Profile: Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller was a participant or observer in the following events:
Gerald R. Ford, Jr. [Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library]President Nixon names Congressman Gerald R. Ford (R-MI) as his nominee for vice president. Two days before, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office after being convicted of tax evasion charges unrelated to Watergate (see October 10, 1973). [Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, 5/3/1999] Nixon’s original choice for Agnew’s replacement is former Texas governor John Connally, in hopes that Connally can secure the 1976 GOP presidential nomination, win the election, and continue Nixon’s legacy. But Connally, Nixon’s Treasury Election, is himself under investigation for his handling of a secret Nixon campaign fund. Nixon’s close political ally and strategist Melvin Laird, Nixon’s first secretary of defense, and veteran political adviser Bryce Harlow advised Nixon to select Ford as his new vice president. Other Republicans are recommending better-known party stalwarts—former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, California governor Ronald Reagan, Senate Watergate Committee co-chair Howard Baker, Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, Senator Barry Goldwater, Republican Party chairman George H.W. Bush, Connally, Laird, and others—Ford is a complete party loyalist, popular among Congressional Republicans, and an influential member of the House Judiciary Committee. By naming Ford as vice president, Laird and Barlow hope to head off any impeachment vote by that committee. On October 10, Laird phoned Ford and, according to Laird’s later recollection, said: “Jerry, you’re going to get a call from Al Haig [Nixon’s chief of staff]. I don’t want any bullsh_t from you. Don’t hesitate. Don’t talk to Betty [Ford, his wife]. Say yes.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 30-31]
Entity Tags: Melvin Laird, Nelson Rockefeller, Spiro T. Agnew, Ronald Reagan, Richard M. Nixon, John Connally, Howard Baker, Bryce Harlow, Hugh Scott, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, House Judiciary Committee, George Herbert Walker Bush
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
While President Nixon is bidding his White House staffers farewell (see August 8, 1974), White House military office chief William Gulley collects a dozen boxes with personal papers from the residency wing of the White House. Nixon wants the papers delivered to his private home in California, where they cannot be viewed by others. In consultation with Nixon’s military aide, Jack Brennan, Gulley determines to get the papers to California before incoming President Ford can consolidate control of the White House and stop any shipments of presidential documents out of Washington and public view. Gulley will be successful. [Werth, 2006, pp. 44-45] At about this same time, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has 30 crates of his own files, including phone transcripts, secretly shipped to the bomb shelter of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in New York, consigning those files to public oblivion. [Werth, 2006, pp. 241]
Nelson Rockefeller. [Source: National Archives]The choice of a vice president for Gerald Ford quickly narrows to two: former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush. Ford’s political adviser Melvin Laird believes Rockefeller is the only Republican who can deliver enough political punch to help Ford win the 1976 presidential election. Others tried to tout outgoing California governor Ronald Reagan as a viable vice presidential choice, but few of Ford’s staff and advisers believe that Reagan is a good choice for the slot. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) refuses consideration, saying that he is too old, but when asked who he would recommend, names Bush. Bush and his supporters mount a strong internal campaign for the job. One such supporter, Nebraska Republican operative Richard Herman, says that Bush’s best qualification is that he is “the only one with no opposition. He may not be the first choice in all cases, but he’s no lower than second with anyone.” Rockefeller is much more ambivalent about his possible selection; he has presidential ambitions of his own, but at age 66 knows that if he ever intends to run for the White House, his time is at hand. Spending four years as Ford’s vice president does not appeal to Rockefeller. And GOP conservatives, spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) loathe and vilify Rockefeller at every opportunity. [Werth, 2006, pp. 61-63] However, Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, is working behind the scenes to promote Rockefeller’s nomination over Bush’s with the RNC. Rumsfeld has no more use for Rockefeller than do the Helms supporters, but he feels he will have a better shot at the 1980 presidential nomination with Rockefeller as vice president than he will with Bush. [Unger, 2007, pp. 52]
Republican political adviser and corporate lobbyist Bryce Harlow recommends former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller over former ambassador and current Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush to serve as vice president (see August 20, 1974). Bush may be a better choice for party harmony, Harlow says, but that choice would be considered indecisive and overly partisan. On the other hand, Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, would be considered a “bold” choice and “would be hailed by the media normally most hostile to Republicans.” Rockefeller’s selection would also “encourage estranged groups to return to the Party and would signal that the new president will not be captive of any political faction.”
