WO Interviews Richard Norton Smith re: On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

 

William O’Shaughnessy 

Exclusive Interview

with

Richard Norton Smith

Historian – Biographer

Re:

On His Own Terms

A Life of Nelson Rockefeller

October 22, 2014

WVOX and WVIP Worldwide

The great historian Richard Norton Smith worked for more than a decade on a monumental biography of our incomparable Westchester neighbor Nelson Rockefeller.

As I read through On His Own Terms:  A Life of Nelson Rockefeller … my mind drifted back over the years to many encounters with this unique and colorful individual who was absolutely sui generis.

We traveled with Westchester’s “Favorite Son” on his Gulfstream, in helicopters and even golf carts and Air Force Two.  And arriving at Westchester Airport, even late at night, he would always head straight for the WVOX microphone.  Indeed, in all his years as governor and vice president, Nelson never shook off or declined an interview with his hometown radio station.

I’ve been widely quoted suggesting that, as a rich man’s son, NAR could have been quite a glorious bum … had he not entered the arena to devote himself so relentlessly and zestfully to public service.

Professor Smith has captured all of this – and a lot more – from Rockefeller’s amazing life … in an extraordinary biography of our dynamic and unforgettable neighbor.  I hope, if you can find a copy, it will commend itself to a place in your personal library.

William O’Shaughnessy:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.  For the next several minutes while we’re in your care and keeping … a very special guest and a very interesting program – I promise you in advance … you can make book on it.  We’re here in “Rockefeller Country.”  And among our neighbors are the Rockefellers and the most vivid and dazzling one among them was one Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.  He was governor of New York for four terms.  He was vice president of the United States.  He built Rockefeller Center, and the United Nations.  Across the microphone this day is his biographer –  the legendary historian Richard Norton Smith.  Mr. Smith, we welcome you again to Rockefeller country.  Your brand new book is called On His Own Terms:  A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller.  But I’ve got to tell you … I thought I would never live long enough to see it finally published. How did you do it?

Richard Norton Smith:

Well, you know, Bill, all good things come to those who wait, right.  Fourteen years in the making!  I’d like to think it took 14 years to get it right.  It is a huge story, a huge life.  Colorful.  Controversial.  Relevant.    One of the things, that practically anyone who has ever done research will appreciate … I was writing the story even as the Rockefeller Archives were opening up and I promptly tore up the first 70,000 pages of my original manuscript.

WO:

Why?

RNS:

Well, the keepers of the Family archives opened up 120 boxes of a collection within the Collection marked “Family and Friends.”  Well, you can imagine, that’s the gold!  For example, there were over 100 letters from Nelson’s first wife exchanged with Nelson during their courtship.  And among other things it allows us, I think for the first time, to know Mary Todhunter Clark Rockefeller as a three dimensional figure … a young woman who harbored real doubts about whether she wanted to marry Nelson … whether Nelson wanted to marry her.  I’ve often said if it was a Hitchcock movie and you’re in the audience, you’d be shouting at the screen:  “Don’t go in that room!” because, unfortunately, we know how it turned out.  Good history is all about humanizing the past.  It isn’t simply immersing yourself into the past … that’s part of it.  But it’s also about putting a human face on people and events who are otherwise frozen in textbooks.  That takes time.  And Nelson was a very elusive figure.  Nelson Rockefeller was an incredibly complex man who made it his business to appear simple.  One of his children was quoted as saying “We only wish we knew him as well as the people of New York.”  The people of New York thought they knew him.  This blintz-eating, back-slapping, tax-raising, force of nature who was, as you say, the governor for 15 years much as Franklin Roosevelt was the president for 12 years.  There’s still a whole generation of New Yorkers who equate this man with the office.

WO:

Professor Richard Norton Smith … historian Richard Norton Smith, these proceedings, as we welcome you back to Westchester – Rockefeller Country – are greatly enhanced by the presence of the star feature-columnist of the Gannett papers – The Journal News – it would be a bowling alley without him!  His name is Phil Reisman.  And also we welcome the familiar voice of our talk show host Michael Dandry, who is also quite influential with the Westchester County Press, the county’s only Black-owned newspaper and some think – although they’ve never admitted it – that he actually writes the “Snoopy Allgood” column that terrorizes all the local politicians.  Also, at my left, across from you in our studio in Westchester this morning is Nancy King, the editor of the Westchester Guardian weekly newspaper.  And we’re to be joined shortly by Dan Murphy, the editor-in-chief of Mr. Sprayregan’s The Rising weekly publications. 

Phil Reisman, you’ve written a lot about local politicians.  Do you ever see anything like Nelson Rockefeller around today?

Phil Reisman:

Well, I was going to ask Richard that question because we have a debate tonight between two – three – gubernatorial candidates, including the Green Party guy.  What would Rockefeller make of modern day elections … including, perhaps, this one going on right now?

