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Morton: Nelson Rockefeller was governor, public servant

Published: Monday, July 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

On this day (July 8) in 1908, philanthropist, businessman, and politician Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, on the same day of the same month as his famous, wealthy grandfather John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (1839-1937).

As the third of six children of the well-to-do John D. Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Nelson was given opportunities for education and travel not available to most.

Attendance at the prestigious experimental Lincoln School was followed by enrollment at Dartmouth College, where, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated cum laude in 1930 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics.

During the 1930s, Nelson worked for numerous family businesses. He also became involved in a number of philanthropic enterprises, was a patron of the arts, and a collector of fine art. As the grandson, on his father’ side, of the founder of the Standard Oil Co. and, on his mother’ side, of the influential Republican Rhode Island Sen. Nelson W. Aldrich, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelson would become involved in public service and politics.

In 1940, in obvious recognition of his interest in Latin American affairs and fluency in Spanish, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him as coordinator of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, and, in 1944, as assistant secretary of state for Latin American Affairs. His first political jobs included undersecretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; special assistant to President Dwight Eisenhower; and chairman of Eisenhower’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization.

In 1950, President Harry Truman appointed him chairman of the International Development Advisory Board, which was charged with developing a plan for providing foreign technical assistance, especially to Latin America.

His first major elective position was his 1958 election as a Republican (re-elected in 1962, 1966 and 1970), as the 49th governor of New York. As governor, he worked to implement mildly liberal policies in such fields as civil rights, social welfare programs, and educational reforms, which, however, often put him at variance with the Robert Taft-Barry Goldwater conservative wing of the national Republican Party.

Popular in New York, at the national level, his mild liberalism did not sit well with many Republican conservatives who blame him, in part, for causing the split in the party between the conservative Taft-Goldwater wing of the party and what became known as the Rockefeller moderate wing.

This ideological split, perhaps, explains why Nelson Rockefeller was not able, in 1960, 1964, and 1968, to garner enough national Republican support to win his party’s nomination for president. Unfortunately, Rockefeller’s obvious ambition to be president came at a time when there was a grass-roots conservative resurgence within the Republican Party.

In 1973, Rockefeller thought he was retiring from active political life to become involved more fully with several of his favorite philanthropic endeavors only to be elected by Congress, under terms of Section 2 of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as the 41st vice president of the United States under President Gerald Ford.

He died of a heart attack Jan. 26, 1979, in New York City under questionable circumstances. Although married at the time to his second wife, Happy Murphy (his first wife was Mary Clark, whom he married in 1930 and divorced in 1962), it was reported that he died in the company of Megan Marshack, who was widely believed to have been his mistress.

Despite his somewhat troubled private life, Nelson Rockefeller’s legacy should primarily be that of a dedicated, exceedingly ambitious, extremely intelligent, hardworking New York governor and devoted public servant.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him demjcm@comcast.net.

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