Watergate Allegations against Rockefeller - Rockefeller’s naming as vice president, strongly supported by President Ford, is briefly held up by unfounded allegations that Rockefeller hired thugs to disrupt the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and that the papers to prove the allegations were stolen from the offices of convicted Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt. The charges are leveled by an elderly anti-Communist activist named Hamilton Long. The story leaks to the press, and Ford, taking no chances, orders the FBI to investigate Rockefeller, Bush, and senior staff aide Donald Rumsfeld for possible selection as the vice president. Long’s allegations prove baseless when Watergate investigators locate the safety deposit boxes in which Long says the documents are stored, and find the boxes empty.
Ford Offers VP - After learning that Rockefeller is free of any Watergate taint, Ford privately asks him to accept the vice presidency. Rockefeller will have strong influence on the Ford administration’s domestic and economic policies, Ford promises, and, additionally, Rockefeller will be Ford’s vice presidential choice in the 1976 presidential elections. The last obstacle is the press, which is all but convinced that the White House is involved in another Watergate cover-up, this time with Ford at the helm. A White House source tells reporters that the so-called “Rockefeller Papers” are nothing more than a hoax concocted by “right-wing extremists who decided it would be useful to blacken the name of Governor Rockefeller.” The explanations by press secretary Jerald terHorst, himself a former reporter, and terHorst’s acceptance of the blame for giving confusing and somewhat misleading information about the Rockefeller allegations, somewhat mollifies the press. White House counsel Robert Hartmann recalls the Long incident and its handling as an example of the inexperience of the Ford staff and of Ford himself. “[W]e were all babes in the White House,” he later writes. “We had done the right thing and truthfully told what we had done, but it was unfair to Rockefeller to give presidential credence to Long’s hearsay. And of course, the press castigated us for that the next day.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 93-105]
Entity Tags: Robert Hartmann, Nelson Rockefeller, Hamilton Long, Jerald terHorst, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bryce Harlow, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, E. Howard Hunt, Ford administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Donald Rumsfeld
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Unaware that President Ford has already asked Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president (see August 16-17, 1974), the media continues to speculate on who Ford will choose for the position. Newsweek reports that George H.W. Bush “has slipped badly because of alleged irregularities in the financing of his 1970 Senate race.” White House sources tell the magazine, “there was potential embarrassment in reports that the Nixon White House had funneled about $100,000 from a secret fund known as the ‘Townhouse Operation’” into Bush’s losing Texas Senate campaign, which itself failed to report about $40,000 of the money. The news rocks Bush, who is waiting for Ford’s phone call while vacationing at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. (It is unclear who leaked the Bush information or why. Bush always believes it was Ford’s political adviser Melvin Laird; future Ford biographer James Cannon is equally sure it was Ford’s senior aide Donald Rumsfeld, a dark horse candidate for the position.) The “Townhouse Operation” is an early Nixon administration campaign machination (see Early 1970). Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski is investigating the fund; the nomination of Bush over Rockefeller would almost certainly lead Jaworski to discover that up to 18 other GOP Senate candidates received money from the same slush fund. Jaworski will manage to keep Bush’s name out of his final report, but even had Ford not already chosen Rockefeller as his vice president, the Watergate taint is lethal to Bush’s chance at the position. [Werth, 2006, pp. 114-116]
President Ford announces the selection of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, a moderately liberal Republican, as his vice president. Ford gives Richard Nixon a courtesy call to inform him of the selection before making the public announcement. Nixon seems “very pleased,” Ford will later write. “He said Nelson’s name and experience in foreign policy would help me internationally, and that he was fully qualified to be president should something happen to me. The extreme right wing, he continued, would be very upset, but I shouldn’t worry because I couldn’t please them anyway.” Ford then telephones George H.W. Bush, who is bitterly disappointed at being passed over. To make the public announcement, Ford enters the Oval Office with Rockefeller at his side. Ford characterizes the decision to select Rockefeller as “a tough call for a tough job.” Rockefeller must be confirmed by the Senate, but no one expects any difficulties on that score. Rockefeller does cause a stir by confirming that Ford has “every intention” of running for president in 1976, though Rockefeller will not confirm that he will also be on the ticket. Most Republicans outside of the hard-core right applaud Rockefeller’s selection. House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-AZ), a longtime Ford ally, chides the extremists: “I can’t believe conservative Republicans feel broadening the base of the party is a bad thing—unless they want to keep on losing and keep being a minority—and I just can’t subscribe to that way of thinking.” The mainstream media approves of Rockefeller as well, with CBS’s Eric Sevareid calling the new Ford-Rockefeller administration a triumph of “common sense.” He goes on to say the two are so popular that Democrats, “more deeply divided than the Republicans,” may find themselves in for a “long stretch in the political wilderness.