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Book Nook: On His Own Terms - a Life of Nelson Rockefeller, by Richard Norton Smith


2014 was another great year for biographies. One of my favorites was a biography of Nelson Rockefeller. Here's my review which ran in the Cox Ohio newspapers:

Nelson Rockefeller pursued a dream over the course of his lifetime; he wanted to become the president of the United States. It was not meant to be, but he gave it his best shot. In his latest book, the historian Richard Norton Smith notes that for this grandson of one the richest men in America, John D. Rockefeller: “the presidency is one of the few things beyond Rockefeller’s purchasing power.” Smith spent 14 years researching and writing “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller,” his monumental biography of a politician who was a liberal Republican 50 years ago and already out of step with his political party. Smith opens his book in 1964 during a captivating moment in Rockefeller’s political career as Sen. Barry Goldwater was on the verge of becoming the Republican nominee to run against the incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson.   Before Goldwater’s nomination was finalized at the Republican convention Rockefeller gave a speech to the assembled delegates. Rockefeller, aka Rocky, had already failed to generate sufficient support to be chosen as their nominee. Still, he was convinced that Goldwater was too conservative to get elected. History shows us Rocky was right. Smith describes the hostile atmosphere Rocky experienced on the convention floor during his speech; “At the podium, Rockefeller is openly taunting the crowd: ‘This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen.’ ” Rockefeller made one last attempt to derail Goldwater’s impending nomination, and things are turning ugly as this drama unfolds. Smith writes, “the Cow Palace becomes a political slaughterhouse, wherein any prospects for Republican victory in November are rapidly expiring before a stunned television audience.” Following this highly charged beginning Smith takes us back to revisit Rockefeller’s privileged childhood. It wasn’t what you might expect. Rocky and his four brothers were kept on strict allowances. Even after the young man went away to college he often ran out of spending money. Although it was not diagnosed until he was middle aged, he had a learning disability, too. He was dyslexic. But nothing seemed to hold him back. Smith goes into great detail. We meet Rocky in all of his various incarnations: grandson, son, husband, father, art collector, builder, philanthropist, philanderer, heir, governor of New York, presidential candidate and, finally, vice president of the United States. After President Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford assumed the presidency he chose Rocky as his VP. That was one job Rockefeller never wanted, and he didn’t enjoy it very much. There were scandals. Some voters had soured on Rocky’s presidential ambitions in 1964 because he had just gone through a divorce and married a much younger woman. Rocky did what he had to do even if it could have cost him the presidency. Governor Rockefeller’s handling of the prisoner revolt at Attica left a lot to be desired. Then there was his unfortunate demise in the company of his much younger mistress. The author does an excellent job of revealing Nelson Rockefeller’s many attributes and his numerous flaws in this careful, balanced biography.

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Vick Mickunas introduced the Book Nook author interview program for WYSO in 1994. Over the years he has produced more than 1500 interviews with writers, musicians, poets, politicians, and celebrities. Listen to the Book Nook with Vick Mickunas for intimate conversations about books with the writers who create them. Vick Mickunas reviews books for the Dayton Daily News and the Springfield News Sun.