RNS:

It’s a fair question.  Unfortunately, it’s a question I can’t answer, obviously because I have enough trouble trying to make sense out of the past without projecting into the future.  One thing I am pretty confident in though … he would still be the optimist to end all optimists.  I mean the contrast between his brand of politics – forget ideology for a moment – just the way he approached problem-solving.  He would be the first to tell you he’s a pragmatist.  He was not an ideologue.  But more important than that, he believed every problem had a solution.  And the contrast between then and now – when there’s such pervasive cynicism, much of it masked as apathy, because it’s a notion that government – forget ideology again – isn’t working.  It isn’t even talking about the problems.  I mean, there’s a consensus out there about a lot of the major issues we confront and there’s this dichotomy between that kind of unarticulated public consensus and the seeming total inability of government – right, left, liberal, conservative – to address those issues.  There’d be none of that with Rockefeller. 

PR:

There was an interesting story today about the American public’s lack of faith in institutions.  He was a creator of institutions. 

RNS:

He was a creator of institutions. 

PR:

Especially and obviously in this State. 

RNS:

He was a “Roosevelt Republican.”  And I mean both Theodore and Franklin.  It’s no secret he got his start, ironically, at the age of 32 when Franklin Roosevelt – obviously the leading Democrat in America – plucked the scion of the leading Republican family in America to run Latin America for him.

Michael Dandry:

Well, Vincent Astor probably put in a good word for him at that point!!

WO:

We’re talking about Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, the book is called On His own Terms:  A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller with Richard Norton Smith who wrote it.  He spent 14 years of his life.  Professor Smith – do you think you got him?

RNS:

I think I came closer than anyone has.  I think that’s an honest answer to you.  Again, as I say … I’ll tell you a Eureka moment when I thought “I’ve Got Him!”  There’s a pattern. If you remember when everyone thought he was going to run in ’60 against Nixon and Nelson surprised everyone at the last minute by not running.  And then in March of ’68 … everybody thought he was going to jump in when Romney pulled out and he surprised everyone by not going.  Now, he got back in a month later – urged on, by the way – by Lyndon Johnson.  But in any event, there is the famous incident where he didn’t go to Attica.  Now on the face of it, all of those incidents run counter to everything else we know about Nelson Rockefeller who was the most assertive, involved … you name it …

WO:

Dynamic …

RNS:

Yes, dynamic, problem solving.  And it was interesting, the subject the Rockefeller people didn’t want to talk about – and I talked to 150 people  for this book – was, overwhelmingly … the one subject was Attica.  And it wasn’t because they necessarily condemned what he did or didn’t do, they didn’t understand.  They didn’t understand what it was.  OK … so I started looking for … is there any kind of theory?  Is there something that unites all of these seemingly inexplicable lapses about what we think we know about Rockefeller.  One of the things I found amazing was that  Nelson in his last years was $10 million in hock to his trust. 

MD:

That bears repeating … it’s encouraging to me personally.  He was in debt!

RNS:

He decided he would write a memoir.  The book never got written, but he wrote over 500 pages of oral history with his great friend Hugh Morrow, his very trusted communications director.  So what you got was this very intimate, revealing autobiographical sketch.  At one point there was a quote that absolutely jumped off the page at me in which he – apropos of nothing in particular – said “When I got to a point I didn’t feel confident of being in control, I was never reluctant to step back and wait until a time when I thought I could be in control.”  Control and creativity are the two buzz words you want to keep in mind.  He was not a politician who collected art.  He was a frustrated artist for whom government – not politics – but government afforded him the opportunity to create and control his environment.  That’s what the South Mall is all about. 

WO:

Does that not sound a little bit like our current governor, Phil Reisman? Nancy King …. ?

Nancy King:

It does sound a little like our current governor.  But … again, control should be Andy Cuomo’s middle name.  With that being said, I do understand the complexity. What I take away from the story of Nelson Rockefeller was that with his complexity and in his need to control and to coordinate and to build and solve problems, there was always an inner doubt of himself.  I don’t know whether it was his dyslexia, his disabilities or where he fit in the family hierarchy, but I always found he was striving for something he couldn’t inherently reach. 

RNS:

And this is what humanizes … Nelson Rockefeller.  The last word in the world most people would apply to him as vulnerable.  And he was sure of that.  But the fact of the matter is George Hinman, his great political advisor from Binghamton and sort of his ambassador to the Republican Party, explained it once to Ann Whitman who was his executive assistant – she had been Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary.  Hinman had a theory and it’s as good as any and that is he never got over his exposure to Franklin Roosevelt.  He wasn’t running against John Kennedy or Richard Nixon.  It was the ghost of Franklin Roosevelt. 

NK:

Who was a tortured soul in and of himself.

RNS:

But he was this larger than life, defining figure …

MD:

Didn’t he go so far as to create a think tank around him to help solve problems.  That’s the big difference between Andrew Cuomo and Rob Astorino.  Andrew Cuomo still has Larry Schwartz as his think tank.  Is that fair?

