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Centennial Man

Reflections on Nelson Rockefeller's legacy
Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller '30 greets Dartmouth students at a 1959 political rally. (photo: Dartmouth College Library)

I attended my first-ever political rally in the spring of 1959 when New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller '30 came back to Dartmouth and students swarmed over the lawn in front of Dartmouth Hall to listen to him-and cheer. As editor of the Daily D, I also got the first political scoop of my career when Dartmouth's then-president, John Sloan Dickey '29, told me he was endorsing Rockefeller for president.

"Rockefeller Republicans"-hard-line on foreign policy but liberal on economics, civil rights, the environment, and the role of government-are now all but an extinct species, but in the 1950s and early 1960s, they were a force to be reckoned with. And I think it's fair to say that Rockefeller Republicanism was the dominant ideology on campus, to the extent that students in those days of rampant "apathy" had any interest in politics at all.

We've come a long, long way since the time when all seniors were required to take a course called Great Issues-fostered by Rockefeller-and forced to read The New York Times every day.

The Vietnam War ended apathy, but now the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth perpetuates the dedication to public policy that Rockefeller epitomized. The center, 25 years old this year, is sponsoring a year-long series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rockefeller's birth.

"Multi-disciplinary" is the center's by-word and it also sums up the extraordinary career of Nelson Rockefeller, who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the Truman administration, special assistant to President Eisenhower for foreign affairs, and undersecretary in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. He was also a collector of modern and pre-Columbian art and for nearly 20 years was president of the Museum of Modern Art. And, he was a Dartmouth trustee.

He was elected governor of New York four times and is renowned for massive infrastructure projects (he was accused of having an "edifice complex"), huge expansions of the state's park system, and efforts to expand public transit and control urban sprawl-even as he expanded the state's highway system.

And, of course, he ran for president three times-in 1960, 1964, and 1968-and never made it, chiefly because liberal Republicanism was in the process of becoming an oxymoron. But he fought vigorously for his ideas and was such a towering figure that President Ford picked him as vice president in 1974.

In the spirit of Rockefeller, the center named after him covers a gamut of activities, offering an introductory course in public policy that attracts about 80 students a year, funding for upwards of 60 off-campus internships including its First-Year Fellows program in Washington [see article above], an exchange program at Oxford, a Leadership Fellows Program offering opportunities for independent studies, dozens of discussion groups, and courses allowing students to minor in public policy.

The centennial observance was kicked off in February with a lecture on health-care reform by former Bush advisor Mark McClellan. Others on the roster include: former New Jersey Gov. (and EPA administrator) Christie Todd Whitman, who calls herself "the last Rockefeller Republican"; presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who is at work on a new biography of Rockefeller; and Time-Warner Chairman Dick Parsons, once a Rockefeller protégé. It figures to be a rich intellectual feast-as befits the broad inquisitiveness of Rockefeller.

The center's director, Andrew Samwick, also a professor of economics at the College since 1994, emphasizes that "Rocky"-as the center is called-is almost alone among public policy centers serving undergraduates and working with other academic departments instead of superceding them. Nelson Rockefeller would have appreciated those distinctions for his alma mater.


Morton Kondracke

Credit: Fox News Channel

Morton Kondracke '60 has been a journalist for 45 years, 40 in Washington. He is presently executive editor of Roll Call, the independent newspaper of Capitol Hill, and a regular commentator on the Fox News Channel. He previously was a charter member of The McLaughlin Group, executive editor of The New Republic, Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and White House correspondent for The Chicago Sun-Times.

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Last Updated: 7/24/18