… They thought they could run against Nixon for the next twenty [years]. But as things stand now they can’t run against Nixon even this year.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 138-143]
Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford at a Los Angeles hotel, October 1974. [Source: David Hume Kennerly / Vanity Fair]The Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, has until now been undecided whether to run for president in 1976 against Ford. But Nelson Rockefeller’s nomination as vice president (see August 20, 1974) galvanizes Reagan and his team. Conservative Republicans begin gathering under Reagan’s banner to oppose what they see as an unacceptably left-leaning 1976 ticket of Ford and Rockefeller. Reagan is not universally popular in the GOP: Richard Nixon thought him “strange” and not “pleasant to be around.” For his part, Reagan has until now staunchly supported Nixon throughout the Watergate debacle, but has begun exhorting young conservatives to forget Nixon and embrace conservative ideology. At a Maryland fund-raising party, Reagan tells the crowd that the Ford administration must reassert what he calls the “mandate of 1972,” when Nixon trounced Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in the most lopsided victory in modern US history. By re-electing Nixon so overwhelmingly, Reagan says, “voters rejected an invitation to Utopia and reaffirmed the basic values from which our system was built. They voted for fiscal responsibility and individual determination of their own destinies.… They repudiated the idea that government should grow bigger and bigger, that we should embrace more costly programs to alleviate human misery—programs that somehow never succeed no matter how much money is spent on them. The mandate of 1972 was a matter of the people vs. big government. The people, I believe, have given the government a mandate which they expect to be enforced.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 180-181]
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld speaking to reporters, 1975. [Source: Gaylinkcontent (.com)]President Ford asks Donald Rumsfeld to replace the outgoing Alexander Haig at the White House (see September 16-Late September, 1974). Rumsfeld has long been Haig’s choice to replace him (see August 14, 1974). Ford does not want to give Rumsfeld the official title of “chief of staff,” and instead wants Rumsfeld as “staff coordinator.” The difference is academic. Ford wants the aggressive, bureaucratically savvy Rumsfeld to help him regain control over a White House that is, in the words of author Barry Werth, “riven with disunity, disorganization, and bad blood.” Rumsfeld agrees, and names former Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney as his deputy (who makes himself valuable by initially doing the lowest forms of bureaucratic scutwork). Rumsfeld and Cheney will eventually wield almost Nixonian power in Ford’s White House, successfully blocking the “in-house liberal,” Vice President Rockefeller, from exerting any real influence, and hobbling Henry Kissinger’s almost-limitless influence.
Blocking of Rockefeller and Kissinger for Ideological and Political Reasons - Rumsfeld begins his in-house assault in classic fashion: trying to cause tension between Kissinger and White House officials by snitching on Kissinger to any White House official who will listen. Kissinger eventually tells Ford: “Don’t listen to [Rumsfeld], Mr. President. He’s running for president in 1980.” Rumsfeld and Cheney do their best to open the White House to hardline defense hawks and the even more hardline neoconservatives led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) and Jackson’s aide, Richard Perle. (Though Rumsfeld and Cheney are not considered neoconservatives in a strict sense, their aims are almost identical—see June 4-5, 1974). Kissinger’s efforts to win a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East are held in contempt by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the neoconservatives; using Ford’s press secretary Ron Nessen as a conduit, Rumsfeld and Cheney leak information about the negotiations to the press, helping to cripple the entire peace process. Rumsfeld and Cheney have larger personal plans as well: they want to secure the White House for Rumsfeld, perhaps as early as 1976, but certainly by 1980. One of their methods of winning support is to undercut Kissinger as much as possible; they believe they can win support among the GOP’s right wing by thwarting Kissinger’s “realpolitik” foreign policy stratagems.