RNS:

He was a moving think tank!

MD:

He hired people and he didn’t care whether they were Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal to actually scientifically solve problems. 

RNS:

Part of that goes back to the dyslexia.  He never heard the word dyslexia until he was 50 years old.  He went through life thinking he had a deficient IQ.  And his mother said: surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are … which helps to explain the think tank and the gurus.

WO:

You know what’s interesting … here it is 2014. We’re sitting here on this Wednesday in Westchester talking about Nelson Rockefeller – a man who left us how many years ago?

RNS:

WO:

1979 … he would have been 106!  And he’s still relevant.  Why, professor?

RNS:

He’s still relevant for a number of reasons.  Some of it is nostalgia for “The Man Who Gets Things Done.”  How many times during the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site did you hear people say “Oh gosh … maybe Robert Moses wasn’t so bad after all!”  Or … “Nelson Rockefeller would have gotten this done.”  And you know what?  He probably would have.  It’s kind of a posthumous triumph, because Nelson really, genuinely, passionately believed solving problems took precedence over ideological purity.  There are millions and millions of Americans who would not use the phrase – either because they’re not familiar with it or because they’d be uncomfortable with it – but who are in fact “Rockefeller Republicans.”  The great Meade Esposito explained in a nutshell the reason he never became president was because he was too liberal for the Republicans and too conservative for the Democrats.  Nelson himself said he had a Republican head and a Democratic heart.  Guess what?  That’s not a bad reflection of where the middle of the road is – and there is still a middle of the road – in this country.

WO:

His name is Richard Norton Smith – the great historian. Random House calls his new book On His Own Terms “magisterial.”  I call it monumental.  How many pages is it?

RNS:

Well, the text is 721 pages.  And then there’s 101 pages of footnotes and sources. 

WO:

Phil Reisman, you ask the tough questions and I ask the good ones … 

PR:

I have a million questions about Nelson Rockefeller … but you eluded to the “rosebud” of Governor Cuomo which we often discuss … his complicated relationship with his father.  How did Nelson get along with his father and how did that shape him?

RNS:

It’s fascinating.  He was his mother’s son.  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller today would have been the candidate.  She was the daughter of Senator Nelson Aldrich, the Republican leader of the United States Senate from Rhode Island.  But more than that, she was this larger than life, ebullient life force.  I said she combined the better qualities of Mabel Dodge, Margaret Sanger and Auntie Mame!  The Museum of Modern Art is her creation handed off to Nelson in many ways.  She handed a lot off to Nelson.  She told him as a boy that he can be president of the United States.  His ebullience – his openness to new ideas and new people, his curiosity about how ordinary people lived – he got all of that from Abby.  His father – he was more like his father than he knew or let on.   His father used to say “Never show more surface than necessary.”

WO:

Professor Smith … you’ve got almost 900 pages.  Did you have to be a little diplomatic.  Did you do a little discreet “editing” … ?

RNS:

You always edit.  I suspect what you’re referring to are some of the more “scandalous” – I don’t think that’s too strong a word – parts of the story.  Particularly the private life.  Look …

MD:

The psycho-sexual chapters …?

RNS:

You don’t spend 14 years of your life unless you want to do an honest, comprehensive account.

WO:

Did you find out in those 14 years a lot of things people don’t generally know?

RNS:

Oh … sure.  Two weeks after he was dumped from the ticket in 1976 by Gerald Ford, he was on the phone to Hubert Humphrey and George Meade. They were on the phone to him asking if he would consider changing parties and be the Democratic nominee for president in 1976.  That’s one for instance.  And another … John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller were put on this planet to piss each other off.

NK:

They sure were …

RNS:

The results were historic!   And colorful!  It’s easy to say a plague on both your houses.  Lindsay used to refer to Nelson’s apartment on Fifth Avenue as Berchtesgaden. 

WO:

Why did he call it that, professor?

RNS:

Well … because of the dominance Nelson had.  It was famously said that Nelson owned one political party and leased the other.  But as I said, the rental was not very high. 

WO:

Richard Norton Smith … what did Rockefeller call Lindsay?

RNS:

He called Lindsay a lot of things.  He used to repeat the story to one of his commissioners that if Lindsay wasn’t so tall and good-looking, he’d be pushing a mop and broom somewhere.  The dichotomy between these two … John Lindsay was the perfect television pol.  He was the epitome of charisma.  Nelson was a policy wonk before the term was invented.  He said “I wish John would stick to the stage and leave the governance to me.”  That in a nutshell sums up how he viewed Lindsay.

WO:

But, Professor, they were both great with people.  Late in life I walked through the town – about 20 blocks – with John Lindsay and still the bums in the street, the people, the crossing guards – he was like a rock star late in life.

RNS:

They had so much in common.  They were both extraordinarily gifted, natural street campaigners.  I mean, you go back to October 1, 1958, the birth of a legend.  It was Louis Lefkowitz’s idea.

