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tags: Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller led an interesting life (and had an interesting death, which we’ll get to shortly). He was involved in the development of the Museum of Modern Art’s building on 53rd Street and Rockefeller Plaza around the corner. He was a scion of immense wealth, a civil rights activist, and an art collector and patron. He was a diplomat, New York governor, and vice president of the United States. He was a Republican presidential candidate in 1960, 1964, and 1968.
Rockefeller’s roles overlapped in complex ways, and Richard Norton Smith presents them as one linear, messy, multifaceted life in On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller, a new 880-page biography of the New York political icon.
“I wanted to recreate the sense of all of these things happening simultaneously on all of these fronts,” Smith said. “In some ways, it would be easier to break them down—here’s the governorship, here’s transportation policy, here’s housing policy, etc. That would be easier, but it would also be much less lifelike.”
In a recent interview, Smith talked to The Daily Beast about his career as an presidential archivist and historian, Rockefeller’s life and political career, and how the Republican Party changed around Rockefeller in the ’60s and ’70s—and continues to change.
When did you first think you might write about Nelson Rockefeller?
In 1968, at the ripe age of 14, I was at the Miami convention carrying my Rockefeller sign on the convention floor. Then in 1989, I was asked to work on the Eisenhower Centenary. I went to Abilene and in the course of the day spent some time with Jim Cannon, who was a Rockefeller aide for a number of years. It was a long, long, long ride back from Abilene to the Kansas City airport, and it was enlivened from start to finish by Jim’s Rockefeller stories.
In some ways, the job was preempted by Cary Reich, who published an excellent first (The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller) of a projected two-volume biography in 1996. Tragically, Cary did not live to complete the second volume, and in 2000 I began work in earnest on this book. So that’s how long this has been percolating.
You have worked for the National Archives for several different presidential libraries?
Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford in the National Archives system, and I was director of the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois. I was also involved in the origins of the Dole Institute of Politics at Kansas University. And along the way, I’ve written several books on American politics. For the last few years, I’ve been the in-house historian at C-SPAN and have taught presidential history at George Mason.
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