Rockefeller divorce took Nelson Rockefeller, as Richard Norton Smith says, from a 17 point favorite in the Lou Harris polls in 1963 to a five point deficit.
RNS: Well, it was a different culture. And you know, who knows today what the result would be? But the fact is, in fact, you know, Nelson and his first wife, Tod, had really been living a marriage in name only for many years. And there had been a number of women along the way. And then he met Happy. And for whatever reason, and I talked to her about it, she said he was the one who pursued her. She also, by the way…
HH: How much time did you spend with Happy Rockefeller…
RNS: she was always a very wise woman.
HH: How much time did you spend with her, because it’s amazing detail.
RNS: Yeah, well, I spent a day with her. She gave me a tour. I’ll tell you a quick, wonderful story about the impact of Nelson’s mother, Abby, on Nelson, because I’ve been told that Nelson kept his mother’s ashes in the house.
HH: Took a pocketful, right?
RNS: At Kykuit. And sure enough, Happy, I said, but how could that be, there was a funeral, and they buried Abby’s ashes? And she said oh, Nelson just reached in and grabbed a handful.
HH: That’s amazing.
RNS: Now that tells you something about his sense of entitlement, you know…
RNS: …but also about his almost childlike impulsiveness.
HH: I’ve never been to Kykuit. I don’t even know where it is. And is it open to the public?
RNS: Yes, it is. In fact, by all means, it’s 30 miles north of Times Square. You go up along the Hudson. It was 4,000 acres of Westchester County in Nelson’s day. And you can imagine, and Kykuit is Dutch for lookout. It’s the tallest point overlooking the river, and that’s where John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had a manor house constructed for him by his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., And then the third generation, represented by Nelson, came into the inheritance.
HH: It’s amazing, and he decorated it with all these amazing art treasures. You tell a story towards the end of the book where he sells off a Henry Moore sculpture, and he tells his friend you have to be able to turn things off.
RNS: Yeah, you know, toward the end of his life, a week before he dies, and this friend said he was particularly impressed by how Nelson seemed to be able to walk away from his life in politics. And Rockefeller said something rather profound. He said look, in this business, you’ve got to know when you’re a has-been. And I’m a has-been.
HH: Wow. There’s very little of that self-recognition in many places anymore.
RNS: I think we can all agree on that.
HH: So anyway, Happy Rockefeller, is she, do you have any idea what the family thinks about this book, because you mentioned, interestingly enough, David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s book, which was sort of a glimpse into the archives which scandalized Rocky. How does the family think about what is obviously…
RNS: You know, I don’t know, to be honest with you, and I’m not being evasive. But one thing, I don’t think there is such a thing today as “the family.” You know, I mean, 30-40 years ago, first of all, there are a lot fewer Rockefellers. And the culture, you know, the brothers’ culture, Nelson and David…
RNS: …who is the only surviving brother now, 99, and John and Winthrop, I mean, that was a different, in many ways, a more cohesive…they had, for one thing, they were all Republicans. Today, I’d suspect if you sat down at a reunion of the Rockefeller family, you’d probably find at least as many Democrats as Republicans.
HH: Among the cousins…
RNS: Among the cousins and their children.
HH: And the children of the cousins.
RNS: That’s right, yeah.
HH: And did the foundation keep its course?
RNS: Well, that was an interesting, yeah, that’s part of what Nelson got into trouble over when he came back from Washington, you know, profoundly disappointed in his vice presidency. He thought rather naively, as it turned out, that he would simply step back into his own shoes as sort of as head of the family, and he would, among other things, be responsible for steering the Rockefeller Foundation, or the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, or other charities associated with the family. And he discovered to his chagrin that there was a whole new generation called the cousins who were eager to take their own place, and who disagreed with him about Vietnam, and Attica, and who frankly resented the financial disclosure and all the other publicity that they had to go through for the first time because of his vice presidential hearings.
HH: Oh, four months of vice presidential agony, maybe also as was his death, a launch of investigatory journalism, the Rockefeller hearings in 1974, a prelude to the Borking of Robert Bork and many other unfortunate confirmation fiascos.