WO:

Louis Lefkowitz was …?

RNS:

He was the “People’s Lawyer … the attorney general in New York.  It was entering the last month of Nelson’s first campaign for governor against Averell Harriman who was an admirable stiff.  Let’s be honest. 

PR:

And a rich one …

MD:

From a comparable side of society …

RNS:

Absolutely … In fact there was a great line.  One of the joys of this book was reading seven or eight daily newspapers from those days.  They had wonderful columnists.  One of them came up with a great line.  He suggested that Averell Harriman’s campaign slogan should be:  “Don’t switch multi-millionaires in mid-stream!” 

RNS:

It was Louis Lefkowitz who suggested:  Let’s go down to the lower East Side and eat some blintzes.  And the rest is history.  No one knew it was going to take off the way it did.  But it turned out that Nelson Rockefeller … including everyone who noticed – including even Nelson Rockefeller – they saw what a natural campaigner he turned out to be.

WO:

Was it genuine?  Did he really like it?

RNS:

It was genuine.  He did like it.  He was fascinated by how real people lived their lives.  He had enormous curiosity which is the first thing any successful pol is going to have.  You can fake sincerity … but you can’t fake curiosity.

WO:

This book On His Own Terms just came out yesterday.  We’re grateful to the elders of Random House for giving us Professor Norton Smith on the very next day.  Boy, they’ve got some schedule for you.  You’re going to need a Joe Canzeri, who was Rockefeller’s colorful advance man, to organize your life for the next several months.  Professor … tell us … it’s on everyone’s mind so let’s get it out of the way.  The night he met his Maker.  The night he departed for another and we are sure, a better world, to quote Malcolm Wilson of sainted memory.

RNS:

Well … I decided first of all, that the real story, and I get it … I’m a historian, I think there are two significant historical questions, if you will.  The first of course is could he have been saved?  Could anything different happened?  Did he die needlessly?  And I concluded, having done a lot of new interviews, a lot of archival research, that the answer to that is No.

WO:

Set the scene for us …

RNS:

One  of the things people do not know is that Nelson Rockefeller’s health had seriously deteriorated …  that he himself believed he was about to die. 

MD:

It brought on some depression also …

RNS:

Yes … but he had a very serious heart condition.  There was evidence of that for several months.  He tried to keep it basically to himself.  He couldn’t keep it from Happy. He couldn’t keep it from people like Joe Canzeri.  I personally – and I’m not a doctor – believe he would have died that night wherever he was.  He was that close. He had talked to, for example, one of Happy’s children just a couple of nights before he died – out of the blue, he was having dinner with her – he said that he wasn’t afraid to die, but he was sorry to have to leave everyone.  I mean he was clearly putting his house in order. 

WO:

You have a haunting line in your book … it won’t be long now!

RNS:

I talked to Mrs. Rockefeller … I talked to Happy about that night and he had gone to the Buckley School.  There was a fundraiser … Henry Kissinger spoke.  The Buckley School … attended by both of his sons. 

Then they went home and had dinner.  After which he called Megan to meet him.  They were finishing up work on a modern art book.  He told Happy the boys are fine.  I love you and I won’t be long.  Was that a foreshadowing?  Who knows? 

WO:

Professor … then he went off to his townhouse …

RNS:

Right, which is several blocks away on 54th Street. 

WO:

Can you tell us for certain what happened that night?

RNS:

The story I tell begins with the 911 call because the story – in my estimation – is of the cover-up which was hastily improvised and very quickly unraveled.  And the significance of that is this … in my view, that’s the night the press attitude permanently changed about what was public and what was private. 

WO:

What do you mean?

RNS:

In the old days … however defined … a potentially embarrassing, essentially private situation, would have been treated as such.  The fact of the matter is

MD:

Roosevelt and Kennedy!

RNS:

Even then, frankly, had Megan Marshack not climbed into the ambulance and gone to the hospital, she would have been lost to history and the story would have been whatever the family wished it to be.  But … the late Al Marshall, who was one of Nelson’s deputy governors, told me he got a call from someone very high up in the New York Times – who shall remain for the moment nameless – who was quite angry because Hugh Morrow had gone out from the hospital thinking he would spare the family embarrassment.

WO:

This is the PR man?

RNS:

The PR man … the communications director.  And he basically concocted the story that Nelson had died at Rockefeller Center.  The New York Times was so outraged at being out and out lied to … they saw to it that the 911 call was subjected to electronic analysis.  And if you remember – no reason for you to remember – but the story is there were in fact two transcripts of the 911 call and gradually it surfaced that there were other people involved.  The mystery deepened.  There was clearly some internal debate going on within the family as to how much we should reveal.  Then the Will was revealed and it indicated he had forgiven Miss Marshak a significant loan that she used to buy her condo apartment just down the street from his townhouse.  Anyway, the whole thing, in effect, unraveled.  What no one ever knew was the pre-existing medical condition. And in some ways had they been more open, had they been more forthcoming at the time, then the urban legend might not have taken hold.  The sad thing was that for a generation, for several years at least, it defined him.  That’s terribly unfair.  No one deserves to be remembered for the worst hour of their lives. 

