Political Hay

Governor Trump?

The conservative Nelson Rockefeller.

By 12.26.13

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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.


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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director, an author, and a CNN commentator. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com and @Jeffjlpa1.