— – — –
HH: Richard, during the break, I was looking at my Twitter feed. 20 minutes ago, Secretary of State Kerry tweeted out standing in solidarity with our ally, Australia, today. Our hearts are with the victims and their families, #Sydney, #USWithAUS, and that’s wonderful and heartfelt, and I talked to a couple of Australians today about that in Hawaii, in fact. But I was reminded in your book, one of the few times Nelson Rockefeller became choked up, you say, is when he was delivering a speech on the American-Australian special relationship. And I wondered at that point was that because they tried so hard to find Michael when he was lost in New Guinea?
RNS: No, that’s a great point. And it was in Sydney. He was on a…here’s an indication of just how politically spent, almost irrelevant he had become. In the spring of 1976 when Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were duking it out, in one of the classic, personal, philosophical confrontations, certainly, in modern Republican history, Nelson Rockefeller was on a bicentennial tour to Iran and Tahiti and Australia, which tells you volumes about his political worth at that point. Even to, you know, but of course, by that time, he’d been dumped, remember, you know, as vice president.
RNS: He was the good soldier. He produced the delegates that put Ford over the top…
HH: From New York and Connecticut and Jersey.
RNS: And Pennsylvania, yeah. But you’re right, Australia did have a special place in his heart, and it may very well, you know, I had not thought about that, but it makes absolute sense. People who were there said it was by far the most effective and emotional speech that he gave on this entire trip.
HH: You also, you mention in the book that there are reports that Tod Rockefeller, his first wife, hired the Australian private detective agency of the era to try…
HH: Is there controversy about Michael? There’s a new book about him.
RNS: Yeah, there is. And I want to be very careful, because there are books that are really kind of thoughtful, and this one is one. It’s called, I believe it’s called Savage Harvest.
RNS: And based upon very extensive regional research, you know, I mean, he went there, he talked to people. There have been other, shall we say, tabloid…
HH: Oh, it’s a heartbreaking. People just should read your section on this, because it’s heartbreaking, actually, Nelson Rockefeller flies around the clock to oversee the search for his lost son, who’s in the jungles lost on a river. It’s breaking your heart.
—- – – – –
HH: Richard Norton Smith, I want to talk about presidents and big personalities this hour, because they’re all around us. But I want to start with a little detail you revealed to me in the course…
RNS: They seem a lot smaller. I don’t know about you. Am I getting older? Or does it seem like they were giants in those days?
HH: I think you underestimate. You know what your book brought home to me is that there are no last acts until you’re dead. And 1960, 1964 and then Rocky’s back in ’68, and he’s back in ’74, and I think even if people lose elections, like Romney lost in 2012…
HH: And is sitting on the sideline now, or Ted Cruz making his first run, you’ve got to begin to think of the canvas, not just a corner of it.
RNS: Well, and not only that, but of course, eventually, you know, death only raises the curtain on, in some cases, the longest campaign, you know, and the one where the historians get to decide. Dwight Eisenhower, classic example, do you know the first poll of historians after Ike left office in 1961 ranked him below Chester Arthur?
HH: I didn’t. I also did not know, and I learned from On His Own Terms, that Rockefeller attacked Ike for not being tough enough on Defense spending.
RNS: Oh, yeah. You know, one of the, in a life littered with might have beens, the unnecessary animosity that existed between Rockefeller and Eisenhower is something that I find hard to explain other than sheer arrogance on Rockefeller’s part. Rockefeller was, as I said, the ultimate cold warrior. He was also something of a serial alarmist. And he believed passionately that we were not spending enough money to anticipate, not simply to react, but to anticipate to the potential Soviet nuclear threat looking into the 60s. But that was the kind of politician he was. He thought government was too reactive anyway. And Eisenhower, on the other hand, who let’s face it, had unparalleled credentials, he was the only man who in the wake of Sputnik could have calmed America in hysteria. But beyond that, he was wise enough, and he was conservative enough, fiscally, to say look, we don’t have to be superior to the Russians in every single area of deterrence. We only have to be superior to them in enough. And the fact of the matter is, the Rockefeller Brothers Studies, the special studies in the late 50s picked up by John F. Kennedy in 1960, did more to foster the idea of a missile gap, which hurt Richard Nixon, arguably…
HH: Very badly, yeah.