MD:

It sure canceled out the Rockefeller Mall in Albany.

PR:

Is Megan Marshak still around and does she talk about this ever?

RNS:

As you can imagine, I wrote to her and got no response, which doesn’t surprise me.  My understanding is she is married and living in California.  She’d be about 60 now. 

WO:

My mind drifts back … Professor Richard Norton Smith when … as a young man … I was a great admirer – still am – of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller and Newsweek published a letter from me suggesting that the incidental details of a man’s passing are meaningless and irrelevant.  Happy sent me a note:   … “Good friends rally ’round when life turns sad and difficult.”  Where is Happy with all this?

RNS:

I don’t know … you know I talked with her.  She was very gracious at the onset.  I spent a day with her. I’ll tell you a wonderful story.  It goes to the heart of who he was.  She gave me a tour of Kykuit and then took me down to the Japanese house, the house he had built for their retirement.  And I had been told by someone in a position to know that Nelson kept his mother’s ashes in the house, in Kykuit.  And I thought, well, what have I got to lose?  Every Rockefeller house is built with the same floor plan.  When you walk in on the right, it’s mother’s room.  And on the left is father’s room.  And sure enough, there’s an urn in one corner that looks suspiciously like a funeral urn.  So I ask Mrs. Rockefeller, and she said “Oh … that’s true.”  I said really? … how can that be?  Because obviously, there was a funeral and they had Abby’s ashes interred in the family cemetery on the estate.  “Oh … Nelson just reached in and grabbed a handful.”  Now, that tells me two things:  It tells me there was an almost childlike impulsiveness, lack of self consciousness – which among other things helped to explain why he was such an incredible campaigner in any situation he found himself in.  But it also told me there was a sense of entitlement that borders on the bizarre.  Could be arrogant.  Could be however you want to characterize it.  But those qualities co-existed.  And it helped me to begin to understand how much I didn’t know about Nelson Rockefeller.   But let me tell you this … Nelson loved Happy until the day he died … loved her and admired her … and had enormous respect for Happy’s judgment about people and especially her very good instincts about the people on the streets, which to Nelson was priceless.

WO:

His name is Richard Norton Smith.  We’re here in our Westchester studios with Michael Dandry of the Westchester County Press … Nancy King of the Westchester Guardian and The Great Phil Reisman of Gannett’s Journal News.  Should we take a couple of calls?  They’re lining up … for an interesting guest.  You’re on the air with Professor Richard Morton Smith, the great historian.

Caller

Good morning … the conversation this morning is fascinating.  And I’m a fan of Richard Norton Smith.  I’ve been watching you for many years on C-SPAN … and PBS.  Can we just go back … like 14 years ago.  You could have written about anybody, researched anyone.  Why Nelson Rockefeller of all people?

RNS:

It’s a great question.  If you’ve ever heard … it sounds so presumptuous, but once in a while there is the book you are born to write.   The book opens with that amazing scene at the Cow Palace in July of 1964 where Rockefeller is almost  booed off the stage.  Well, I was ten years old and a very odd child.  An oddly precocious child …

WO:

How so …?

RNS:

At the age of ten Nelson Rockefeller was my political hero and then four years later in ’68, at 14, I was actually in the convention, on the floor carrying my Rockefeller sign knowing we were going to lose to Richard Nixon.  And then years later … look at what I went on to do.  I worked in the Ford White House when Rockefeller was vice president.  I worked for a number of years for Bob Dole who replaced him on the ticket and who, in fact, employed Nelson Rockefeller, Jr.. 

WO:

Didn’t you also run the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library?

RNS:

Yes … I’ve run several presidential libraries.  But before I got in to the library business, my career traced the decline of liberal Republicans.  I worked for Ed Brooke for a couple of years.  Ed Brooke was the senator from Massachusetts.  The first African-American senator and a classic Rockefeller Republican.  So the answer to the question is … and I guess this is a subject that had bewitched me for most of my life and it was also an opportunity to tell a history of the Republican Party over the last 50 years.  If you want to explain the origins of the Tea Party, go back to that night in the Cow Palace when Nelson was up there denouncing extremism and in particular the John Birch Society.  And, quite frankly, it’s not a long stretch from the Birchers to the Birthers.  The modern Republican Party arguably was born that night.  The next morning, it was a different party.  It was Barry Goldwater’s party.

WO:

Didn’t Nelson also create the Conservative Party?

RNS:

Yes … in many ways the Conservative Party was created by those who didn’t originally see themselves as taking over the Republican Party.  They were themselves on the right playing the role the Liberal Party traditionally played on the left which was moving the center of gravity in their direction and exerting influence and patronage to them.  They had no idea they’d be electing a United States senator in less than a decade … James Buckley.

