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Nelson Rockefeller as a Symbol of a Bygone Era

Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller with President Gerald R. Ford in the Oval Office in 1974

Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller with President Gerald R. Ford in the Oval Office in 1974Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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.

Midtown Manhattan has his fingerprints all over it.

Richard Norton Smith's new book is “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.”

Richard Norton Smith’s new book is “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.”Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times


While still in his 20s, Rockefeller played a critical role in ensuring the success and defining the shape of Rockefeller Center. He used a combination of creative deal-making and arm-twisting to see that the “largest urban mixed-use construction project in the nation’s history” fulfilled its promise, despite the Depression. Partly as a result of his efforts, the landmark to the south soon became known as “the Empty State Building.” A frustrated architect, Rockefeller ultimately served as the center’s president and closely oversaw its form and construction.

To the north, the Museum of Modern Art, originally conceived by his mother while Rockefeller was in college, was realized in its current form through the sheer force of his will. To the east, the last-minute selection in 1946 of New York City over Philadelphia as the permanent site of the United Nations was entirely because of his intervention. This was achieved through a combination of his business deal-making skills, government connections from his time in the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House and State Department, as well as his family’s philanthropic largesse that acquired and donated the land.

The scope and scale of Rockefeller’s aspirations did not subside as he entered New York State’s highest office in January 1959. His lifelong practice of collecting the best and brightest minds – Henry Kissinger and Walt Rostow, for instance — came to prominence through the Rockefeller working groups. He tapped such thinkers regardless of their political bent, and they proved worthy in creating innovative practical solutions to pressing problems that often established the state as a thought leader.

To be sure, not all of these initiatives were winners. A headline after one particularly audacious budget was submitted – “Rockefeller Wants More of Everything” – suggests the downside of his enthusiasm. But along the way, his sense of optimism and urgency somehow won over a surprising number of disciples across the political spectrum.

Meade H. Esposito, the Brooklyn Democratic boss, at the 1974 convention in Niagara Falls.

Meade H. Esposito, the Brooklyn Democratic boss, at the 1974 convention in Niagara Falls.Credit William Sauro/The New York Times


One of the many aspects of Rockefeller’s story that inspires nostalgia is the extent to which he was able to reach across the aisle to pursue the common good. The Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade H. Esposito uttered breathless expletives when he first met Rockefeller and observed the sumptuous trappings of his Fifth Avenue home. The two, nonetheless, established an enduring working relationship that solved a seemingly intractable budget crisis.

Rockefeller was the ultimate establishment figure. Despite going out of his way to cultivate an everyman style when he campaigned and cajoled, no one was more aware of this fact than he. His college thesis was dedicated to a defense of the business practices of his grandfather John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Company epitomized the trusts that were busted at the turn of the 20th century. With the establishment moniker came a responsibility to protect and strengthen those institutions that define the establishment. His interest in and ability to simultaneously call on the public and private, the profit and nonprofit, sectors to pursue aspirational goals stemmed from this sense of self.

During a difficult moment in of one Rockefeller’s three failed presidential bids, a frantic aide begged him to call in the support of the so-called Eastern Establishment. “You’re looking at it buddy,” Rockefeller told him, “I’m all that’s left.”

One cannot read “On His Own Terms” without feeling that today’s cynicism about our private and public institutions is at least in part a function of the fact that there is no more establishment, at least as once conceived. So, for instance, when investment banks were private partnerships with a deep vested interest in their own reputations and the proper functioning of the financial markets, the public was comforted when a senior executive took a senior government position.

Today, however, the appointment of an executive from Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase to a senior Treasury Department position is sure to lead to public outcry, Internet conspiracy theories and a tough confirmation hearing. That this public cynicism has been well earned does not mean that we are all not poorer for the fact that public institutions now make scant use of private sector expertise. The broader point, however, is that the very idea of an “establishment” leader with an institutional commitment to the durability of the overall economic and political ecosystem today seems almost quaint.

The private sector leaders that now capture the public imagination tend to be associated with insurgent businesses that use technology to upend the established order. Even in financial services, the landscape has come to be dominated by activists and hedge funds whose aim is to overturn or outsmart the incumbents.

The fact that today’s favored philanthropy of hedge fund billionaires is called the Robin Hood Foundation is reflective of just how schizophrenic our most well-heeled are about the “establishment” label. For all of his personal and professional failings, Rockefeller embraced the establishment role, mostly for the good. His story is a reminder of how much is lost when the most successful of us no longer think they have a vested interest in the success of the rest of us.

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

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