RNS: …in 1960, considerably. I mean, in a race that was as close as that was, who knows what one factor might have swung the outcome in a different direction.
HH: Well, one of the great lessons of On His Own Terms is Rockefeller’s commitment to civil rights, and party of Lincoln.
HH: And also to Hamiltonian infrastructure – road building, and loved this part, moral obligation bonds.
HH: John Mitchell plays a role here. I loved that. That’s how…
RNS: He was, and this is where, again, the historian asks about someone like Rockefeller not just what is his contemporary impact. They step back and they say where did he come from? Is he part of a larger, political continuum? And yes, he is. You can go all the way back to Alexander Hamilton, and of course, you stop at Teddy Roosevelt along the way. It somehow seems appropriate that as a boy, Nelson sat in TR’s lap and demanded to know of the former president who had just come back from an African safari how he managed to get the giraffes through the Lincoln Tunnel.
HH: But you’re going to now embark upon, or you were already embarked upon a biography of Gerald Ford, who in my view, embodies both the best and the worst of both wings of the party in that he is a robust internationalist, but also far more conservative than Rockefeller, and came earlier to see the limits of government than Rockefeller ever did.
RNS: Oh, yeah. I often say, and you know, you and I may differ on this, I’ve often thought of Richard Nixon, who was such a protean figure that you should stick, you stay away from applying any labels. But you can make the case that Richard Nixon, if only for demographic reasons, political shrewdness is the last New Deal president.
RNS: I mean, he understood the limits. He understood what the third rail was. He understood how far you could go until, in effect, the population, you know, until we were further away from the New Deal consensus. Okay, Gerald Ford in a lot of ways is seen popularly as the coda, the caretaker, the extension, almost, the afterthought of the Nixon presidency. And there’s some of that that’s true. But fact, Ford also broke in important ways. I mean, Ford was really the first president to go after economic deregulation in a major way. And eventually, it became a bipartisan cause, and indeed, an international cause.
HH: He also, I was talking to Betsy last night, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt, about the book, and saying I didn’t know Happy Rockefeller had a double mastectomy. And she said oh, yes, the same as Betty Ford.
HH: And they saved a lot of lives at this period of time. You spoke with Betty Ford for this book, I believe. And I did not realize she wanted Rockefeller kept on the ticket in ’76.
RNS: Oh, yeah. She said it was the biggest mistake Jerry ever made, was dropping Nelson. Well, of course, you know, I’m an agnostic, believe it or not, on this, because I think you can make the case that I think she was making, that in November, again, here we go back to the November versus the convention, that Rockefeller might, could, you know, remember, they only lost by, what, 8,000 votes in Ohio, and 4,000 in Hawaii where you are now?
HH: Right, right.
RNS: And maybe, you know, maybe Rockefeller could have made the difference. On the other hand, I think there’s an equally cogent argument that had Rockefeller stayed on the ticket, Ford might not have been re-nominated. He’d become such a polarizing figure, not particularly for anything he had done, but you know, he was the face of the eastern establishment.
HH: And I’ve got to say, the slapdash, there’s a segment in here about the slapdash selection of Bob Dole to be the nominee in ’76 to run with Jerry Ford, and I didn’t know any of that. And it’s almost laughably un-thought through.
RNS: Well, look, it testifies to a process that, you know, in a bipartisan way had never been really systematized. But also, remember, this was a candidate, a campaign that until 72 hours, 48 hours earlier, really had not nailed down the nomination.
HH: You see, that I had forgotten about. I’m still in college in ’76, and I know you’re close to Dole. It just never struck me as a very inspired choice, and now I know how it came about. Talk to me, though, Richard, and to everyone out there, and my audience spans the entire political spectrum, but it leans center-right to right.