Rumsfeld as 'Wizard of Oz' - According to the chief of Ford’s Economic Policy Board, William Seidman, Rumsfeld’s bureaucratic machinations remind him of the Wizard of Oz: “He thought he was invisible behind the curtain as he worked the levers, but in reality everyone could see what he was doing.” Rumsfeld and Cheney will make their most open grasp for power in orchestrating the “Halloween Massacre” (see November 4, 1975 and After). [Werth, 2006, pp. 336-337; Unger, 2007, pp. 49-52]
Entity Tags: William Seidman, Ron Nessen, Richard Perle, Barry Werth, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, Henry A. Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, Alexander M. Haig, Jr.
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
Nelson Rockefeller is sworn in as vice president (see August 20, 1974). [Rockefeller Family Archives, 6/7/2007]
Bad Blood and Confirmation Difficulties - Rockefeller has trouble even before taking office. Branded as a liberal by many in the Republican Party, and winning as many enemies as friends with his outsized ego and gladhanding demeanor, Rockefeller garnered swift and obdurate resistance particularly from the right wing both outside the White House (see August 24, 1974) and in (see September 21, 1974 and After). During the Senate’s confirmation hearings, many Democrats and some Republicans relished forcing Rockefeller, one of the wealthiest men in the country, to open his finances to public scrutiny. Even President Ford privately expresses his astonishment. “Can you imagine?” he asked during the hearings. “Nelson lost $30 million in one year and it didn’t make any difference.” When it was revealed that Rockefeller had given huge personal contributions to lawmakers and government officials—including Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—in the form of “loans” that never needed repaying, the Senate hearings became even more inquisitorial. The hearings dragged on for months until Ford personally intervened, telling House and Senate leaders that it was “in the national interest that you confirm Rockefeller, and I’m asking you to move as soon as possible.” [US Senate, 7/7/2007]
Cheney Wanted Reagan - Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, far more conservative than either Ford or Rockefeller, opposes Rockefeller’s influence from the start, and works with his boss, Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, to minimize Rockefeller’s influence. In 1986, Cheney will say that Ford “should have thought of Ronald Reagan as vice president in the summer of 1974, if you are talking strictly in political terms.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 38]
Domestic Squabbles - Both Ford and Rockefeller want the new vice president to be what Ford calls “a full partner” in his administration, particularly on domestic issues. Ford appoints him to chair the Domestic Council, but behind the scenes, Rockefeller’s implacable enemy, Rumsfeld, who sees Rockefeller as a “New Deal” economic liberal, blocks his influence at every term, both from personal and ideological dislike and from a desire to keep power in the White House to himself and his small, close-knit aides. (Cheney, ever attentive to indirect manipulations, inflames Rumsfeld’s dislike of Rockefeller even further by suggesting to his nakedly ambitious boss that if Rockefeller was too successful in implementing domestic policy, he would be perceived as “the man responsible for drafting the agenda of 1976,” thus limiting Rumsfeld’s chances of being named vice president in Ford’s re-election campaign (see November 4, 1975 and After). When Rockefeller tries to implement Ford’s suggested policy that domestic policymakers report to Ford through Rockefeller, Rumsfeld interferes. When Rockefeller names one of his trusted assistants, James Cannon, to head the Domestic Council, Rumsfeld slashes the Council’s budget almost to zero. When Rockefeller proposes a $100 billion Energy Independence Authority, with the aim to reduce and perhaps even end the nation’s dependency on foreign energy sources, Rumsfeld joins Ford’s economic and environmental advisers to block its creation. When Rockefeller proposes an idea for the president to Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld hands it off to Cheney, who ensures that it dies a quiet, untraceable bureaucratic death.