WO:

Professor Norton Smith … didn’t Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater make up toward the end?

RNS:

They did.  First of all, they had more in common,, always.  Militant anti-Communists.  Rockefeller became more conservative in his later years.  There’s no doubt about it.  And of course, Goldwater, who would go on to become sort of every Democrats favorite conservative, particularly on issues like Gay Rights …  Barry Goldwater became the classic Libertarian who had very little truck with the religious right in the Republican and Conservative coalition.  So each man had his own odyssey.  But it is true that before Nelson died … when Chiang Kai-shek died, Nelson, as vice president, was condemned to go to the funeral … Barry Goldwater went with him … and after about six Dubonets crossing the Pacific, they discovered they had a whole lot more in common than they realized.

WO:

And didn’t Barry Goldwater sit in the very last row at Riverside Church?

RNS:

One of the more poignant scenes at the memorial service … Barry Goldwater slipped in unseen, unrecognized, and sat in the back pew.  But even more poignant than that, the one person Happy Rockefeller saw that week:  Richard Nixon was in town to visit his daughter Tricia who was about to have her child and he detoured and went up to Pocantico.  He spent two hours telling Happy what a great man Nelson was.  Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on that wall? 

MD:

I’m trying to put this in a big historical perspective with parameters around it.  We’re really talking about Nelson Rockefeller and Ed Michaelian and Bill O’Shaughnessy’s, Republicans For Cuomo.  These were Main Street Republicans in Brooks Brothers suits.  Is that fair to say … that don’t exist anymore.  The elite of the Republican Party?  Attorneys … bankers … broadcasters ?

RNS:

One line that you’ll never hear.  It goes to what kind of Republican he was.  Nelson Rockefeller said, “I believe if you don’t have a good education and good health, then society has let you down.”  You don’t hear that from many Republicans today.

NK:

And if they were to say that, they would be automatically branded at this point a socialist or a “RINO – a Republican in Name Only.” 

PR:

It’s also different from the New Democrat.  They don’t talk that language either.

RNS:

The irony is Barack Obama is probably for the right – operationally – of Nelson Rockefeller.  The center of gravity in this country has moved so far to the right.

PR:

What was his attitude in terms of tax policy to the richest New Yorkers?

RNS:

He is a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.  You might say he’s a Disraeli Republican. Because what Disraeli did in Britain and TR … what FDR did in this country … Nelson explained once – there was someone who noticed he had an autographed picture of FDR on his desk and he said “He was a great man.”  And he explained why he was a great man.  “He understood you have to give people hope.  And beyond that, you have to give people a stake in the private economy.  It’s great to have a robust private economy.  But if that economy is bursting at the seams with social inequities…” Sound familiar?  Sound contemporary?  “Then you’re risking revolution.”  And the genius of Theodore Roosevelt and FDR … they may have been from different parties, but they had the same instincts.  They were wealthy men who understood you had to share the wealth.  And everyone had to credibly believe they could succeed in this society.  That the rules were not stacked against them, etc., etc., etc.  And then and only then … in some ways, you could call him the original Compassionate Conservative. 

WO:

I would call this fabulously (to use Nelson’s favorite word) interesting program: “Where Once Giants Walked The Land.” 

PR:

Yes … I was just curious … again in terms of State income tax and things like that … was he in favor of a progressive tax?  Today our governor doesn’t really want …

RNS:

Here’s the thing.  People use the term “Rockefeller Republican” as though it’s monolithic.  Business Week praised him for having the courage to raise taxes, to close the gap left by Averell Harriman.  That was the definition of fiscal responsibility.  By the end of his first term, people were beginning to notice and rethink the term “fiscal responsibility.”  And yet, you know what, every four years the voters of New York had an opportunity to change hands.  He starts out 30 points behind.  What did he do?  In that campaign he convinced New Yorkers that taxes were well spent.  Can you imagine doing that.  He created SUNY. 

NK:

With his frustrated architectural designs …

MD:

Yes, and the MTA …

RNS:

New York State spent more money fighting water pollution in the mid-60’s than the federal government did in ’49.  People saw results.  And they equated their taxes with the Long Island Railroad.  It was easy to laugh, but the fact is he took a terrible railroad and he made it a decent railroad.

NK:

And that’s exactly how you go back to how he solved a problem.  It was always through development and he couldn’t stay on budget.  And so he said let’s build it.  Let’s fix it.  We’ll build it.

RNS:

He looked into the future.  SUNY was all about … down the road we’re going to need not only this many graduates … but this kind of graduates.  We are today suffering from a deficit in the sciences and math and there’s not a Rockefeller.  It was preventive government.  It was not reactive government. 

WO:

I get a flash of deja vu, Richard Norton Smith … take us to Binghamton and Bob Dole.  Did Nelson really give somebody the finger?

RNS:

Yes … Malcolm Wilson, who had a very dry sense of humor, said, “Oh, I’m sure he got his fingers mixed up.  I’m sure he intended to give him a thumbs up!”