HH: This distrust of the eastern establishment…
HH: …that animates everything from denunciations of Karl Rove to the animosity towards Mitt Romney and to John McCain, it all goes back to Nelson Rockefeller.
RNS: Well, it actually goes back to Tom Dewey.
HH: You see, that I don’t know, either. Okay.
RNS: You know, I mean, it’s in the Roosevelt era, in the New Deal era. Well actually, it goes back to 1912. Let’s face it. Teddy Roosevelt, who in effect broke away, created the Progressive Party, Teddy Roosevelt, who obviously took a vastly more aggressive pro-statist, if you will, view of government’s responsibilities, Teddy Roosevelt, whose stewardship theory of the presidency held that a president was in fact legally authorized to do anything the Constitution did not explicitly prohibit. I mean, that is an interpretation of presidential power that most Republicans throughout the 20th Century, I think, would take issue with.
HH: But it doesn’t explain the, as you describe it, the howling rage directed at Rockefeller in ’64, which by the way, continues to echo through the party.
RNS: Yeah, oh, I know. Well, he, posthumously, he’s a symbol. He’s a label. And the one thing wherever you are on the political spectrum, if you pick up this book and you finish it, and you put it down, if nothing else, you may feel ambiguity, you may feel a wealth of conflicting emotions, as I do, after 14 years. But you will not make the mistake of thinking this man can be reduced to any one label.
HH: Absolutely. And when you finish On His Own Terms, Richard Norton Smith’s brand new book, you’re going to just be edified, and you will agree with that. And you’ll also learn along the way the politics of Harlem and of upstate New York, and of dairy price supports and of everything else you want to know. It makes state legislature interesting. It’s impossible to believe, but it’s true. Even the Mall of Albany is interesting.
— – – —
HH: Richard, a couple of hours back, Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard tweeted out instead of mocking President Obama for soft pop culture interviews, GOP’ers would be wise to imitate him. He’s reaching would-be voters they don’t. And I added in a response, reading Richard Norton Smith’s latest book on Rockefeller makes this abundantly clear, to which a third twitterer, Sean Harriston replied, and Rockefeller was beloved by young people who would be watching Colbert today? It’s an interesting question, and my answer is I think so. I think he might have done very well in the new media environment.
RNS: Oh, I think he would. You know, the thing about, one of the things about Rockefeller, which I do not share, he’s a real futurist. He really, he couldn’t wait to get…it’s one thing, oddly enough, he shared with Ronald Reagan. One of Reagan’s great achievements was to rescue American conservatism from, you know, terminal nostalgia. And you always had the sense that Reagan couldn’t wait for tomorrow, because he knew it was going to be better than today. And Rockefeller had very much that same outlook. And so I think he would be fascinated, first of all by the multiplication of ways that people communicate, certainly politically.
HH: He couldn’t tell a joke, though, you said.
RNS: No, you know, he couldn’t. He had a sense of humor, and he would laugh. He knew when you were supposed to laugh. But he wasn’t, you know, again, it wasn’t part of his, it wasn’t part of his repertoire.
