5 facts you didn’t know about Nelson Rockefeller

A biography gives new insight into the governor's lust for development

TRD New York /
Oct.October 19, 2014 03:00 PM

According to Nelson Rockefeller biographer Richard Norton Smith, the former New York Governor was the “best retail campaigner in America” and “the most electrifying street campaigner since Fiorello La Guardia.” But Smith’s new biography, entitled, “On His Terms: the Life Nelson Rockefeller,” also reveals some of the Governor and real estate mogul’s greatest failures. Here are five facts you might not know about the flamboyant figure via the New York Post.

1. A messy divorce likely cost him the presidency

Rockefeller saw the U.S. presidency as the ultimate prize. But the country was disgusted when he divorced the mother of his five children to marry a divorced mother of four children, 18 years his junior. The move likely cost him the job.

“For the most powerful member of the most powerful family in the most powerful nation on earth, time is a commodity, like wealth, women, art and talent, to be experienced on his terms,” Smith writes.

He lost the race in 1960, 1964 and 1968.

2. Rockefeller was no conservative

Despite his swimming pools of family cash, Rockefeller was quite progressive for his time. He championed civil rights, and racial equality and was “as much part of his family lineage as oil wells and art museums,” according to Smith.

Indeed, for many years, “Rockefeller Republicans” became the derisive term for liberals in the Republican Party.

3. He loved government spending

Rockefeller never met a problem that he couldn’t solve with money, or so he thought. And as governor, Rockefeller never could stick to a budget.

Once when an aide objected to something Rockefeller wanted to do, saying, “Governor, it’s a great program, but the problem is money,” Rockefeller shot back: “No. The solution is money. The problem is where do we get it?”

Ultimately, Rockefeller’s spending spree undid both the state’s fiscal stability and his own reputation, according to Smith.

4. He saw development as the solution

Flying over the South Bronx by helicopter, Rockefeller, seeing the poverty below, said, “There’s no excuse for people to live like that.”

His career as president and later chairman of Midtown’s Rockefeller Center gave him the view that real estate development was the solution to the city’s problems.

It wasn’t until the untimely death of Martin Luther King on April 1968 that he was able to persuade the legislature to authorize the Urban Development Corporation.

The city now had unheard of powers to condemn private property, override local zoning codes, and create new financing vehicles to carry out redevelopment. The UDC went on to build some 90,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing before it was crippled by New York City’s financial crisis of the 1970s.

5. He was tough on crime

During his tenure, Rockefeller doubled the state police force, quadrupled the state prison system and pushed through what became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

Rockefeller was “scorned by the Left for Attica [the site of one of the worst prison riots of all time] and his punitive drug laws, denounced by the Right as a spendthrift with a Hamiltonian belief in the corporate state,” Smith writes. [NYP]Christopher Cameron

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