"Rocky" Takes on Albany

Email a Friend
12th October 1965: American Republican politician Governor Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908 - 1979) at the signing of the Immigration Bill.

After an Invocation by the Bishop of Albany, a few words from the Secretary of State, the singing of the national anthem, and a rabbi reading from the Bible, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller is sworn in as the 49th governor of the State of New York. The new governor immediately pronounces this "a fatal time for free man…and for freedom everywhere." The communist threat is seen as a continuation of the fascist threat that led to World War II. The Manichean world-view of the 1950's is much in evidence. He sees the globe "divided between those who believe in the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God and those who scorn this as a pious myth." But one cannot wonder, considering what follows, if this is just lip-service being paid to a popular notion so the ensuing proposals will not be branded as evidence that Rockefeller is "soft on Communism." Because the actual agenda the new Republican governor lists is as "liberal" and "progressive" (his words) as any put forth by his Democratic predecessors. Better schools, more welfare, even universal health insurance are called for. Social equality and equal opportunity (code words for programs helping minorities) are seen as necessities for fighting communism abroad. This is the way mainstream liberals framed their arguments in the time of the Cold War, arguing less for programs on their own merits than as tools in the battle for the hearts and minds of countries being romanced by the Soviet Union. It provided necessary cover against potential attacks from the right. And so Rockefeller's extraordinary fourteen-year reign as governor got underway.

Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) was born to riches and power. It is hard now to appreciate how the family name, which was then associated with oil, monopolies, and strike-breaking, underwent such a transformation due this one ambitious man's political career. As pbs.org notes:

In 1958, he decided to run for governor of New York State. His campaign revealed a confident and affable politician, at his best when pressing the flesh and striking up conversations with the people who came out to see him. "Hi Ya, Fella" became his signature greeting. "Rocky," his nickname. After a massive campaign, bankrolled with his legendary fortune, Rockefeller won the election handily. The New York Times did not fail to notice the historical significance of the result: "The election of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller has given the final stamp of public approval to a name that once was among the most hated and feared in America."

For Rockefeller, the governorship of New York was seen a mere stepping-stone to the presidency. But the liberal beliefs he espoused in this inaugural address put him at odds with a large section of the national party. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes how:

With Nixon out of the presidential contest in 1964, Rockefeller again sought the Republican nomination. As leader of the party’s liberal wing, he was opposed by conservative Barry Goldwater, who won the nomination by a slim margin. At the convention, Rockefeller fought strongly, though unsuccessfully, to maintain a commitment to civil rights in the Republican platform. Reflecting deep divisions between liberal and conservative Republicans, Rockefeller, who had denounced Goldwater as an extremist, was heckled by Goldwater supporters during his address. Throughout the ensuing campaign, he steadfastly refused to endorse Goldwater’s candidacy.

Rockefeller tried again for the nomination in 1968 but the party's geographical and ideological shift was even more pronounced. Seen as the candidate of the Eastern Establishment, he was beaten by Richard Nixon. A brief term as Vice President, after Gerald Ford replaced Nixon, would prove to be as close to the presidency as Rockefeller would ever get. His failed aspirations for national power have somewhat overshadowed the very real effect his long time as governor had on New York State. Jeffrey Frank, writing in the New Yorker, notes: 

As Rockefeller recedes into the recent, unremembered past, he seems an increasingly improbable figure, his surname perhaps more associated with a song lyric (“I’ll be rich as Rockefeller / Gold dust at my feet / On the sunny side of the street”) than with the man who, between 1959 and 1973, transformed New York into a laboratory for the ambitions and occasional excesses of government. He was a Republican, yet a missing link in the Republican Party of today: a moderate and occasional liberal who believed that every problem has a solution, and who could say, “If you don’t have good education and good health, then I feel society has let you down.”


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 48466
Municipal archives id: LT8282