WO:

But did he really give someone the finger? 

PR:

There’s a photograph of it!

RNS:

Oh yes … he did it.  You can see Dole in the background.

MD:

Well, by then the whole world was liberated. 

WO:

But that was scandalous.  Was he vice president then?

RNS:

He was vice president … and not only that, but he was inundated with copies of the picture.  Someone on the staff told me they went in and found him one day signing pictures.  And they said, “Mr. Vice President … you can’t sign those pictures.”  He said why not?  He said he  got more mail, more positive mail after that than anything since that night in the Cow Palace! 

PR:

Don’t you wonder what one of those autographed pictures would go for today?

WO:

Richard Norton Smith … how old are you now, professor?

RNS:

I’m 61.

WO:

You told us that at the age of ten, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, about whom you’ve written On His Own Terms so beautifully for Random House – it just came out yesterday – was your hero when you were ten.    You put 14 years of your life into it.  Is Nelson still your hero?

RNS:

It’s like marriage.  Can you imagine after 14 years of marriage, would you emerge from that with the same views?  I would put it a little differently.   I would say he has not lost any of his fascination.  If anything, he is more complex.  More nuanced.  More significant.  That’s how I would put it.

WO:

He can also almost still light up a damn room!  When you were coming in today there was a buzz here at the radio station I used to call his “hometown” stations.  It was almost like Nelson was going to walk in the damn place.  He dedicated this building a long time ago.  And he finished his last night campaigning for governor in the back seat of our mobile unit careening around in lower Manhattan.  I remember we stopped at an Automat.  He was hungry down in Chinatown someplace.  I miss those days.  I miss him …

RNS:

It’s curious.  I think people sensed, paradoxically perhaps, a sense of authenticity about the guy.

WO:

What do you mean?

RNS:

They thought he was real.  Cab drivers and bartenders.  He was “Rocky!”  You know …?

NK:

And I also think there was a fascination with the Rockefellers, the Standard Oil history.  There were fascinated with the wealth of that gilded era.  And I think that’s also what drew people to him.  Was the fascination only to find he was only “amiable” …?

RNS:

He knew that.  He knew the fourth multiplier that the name had.  That the legend had.  But he also knew he really liked people.  And by simply being himself …

WO:

We ask you this as a historian, Professor Smith.  Is there anybody around today, abroad in the land in the body politic, that they’ll be writing about when they’re 106?  Anybody?  Where once giants …?

RNS:

In the American political universe?

WO:

Yes …

RNS:

No.

WO:

Do you think anybody will write of Barack Obama?

RNS:

You know … it’s impossible to say about a sitting president … he’s certainly a historic figure.  And of course, we don’t know what the next two years holds.  Or beyond.  Because, as Jimmy Carter has demonstrated, there are presidents whose greatest contributions come after they leave office.  Who knows …?

MD:

And Gerald Ford is in a brand new light the last few years. 

RNS:

History does have a way of …

PR:

Somebody just wrote about Calvin Coolidge.

RNS:

You know why? You could take Coolidge seriously after you’d had Reagan.  It’s that kind of small government … Jeffersonian small government.  In other words, Arthur Schlesinger are you listening … there is more than one model of presidential success than the one Arthur Schlesinger told us about.

WO:

Professor Richard Norton Smith … what is your next project?  Your next gig?  You put 14 years into Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.

RNS:

Well, logically in many ways, I think logically enough!

WO:

You’re not going to run another dumb museum, are you?

RNS:

I’m going to take the next six years – someone has very generously put aside sufficient funds to allow me to concentrate on a biography of Gerald Ford which has not really been done.  I mean a full-scale, bio, particularly since his passing.  And I think people better be prepared for some surprises.

WO:

He really didn’t trip coming out of that airplane?

RNS:

Well, he tripped for the best of reasons, you know.  He was holding an umbrella over his wife.  And the sole of his shoe came undone.

WO:

What are you going to going to call your biography of Gerald Ford?  

RNS:

Don’t know.  I will tell you … it’s funny.  Before I wrote word one, I had a title for this book about Nelson.  And in all the years I’ve been writing, this is the first time I ever got the title I wanted.  On His Own Terms.  Because I think, in a nutshell, it goes to the heart – for better and worse – on how Nelson Rockefeller approached life. 

WO:

Professor, you have an amazing life.  You’re a teacher.  Do you miss the classroom?

RNS:

No … no.  I get to teach on C-SPAN.  Writing a book is another form of instruction. 

WO:

Do you write everyday?  No … but I write in longhand.  And I have a long-suffering typist.  No portion of this book went through less than 50 drafts which is one reason it took 14 years. 

PR:

You must have great handwriting. 

RNS:

She’s the only one that can read it.  She’s amazing! 

MD:

He’s too young to have the Palmer method I had … and Bill had.