HH: Now I know that authors hate this when I interview them, but I have to read three paragraphs to talk about it. So you’ll have to let me do this…
HH: Even though it’s embarrassing. “Twice each month,” you write on Page 190-191, “GI’s disembarking from the Queen Mary flowed six blocks east to Rockefeller Center before fanning out into the theater district. Here, the survivors of Anzio and Omaha Beach could enjoy performances of Oklahoma, On The Town, or The Glass Menagerie. For many, Tin Pan Alley took second place to Swing Street under the harsh glare of the noonday sun, an unglamorous block of West 52nd between 5th and 6th Avenue. But my moonlight, a jazz nirvana dispending the bebop of Dizzy Gillespie and the musical melancholy of Billie Holiday. Drama of a different sort unfolded nightly at the city’s 900 nightclubs, in whose smoky precincts Winchell, Sullivan, Cholly Knickerbocker, and Toots Shor generated enough gossip to sell ten daily newspapers. A hundred tongues and a thousand traditions jostled for attention on the overcrowded island and his polyglot satellites. As a boy raised in blue collar Brownsville, wrote Norman Podhoretz, he never thought of himself “as an American.” I came from Brooklyn and in Brooklyn, there were no Americans. There were Jews and Negroes and Italians and Poles and Irishmen. An impending exodus of Puerto Ricans from their Caribbean island would soon add yet another accent to the dizzying babble of neighborhoods and politics. A quarter of all New Yorkers in 1945 were Jewish, yet they were hardly monolithic. Until the cause of Israel bonded them in those anxious years, Yiddish-speaking merchants on Hester Street had little in common with the German-descended assimilationists blocking to Temple Emanu-El on Park Avenue. Five years had passed since Father Divine’s departure for Philadelphia, but the Harlem he abandoned remained the undisputed capital of black America. To be sure, the Harlem renaissance of the 20s was a distant memory, a culture sunburst eclipsed by wartime riots and mounting tensions between local residents and absentee landlords. But the neighborhood retained its pulsating vitality, along with such celebrated residents as Ella Fitzgerald and Thurgood Marshall, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the reverend, soon to be congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes. In 1945, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Leonard Bernstein were all at the dawn of their New York careers, while Toscanini, Babe Ruth and Damon Runyon were in the twilight of theirs. On Sunday, inhabitants of Sin City could think positively with Norman Vincent Peale, bask in the enlightened liberalism of Harry Emerson Fosdick at the Rockefellers’ Riverside Church, or genuflect to ruddy, rotund Francis Cardinal Spellman, the American Pope, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Cyril Connolly, writing in Horizon magazine, paid homage to “What a city ought to be: that is, continuously, insistent and alive, a place where one can buy a book or meet a friend at any hour of any day or night, where every language is spoken, and xenophobia almost unknown, where every purse and appetite is caters for. If Paris is the setting for romance, concluded Connolly, New York is the perfect city in which to get over one, to get over anything. And that, Richard, is wonderful writing, and it explains Nelson Rockefeller.
RNS: It explains, that’s the world Nelson came back to after having been assistant secretary of State, and in fact, created the United Nations. He left that world of politics to come back to the world of New York at the very peak of New York’s political and cultural influence. And guess what? That parochialism, ironically enough, reflective of that extraordinary diversity, is without a doubt one of the reasons, in my opinion, that he couldn’t succeed in the Republican Party.
HH: But it also explains so much of, it’s why he was for civil rights, and why he believed in retail politics.
RNS: Oh, listen, he’s a New Yorker.
RNS: I mean, you know, and a family, I mean, his grandfather, you know, founded Spelman College in Atlanta. His father was a mainstay of the United Negro College Fund. When Martin Luther King was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, his medical bills were picked up anonymously, quietly, by Nelson Rockefeller. And then as you mentioned earlier, when the civil rights movement reached its moral apogee in Birmingham in 1963, it was Nelson Rockefeller who again, anonymously, provided funds to bail out thousands of those taking part in what became known as the children’s crusade. And remember, it was those children, those children set upon by Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses, the pictures, first in the newspapers and then on the TV screens, it was those pictures that forced the Kennedy White House to endorse the civil rights bill, and really aroused the conscience of white America.
HH: Now hundreds of pages later, in your book, where you’re talking about the 1966 campaign against Arthur Goldberg, which you referenced earlier as being sort of emblematic of the new politics, the new approach, he has to go on, he takes his iron stomach on a walking tour of various neighborhoods, and eats everything. And then Arthur Goldberg, not Arthur, who am I talking about? He runs, who does he run against who says bring me a piece of a Jewish hot dog?
RNS: Well, no, yeah, in ’70, actually, it’s his fourth campaign.
HH: It’s his fourth campaign.
