Fifteen Ways Nelson Rockefeller Still Matters

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Jonathan A. Knee is professor of professional practice in business at Columbia Business School and a senior adviser at Evercore Partners.

Nelson A. Rockefeller’s four terms as New York governor are unlikely to make many remember him as a towering historical figure. If anything, his name may bring to mind the tawdry circumstances of his death, a heart attack in the compromising company of a much younger female aide. This came only a couple of years after his humiliating brief stint as vice president, during which President Ford ejected him from the 1976 ticket.

In the popular lexicon, “Rockefeller” survives as an adjective describing an extinct branch of the Republican Party and the now repudiated inflexible approach of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws. So the prospect of poring over 700-plus page biography, even by a historian as distinguished as Richard Norton Smith, is unlikely to generate much excitement. Aware of the uphill climb it faces, the marketing department at Random House included with the advance copy of the book a document titled “Fifteen Ways Nelson Rockefeller Still Matters.”

On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller,” is nonetheless a compelling read, despite its dense material. The catalog of legislative and administrative maneuverings driving the dozens of policy initiatives that Rockefeller championed in Washington and Albany over decades becomes numbing after a while. But what makes the book fascinating for a contemporary professional is not so much any one thing that Rockefeller achieved, but the portrait of the world he inhabited not so very long ago. 

The sheer magnitude of Rockefeller’s ambition across the domains of business, government and philanthropy and the unselfconscious ease with which he moved among these worlds stand in stark contrast with what would be even conceivable today. Rockefeller’s own diminishment in the final sad years of his life mirror the diminishment of the multiple realms in which he once held court. The result is as depressing as it is eye-opening.

New York State seems much smaller now than the place described in these pages. It was, after all, the most populous state until 1970. Today, it ranks behind not just California and Texas but, imminently, Florida. At midcentury, Mr. Smith writes, New York City alone had more representatives in Congress than the entire state of Florida. The city was not just a global hub of finance and media, as it still is today, but of manufacturing, as well. For half a century, Rockefeller transformed this teeming landscape both literally and metaphorically...




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