Rockefeller Neutralized - Cheney later recalls that Rockefeller “came to a point where he was absolutely convinced that Don Rumsfeld and myself were out to scuttle whatever new initiatives he could come up with.” Rumsfeld and other Ford staffers ensure that Rockefeller is not involved in key policy meetings; when Ford proposes large cuts in federal taxes and spending, Rockefeller complains, “This is the most important move the president has made, and I wasn’t even consulted.” Asked what he is allowed to do as vice president, Rockefeller answers: “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.” He says, only half sardonically, that redesigning the vice-presidential seal is “the most important thing I’ve done.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 38-39; US Senate, 7/7/2007]
Following in Rockefeller's Footsteps - Ironically, when Cheney becomes vice president in 2001, he uses what Rockefeller intended to do as a model for his own, extremely powerful vice presidency. James Cannon, who came into the Ford administration with Rockefeller, will marvel in 2006, “Cheney is now doing what he and Rumsfeld blocked Rockefeller from doing—influencing policy.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 39-40]
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (see December 19, 1974 and After) is instrumental in keeping Senate Democrats from finding out too much about the intelligence community’s excesses. When the New York Times reveals the existence of a decades-old illegal domestic surveillance program run by the CIA (see December 21, 1974), President Ford heads off calls from Democrats to investigate the program by appointing the “Rockefeller Commission” to investigate in the Democrats’ stead. Senate Democrats, unimpressed with the idea, create the Church Committee to investigate the intelligence community (see April, 1976). Rockefeller is adept at keeping critical documents out of the hands of the Church Committee and the press. When Senator Frank Church asks for materials from the White House, he is told that the Rockefeller Commission has them; when he asks Rockefeller for the papers, he is told that he cannot have them because only the president can authorize access. One Church aide later calls Rockefeller “absolutely brilliant” in denying them access in a friendly manner. “He winked and smiled and said, ‘Gee, I want to help you but, of course I can’t—not until we’ve finished our work and the president approves it,’” the aide recalls. Senator John Tower (R-TX), the vice chairman of the committee, will later reflect, “We were very skillfully finessed.” But even Rockefeller, who has his own history of involvement with the CIA, is taken aback at the excesses of the CIA, particularly its history of assassinating foreign leaders. Rockefeller will eventually turn that information over to the Church Committee, giving that body some of the most explosive evidence as yet made public against the agency. [US Senate, 7/7/2007]
President Ford fires a number of Nixon holdovers and replaces them with “my guys… my own team,” both to show his independence and to prepare for a bruising 1976 primary battle with Ronald Reagan. The wholesale firings and reshufflings are dubbed the “Halloween Massacre.” Donald Rumsfeld becomes secretary of defense, replacing James Schlesinger (see November 4, 1975). George H. W. Bush replaces William Colby as director of the CIA. Henry Kissinger remains secretary of state, but his position as national security adviser is given to Brent Scowcroft. Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s deputy chief of staff, moves up to become the youngest chief of staff in White House history. Perhaps the most controversial decision is to replace Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s vice-presidential candidate for the 1976 elections. Ford’s shake-up is widely viewed as his cave-in to Republican Party hardliners. He flounders in his defense of his new staffers: for example, when Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) asks him why he thinks Rumsfeld is qualified to run the Pentagon, Ford replies, “He was a pilot in the Korean War.” The ultimate winner in the shake-up is Rumsfeld, who instigated the moves from behind the scenes and gains the most from them. Rumsfeld quickly wins a reputation in Washington as a political opportunist, gunning for the vice presidency in 1976 and willing to do whatever is necessary to get it. Rockefeller tells Ford: “Rumsfeld wants to be president of the United States. He has given George Bush the deep six by putting him in the CIA, he has gotten me out.… He was third on your [vice-presidential] list (see August 16-17, 1974) and now he has gotten rid of two of us.… You are not going to be able to put him on the [ticket] because he is defense secretary, but he is not going to want anybody who can possibly be elected with you on that ticket.… I have to say I have a serious question about his loyalty to you.” Later, Ford will write of his sharp regret in pushing Rockefeller off the ticket: “I was angry at myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives: It’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 340-341] “It was the biggest political mistake of my life,” Ford later says. “And it was one of the few cowardly things I did in my life.” [US Senate, 7/7/2007]
Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, William Colby, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, James R. Schlesinger, Barry Goldwater, Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcroft, George Herbert Walker Bush, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr, Henry A. Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
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