RNS: Fourth campaign, and you know, he’s beautifully…I mean, the Rockefeller campaigns never lacked for, you know, first rate advance work, I mean, great TV. You know, the TV commercials to this day, from the ’66 campaign, are the most intelligent, the most entertaining, the most effective, because he started out 30 points behind. And he actually argued the case that his taxes were well spent. In other words, he convinced the majority of New Yorkers that government was spending their money wisely, and that he deserved another four years to go on spending it wisely.
HH: And he beat Arthur Goldberg, but that’s not the campaign I’m talking about.
RNS: Yeah, well, Frank O’Connor, a real daily double, Frank O’Connor, who was the president of the New York City Council, and a perfectly decent man who was simply run over.
HH: Run over in 1970.
— – — –
HH: I’ll take a call. Mark in Mid-Wilshire, how are you, Mark?
Mark: Great, Hugh. Well, first of all, Nelson Rockefeller is the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions, which is who was Richard Nixon’s vice president’s vice president.
HH: Yes, indeed.
Mark: And I would always ask this question of people when I was down at Occupy L.A. when people asked for a cigarette, just to throw them off. But one of the reasons I would ask this was because they didn’t know that Rockefeller exemplified the 1% to people that grew up in my era. I grew up in upstate New York in the 70s. He was my governor. So my question is, how did Rockefeller sort of, how was he viewed as one of the 1%, just because of his association with John D. Rockefeller, and did he get flak for that, or how did he deal with that?
HH: Great question, Mark. Richard, you have to summarize the first third of the book here as a result.
RNS: No, it’s a great question. His father was astonished that people would vote for a Rockefeller for anything. I mean, it was, you know, Nelson broke all the rules beginning within the family. But you know, they had spent a lifetime, his father, sort of, in some ways, redeeming the reputation of the old man, who was for many kind of the quintessential robber baron.
HH: Cleveland’s own John D., who gave out dimes to poor kids.
RNS: Yeah, yeah. And it was actually a brilliant case study in PR, how you can turn around your image. But you’ve also got to remember it wasn’t just Nelson. As I said earlier, in 1958, he’s running against Averill Harriman, who has $75 million dollars in the bank, and frankly, kind of a stiff. I mean, Nelson, at least, was a friendly, warm, outgoing, charming, you know, he couldn’t remember names, but he somehow managed to make Hiya, fella, sound like the most personal of endearments. Averill Harriman was a kind of glum, stuffy, figure who couldn’t remember names, and made Howdy, Strange decidedly off-putting. So New Yorkers had a choice between two millionaires, and they took the one they liked.
HH: And I loved the fact that when he raised taxes, he said my grandfather spent his life giving out dimes, I’m taking them all back at once. And so he was pretty…
RNS: But you know what? Businessweek, that same week, hailed him for fiscal responsibility. What was fiscal responsible? He balanced the budget. He was willing to balance it by raising taxes instead of selling bonds. In 1959, that counted for fiscal responsibility.
HH: Now one of my tweeters asks, though, is this Chris Christie? Are we talking about Chris Christie in this cycle?
RNS: No, look, Rockefeller Republicanism, which again, underwent over 15 years a lot of changes, but is generally thought of as a combination of fiscal responsibility, certainly a strong private sector, and social conscience, some would say social liberalism on issues like civil rights, women’s rights…
HH: Oh, he passed the abortion law.
RNS: In fact, he did. He signed the abortion law, and he vetoed an attempt by the legislature to repeal their own abortion law two years later. You’re absolutely right. That school of Republicanism is at the very least in eclipse. I mean, there’s no one in, I can guarantee you there’s no one currently thinking of running in 2016 who is going to quote Nelson Rockefeller on anything unless to point out how profoundly unlike him they are.
HH: Well, Richard, an argument about that. Maybe we’ll come back after the break. If someone comes out and argues for infrastructure, because he’s Pat Brown with an R behind his name.
HH: And the state university systems, and nothing gets built in this country anymore. Nothing.
RNS: Well, no, listen, I could not agree with you more. And what is, I think, relevant, are the governors. You know, we’re all talking about senators right now, but the fact is there’s a reason why Americans often drift toward governors, because they’re seen as executives, as administrators, as people who are not necessarily ideologically rigid, but who deal with real world problems and have to address, you know, real world solutions.