WO:

His name is Richard Norton Smith, historian.  And his new book – it came out just yesterday – I know it’s on Amazon already and it’s in the bookstores as well:  On His Own Terms.  Like I said … Random House … I guess there’s no better publishing house … called it a “magisterial” book.  O’Shaughnessy called it a “monumental” book.  But like I said at the beginning, with you having these detours to take over museums, Richard, I really thought I’d never live long enough to see it.

RNS:

Well, we both reached our goal, Bill O’Shaughnessy.

WO:

Phil Reisman … I’ll give you the last question. 

PR:

Now you’re putting pressure on me for the last question!  Did Rockefeller have a sense of humor about himself? 

RNS:

He did …

PR:

What about all those impressionists who did those marvelous “Rocky” impressions of him because he had that nasal gravelly, distinct voice. 

RNS:

He had a sense of political theatre.  He understood.  The whole blintz-eating thing early was pure theatre.  He was Rocky!  That was a public persona.  There was a whole lot more than that.  You have to have a sense of humor to play that role

MD:

And yet he hid a lot of his personality in the sense I don’t think people understood the depth of his love of modern art and everything about his personal possessions.  He wasn’t just a traditional, very wealthy man with Chippendale furniture. 

RNS:

Dubonnet and Oreo cookies.  That was his idea of gourmet dining. 

WO:

Michael speaks of his love of art.  Don’t you have a thing in your book about Nelson keeping the pope waiting one day while in Rome?

RNS:

Actually, he kept the British prime minister and the pope waiting because he was in art museums …

WO:

Did he apologize?

RNS:

I don’t think so.  He had his priorities.  The late, great R.W. Apple – Johnny Apple – told me the story about most candidates out on the road … they’ll stay up … they’ll drink – some will chase skirts.  Nelson would get up at six in the morning and have the local art museum opened up so he could go through it. That was his idea of an “excursion.” 

WO:

We’ve shared a lot of stories in the last hour while we’re in your care and keeping, ladies and gentlemen.  This has been an historic program about an historic Westchester neighbor.  Professor, you honor us with your presence.  We’ll have you back in six years to talk about the Gerald Ford book.  It’s a wonderful book, this Rockefeller book … the one you were born to write.  There’s a lot of you in this book and we’ve just touched on it.  There’s so many more wonderful stories. 

RNS:

Can I tell you a last, quick one.  I’ll give you an idea of the relationship between him and Don Rumsfeld which was hostile, to put it mildly.  So hostile … you said he had a sense of humor – well Nelson in the early morning, when he was vice president, would walk by Rumsfeld’s office and open the doors and shout:  “Rummy … you’re never going to be vice president!” 

WO:

They say Chaney and Rumsfeld hated him.  They tried to thwart him in every way. 

RNS:

They were not “allies” – to put it mildly. 

WO:

But why? 

RNS:

Some of it was ideological.  Gerald Ford came into office under a unique set of circumstances.  The right wing never really trusted him.  His selection of Nelson Rockefeller alienated them further. And Rumsfeld believed – not surprisingly – that part of his job was to reconcile the right wing of the party and that would not be advanced by doing what the vice president wanted.

WO:

Did you talk to Rumsfeld or Chaney for the book?

RNS:

Yes … I talked to both of them.  Yes.  They’re friends.  I’ve known them for a number of years because of my Ford connections. 

WO:

Do they still hold it against him?

RNS:

Well, a rather poignant moment happened before Laurance Rockefeller died … he gave the ranch out in Jackson Hole to the People of the United States.  And who accepted on behalf of the People of the United States …  Vice President Dick Cheney.

WO:

There’s a lot more … it’s called On His own Terms.  A Life Of Nelson Rockefeller. The author is Richard Norton Smith.  The publisher is Random House.  I was up half the night last night and I’ll be up again tonight.  Thank you, sir.  Thank you Phil Reisman, Michael Dandry and Nancy King.  And Dan Murphy of the Rising chain of weeklies awaits in the next studio. 

Damn, but I still miss Nelson … especially every day when I walk by the plaque at our front door which went up in the 70’s to commemorate the day he dedicated the new WVOX building from which we now broadcast. 

Like I said, Professor Richard Norton Smith … I thought I’d never see the book that took you 14 years to gather and compile. 

It was worth the wait … for the book you were born to write …

  

# # #

 

William O’Shaughnessy, a former president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, was chairman of Public Affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington.  He has been a point man and advocate for the broadcasters of America on First Amendment and Free Speech issues, and is presently chairman of the Guardian Fund of the Broadcasters Foundation of America.  He operates two of the last independent stations in the New York area: WVOX and WVIP.

He is the author of “AirWAVES” (1999) … “It All Comes Back to Me Now” (2001) … “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” (2004) … “VOX POPULI: The O’Shaughnessy Files” was released in January, 2011.  He is currently working on his fifth book for Fordham University Press, an anthology which will include this interview with Richard Norton Smith.

 

Contact:

Cindy Gallagher

Whitney Media

914-235-3279 … cindy@wvox.com

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