Is Donald Trump the conservative version of Nelson Rockefeller? The Rich Guy with unimaginable name-ID, talent and endless energy who would love to be President of the United States and possessing what some will say is all but one credential?
That missing credential being major elective office?
Coincidentally, Mr. Trump, who recently met with New York Conservative Party leaders making the case for a Trump gubernatorial candidacy, is, like the late four-term New York, Governor Rockefeller, a life-long New Yorker. The real deal. In Trump’s case hailing from the precincts of Brooklyn and Queens.
Like Nelson Rockefeller, Donald Trump has frequently been connected to presidential aspirations. And like Rockefeller, most observers presume that to be elected president, getting the GOP presidential nomination is the way to go.
Interestingly, though Nelson Rockefeller eventually became synonymous with liberal Republicanism — a personal political choice that destroyed his presidential nomination chances — Rockefeller also left behind a decidedly philosophically neutral blue print for just how Trump could win the New York governorship. Assuming, of course, he wanted to actually do it.
Does Donald Trump want to be Governor of New York? In a recent interview with the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser, Trump left the door open for a decision next month. That December 16 meeting with Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long occurred after a December 4 meeting in Trump Tower with what Peyser describes as “a group of a dozen GOP state legislators and strategists.” In between a Trump aide had a sit-down with New York State Republican Chairman Ed Cox.
So let’s go back into the history of New York State politics and the New York Republican Party and see just what happened to catapult a very rich and famous New Yorker into four election wins as governor of New York, two serious presidential runs, and a brief moment as vice president of the United States.
The year: 1958.
The sitting Governor of New York was Democrat W. Averell Harriman, a scion of a so-called “robber baron” — wealthy railroader E.H. Harriman. Averell Harriman, a man of considerable accomplishment as banker, diplomat, and politician, had been elected in 1954, defeating a popular GOP senator to succeed three-term GOP governor — and twice GOP presidential nominee — Thomas E. Dewey. Harriman, who had lost a 1952 Democratic presidential nomination bid to Adlai Stevenson had tried again in 1956 — endorsed this time by former President Harry Truman — yet still failed to defeat Stevenson a second time.
New York Republicans were looking for a candidate to take on the formidable Harriman. And Thomas E. Dewey, was convinced Nelson Rockefeller definitely was not that man. In fact, Dewey was quietly on record as saying he didn’t think Rockefeller could be elected “dogcatcher.”
The 49-year old Nelson Rockefeller disagreed. Helped by his fabulous inherited family wealth and universal name ID, the energetic Nelson had spent a lifetime barreling full tilt into whatever it was he wanted to do. He had taken control of the idea of building Rockefeller Center from family minions — and got it done. Single handedly he had made the Museum of Modern Art a New York reality. Jumping into politics he ran U.S. policy in Latin America for FDR and was a key player in the organizing conference of the United Nations. He was the brains behind President Harry Truman’s “Point Four” programs of supplying U.S. foreign aid to the developing world at the dawn of the Cold War, then went on in the Eisenhower era to play a central role as Eisenhower’s national security adviser and backer of creating the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
By 1958 Nelson Rockefeller’s seemingly endless energy and drive had made a mark across multiple areas of international, American, and New York politics and culture. “Asked once by an interviewer what he would have done if he hadn’t been born with a fortune,” wrote one biographer, Nelson replied “I would have made one.”
Yet as 1958 dawned Rockefeller had come up against a stark realization. For all of his money and power, for all the access to presidents, governors, and mayors, he himself had to deal with being simply the behind-the-scenes go-to guy. He was forever asked for advice, and certainly for money, by politicians. But in the end he was not one of them — not an equal — because he lacked what they had: major public office. It grated.
Nelson Rockefeller was by 1958 the King of New York. The man who believed nothing was impossible, and as his enormous energies began to fuel serious political ambition his focus on the presidency translated into first becoming not king but governor of New York.
He threw every resource he had into the challenge, well aware that Dewey thought a Rockefeller unelectable to anything because of the Rich Man reputation that accompanied all Rockefellers everywhere.
What did he do?
In an impossible-to-imagine scenario to his family members, Nelson Rockefeller zeroed in like a laser on the nitty-gritty of New York State Republican politics. He would fly up to Binghamton for a dinner at the home of party poo-bah George Hinman, spending hours talking one-on-one with a Hinman guest, the 80-something William H. “Billy” Hill. For fifty years any Republican who wanted to be anything in New York state had to get the blessing of Hill, the publisher of Binghamton’s leading newspaper, the chairman of surrounding Broome County and the boss of GOP politics in New York’s Southern Tier. The interesting part was that Hill was much more conservative than Rockefeller — yet cared less. Rockefeller recognized instantly that what Hill was really interested in was winning. From the governorship of New York sprang a rich fountain of patronage — cut off entirely with a Democrat in the governor’s chair.
Next on Rockefeller’s list was an Assemblyman from Westchester County — Malcolm Wilson. Wilson was known everywhere in New York political circles and wanted to be governor himself — but he had no money. So he threw his support to Rockefeller in a very interesting fashion. The two men — the middle-class Wilson and the patrician, super-rich Rockefeller — hit the road in New York. At Wilson’s insistence, there were to be just the two men on these trips. In Wilson’s words: “There will be no spear carriers, no sycophants, no acolytes, no baggage handlers. Just the two of us.” Rockefeller agreed enthusiastically.