HH: And get things done. When we come back, whether it’s the Trash Strike or building the New York Throughway, I mean, the New York Throughway, Jerry Brown can’t get one mile of his fast track train to nowhere built, and Nelson Rockefeller built all these roads.
— – – – –
HH: During the break, I received, Richard, a note from my friend, Len Frank. I should have sent this to you earlier. Please ask about Diego Rivera’s mural that showed Lenin that Nelson had painted over, and read the attached poem. Of course, the battle of Rockefeller Center is detailed in your book.
RNS: Yeah, yeah, well, and there’s some new information. I talked to Christie Todd Whitman, whose grandfather, actually, Mr. Todd, was the man that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had hired to build and manage Rockefeller Center. Let’s see, to make this as short as possible, Nelson wanted, in the lobby of the RCA building, Nelson wanted, get this, Picasso, Matisse, and Diego Rivera to each take a wall. And that gives you some idea of…
HH: Modest man.
RNS: …of how he thought, okay? You know, and if it had been left to his devices, he might have gotten away with it. Anyway, in the end, it was down in Rivera. And the story, of course, has always been that Rivera upset the apple cart by adding the head of Lenin to this 21 foot long mural, which really wasn’t very good. It certainly wasn’t very good Rivera. But it was windy and pompous and political. And anyway, what had happened was he had been, he had already been kicked out of the Mexican Communist Party. So he was particularly sensitive to criticism from his fellow Marxists. And he was a painter for millionaires as far as they were concerned. So anyway, he decided at the last minute that he would insert, he would show his, you know, communist bona fides by inserting the head of Lenin in the middle of this. The problem was Lenin was a problem. The real problem, however, was the Rockefellers thought the mural was obscene, because in demonstrating with characteristic Marxist delicacy and subtlety the differences between socialism, heroic socialism and decadent capitalism, he had chosen to illustrate syphilis quite graphically. And you have to remember, the entrance to the RCA building was across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
HH: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
RNS: Anyway, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. And Nelson tried, really tried, because he was largely responsible for this, he tried to get Rivera to basically replace Lenin’s head. And of course, Rivera, who thrives in controversy, and even then, you can imagine what the New York media were doing with this. So anyway, in the end, Nelson tried to save the mural, and have it moved to the Museum of Modern Art, where he was going to charge a dollar a head to see it. But unfortunately, Rivera had insisted on painting on plaster instead of canvas, and it could not be saved. So to this day, there are people who go into what is now the GE building, but will always be, to me, the RCA building. They go into the lobby looking for the Diego Rivera mural.
HH: I will inform everyone as well, they should go and Google the New Yorker, E.B. White’s painting of May 20th, 1933, which Leonard sent to me, and which is very, very funny, about this.
RNS: It’s wonderful. Yeah, yeah.
HH: So I want to go back to the last segment. When Nelson Rockefeller said there isn’t a problem that can’t be solved…
HH: And he had dirty rivers. He invented the Pure Water Act, and he got them cleaned.
HH: Yeah, and when he wanted a university system, because New York had too many private colleges, he built one. When he wanted Albany’s Square updated…
RNS: Brazilia on the Hudson.
HH: He did it. But my friend, Carl, tweets out, a fine interview about the political godfather, the architects of an $18 trillion dollar deficit. But a great guy, though. What do you say to that?
RNS: Well no, and you know what? He’s right on both counts.
RNS: I mean, the fact of the matter is Nelson Rockefeller, and I have to, you have to distinguish, there is no doubt Nelson Rockefeller left New York State exposed and vulnerable to, for example, the first financial downfall. I mean, in other words, his use of moral obligation bonding, which was, it’s astonishing that the banks fell for it in the first place. It basically said we would, but we wouldn’t stand behind these bonds. The problem is, again, people conflate New York State’s problems, which were real, but which were under control, with New York City’s problems, which were absolutely out of control.
HH: And most of his moral obligation bonds were paid off.
RNS: They were paid off. Listen, nothing in SUNY ever defaulted. I mean, he built hundreds of buildings. He built Roosevelt Island, and Battery Park city later on.
HH: So you got…
RNS: I mean, you know, you go anywhere in New York, and you will see physical evidence of projects that were financially successful.
HH: And that’s the difference, I think, that a would-be Rockefeller Republican runs into, is that the environmental movement that his brother, Laurance, was coopted into…
HH: …has basically rendered impossible the kind of federalism Hamiltonian robustness that Nelson personified.
RNS: You just put your finger on something important. For conservatives who think of Nelson as the Devil incarnate, there is another side. And that is he’s a different kind of federalist. Remember, this is a time when states’ rights are being defined by George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. And Nelson Rockefeller said the preservation of states’ rights depends on the exercise of states’ responsibilities. So in other words, if you’ve got a polluted Hudson River, and New York Harbor, you know, and you’re not going to do anything about it, then don’t be surprised if at some point the federal government steps in and tries to take latitude away from you. In subject after subject after subject, now, as I say, by the time he left office, he had come to the painful realization that there were things that no state could do by itself, environmental issues, for example. Lake Erie, famously, used to catch on fire.
HH: No, that was Cuyahoga River, but we cleaned it up in Ohio on our own. Richard Norton Smith, don’t go anywhere. One more segment.
— – – – –
HH: I want to thank my guest, Richard Norton Smith, today. His wonderful and very fun book, On His Own Terms: A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller, should be under every Christmas tree for anyone who’s a reader. They will laugh out loud. They will thank you repeatedly, and you can give it to pretty much anybody, and they will love this book, because it’s a look forward to 2016 because of the lessons you learn in a look back over the 20th Century. Richard, I want to close on just a personal note. I know you’re at work at the Ford biography. But the story you tell at the end about John McConnell. Authors have lives, people forget it. And this book wouldn’t be here except for John.
RNS: Yeah, yeah. Well, about four years ago, several people who were kind enough to invite me for Thanksgiving dinner, and I had begged off, and anyway, several days went by, and none of them had heard from me. And John McConnell, who’s a good friend, and a neighbor at the time in Arlington, Virginia, and they got concerned. So he volunteered to come down. And anyway, he knocked on the door, and literally five days had gone by since Thanksgiving. I still have very hazy recollection. It turned out I’d had a heart attack, and John insisted I go to the hospital. And lo and behold, they admitted me promptly. And I spent ten days there, much of it in intensive care, because I had a bunch of blood clots. Anyway, so long story, but it’s fair to say that if John had not exercised his concern that evening. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.
HH: Well, he’s one of the most revered and liked people in Washington, D.C., and now even more, because he made this book possible and kept you going. Now I don’t want to be 70 when the Ford biography comes out.
RNS: Oh, God, no.
HH: I don’t want to wait another 14…
RNS: No, the book will actually, it’s a great question. Five years. I have five years, literally, contractually and every other sense of the word, I have five years to finish the book.
HH: And so you’re moving to Grand Rapids and you’re throwing in?
RNS: I’m moving to Grand Rapids, and getting back to the real America.
HH: I can’t even, I know you’ve been there before, but I hope you’ll at least venture over to Hillsdale College occasionally to teach a course on the presidency or something like that.
RNS: Well, if they ask me, I’d love to.
HH: Richard, congratulations, may it sell many, many books. And a final story, when the family is all accounted for, all of his children ended up divorced, all of them, and one of them dead. And you wonder was he a good father, one minute.
RNS: Except for the boys, the two boys by Happy, who are both very happily married, very successful fathers, and by all accounts, you know, happy in their lives. So who knows? He said, he made all his mistakes with his first family.
RNS: And the last year of his life, he tried to repair some of the damage, and with some success.
HH: Well, it is a bold, it is unsparing in its detail, but it’s not vulgar. It’s just wonderfully written. Congratulations, On His Own Terms, a book that everyone would love having written about them if they were honest, and they had had a life like Nelson Rockefeller.
End of interview.