And with that, the two men were off in Malcolm Wilson’s Buick. The traveled to decidedly un-Manhattan locations like Kinderhook in the Hudson Valley, coincidentally the home of Martin Van Buren, the first Governor of New York to become President of the United States. It began to dawn on Rockefeller that even though he thought he New York state — as chairman of a constitutional commission he had been to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany — in fact he didn’t. Said Wilson of his traveling companion: “But he didn’t know the state at all. Hardly anybody knows it, knows that you can drive one hundred miles southwest of Buffalo and still not be out of the state. Or that the town of Dunkirk in Chautauqua County is closer to Chicago than it is to New York City. It’s a hell of a big state.”
And so it was. For eight solid weeks Wilson and Rockefeller — alone — drove the highways and byways of New York State. The Catskills, the Mohawk Valley, the Finger Lakes, the Adirondacks. They visited factory towns and farming communities alike.
For all of his focus, Rockefeller would get impatient. He was a rich man and he wanted to fly. Sitting for hours in the Buick as they did this was, said Wilson later, sometimes “pure torture.”
But Rockefeller was a hit. He was morphing from the rich man Nelson Rockefeller into “Rocky”, the billionaire whose smile charmed the local leader’s wife and — not unlike the early congressional and Senate campaigns of the wealthy and charismatic young John Kennedy in Massachusetts — would convince the locals they’d just met some sort of American royalty. His effect on his rivals for the GOP nomination — one a prominent ex-GOP Republican National Chairman — was devastating.
Then there was the Rockefeller money. It played a curious role. Too much in evidence and it was a cause for alienation. But, says biographer Cary Reich in The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller, while “Rockefeller did not buy his first gubernatorial nomination… the awesome weight of his fortune — particularly going into a contest against another megamillionaire, Harriman — acted as decisively as if he did.”
What was particularly distinctive about that race was the desperate need of that day’s GOP for a winner. Rank-and-file New York Republicans were positively inspired by Rockefeller’s fighting spirit, his vigor, his “hi ya fella” New Yorkness.
Rockefeller upset the odds that year of 1958. The election nationwide was a disaster for the GOP, as off-year elections six years into the incumbent president’s term repeatedly turn out to be. But Nelson Rockefeller beat the favored incumbent Averell Harriman — launching himself both into the governor’s chair where he would remain for the next fifteen years running New York like a fiefdom — and into the national arena as a serious potential president.
Times have changed since 1958. The political liberalism that Nelson Rockefeller came to so vividly embody was on its way to being routed by conservatives in the national GOP. As biographer Reich notes, the irony is that Rockefeller’s very liberalism and combined with his clout and record as Governor of New York in essence helped propel not the Age of Rockefeller but the Age of Reagan.
Philosophically speaking, Donald Trump is no Nelson Rockefeller. The Peyser column notes that he is scornful of uber-leftist environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for Kennedy’s role in stopping fracking in New York State, with Kennedy calling his ex-brother-in-law Governor Andrew Cuomo to stop fracking in its tracks. Meanwhile, as Trump told this writer, just over the New York border in Pennsylvania fracking is hitting its stride — in part because Trump believes the gas taken is coming from underneath the New York border, leaving New York the poorer at Cuomo’s hands. In today’s world, Trump is well on record as a Reagan fan, disdainful of those perceived by conservatives as Rockefeller’s political heirs. He is not a fan of George W. Bush.
Which leaves open the question.
Does Donald Trump want to be Governor of New York?
Could he be elected?
Yes, he could. By all accounts, 2014 is slated to be a GOP year. The Obama administration is plummeting by the day. Andrew Cuomo has not shown himself to be an overpoweringly popular governor. The one poll cited in Peyser’s column as Trump far behind — just as Rockefeller was once thought to be unelectable. And not to be forgotten, Trump’s battle with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (or “Shakedown Schneiderman” as we call him here) alleging corruption on the part of Schneiderman would be red meat in a Trump for Governor campaign. (Over the holidays, as reported by the Associated Press, Trump filed two charges of ethics breaches against Schneiderman, setting the table neatly for a corruption-in-Albany campaign.)
But politics aside, the real question is what is in Donald Trump’s head?
Unlike Nelson Rockefeller, Trump built his fortune himself. Overcoming every considerable challenge along the way. At this point, only Donald Trump can say whether he still gets up in the morning with the fire in the belly to build new resorts, golf courses, hotels, palaces, and towers. At 67, it may well be that he really is looking for a new challenge — and as with Nelson Rockefeller in 1958 — after a life of considerable accomplishment has decided to finally take the serious political plunge. Had Mitt Romney won the presidential election last year, certainly Trump this minute might have been Secretary of the Treasury. He is scheduled next month to make a trip to New Hampshire, re-launching the presidential talk.
The hard political fact of American life is that no one has been elected president without first holding political or military office — governor, general, senator, or congressman. The lone famous exception is utility executive Wendell Willkie, who swept the office-holders aside in 1940 in an upset to win the GOP presidential nomination — and then lose to FDR.
But in the end, all of this is talk.
Can Donald Trump move from Trump Tower to the governor’s mansion? Can he be the turns New York State politics upside down, remakes the state and along the way gets a serious shot at the White House? Is he willing to, as it were, spend weeks on end in a Buick with some modern version of Malcolm Wilson at his side visiting the Kinderhooks of New York? Beguiling the locals with his smile, his trademark New York breeziness, listening — and learning — about their problems? Showing his famous willingness to fight the good fight on the behalf of all New Yorkers? And along the way remaking New York politics in a conservative Trump fashion as Rockefeller did in the liberal fashion? Not to mention opening the door to a presidential run?
Only Donald Trump gets to decide.
But if he did?
Heartburn would be the least of Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schneiderman’s problems.