Nelson Rockefeller and the Politics of Philanthropy

When Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller resigned as governor of the State (of New York in 1973, it was believed that no future chief executive could match his spending record. For fifteen years, he had done so well disbursing public funds that even politicians considered improvement impossible. The state's debts aggregated $11.8 billion, 20 per cent of all monies owed individually by the fifty states of the Union.

Nelson – short, stocky, and square-jawed - had seemed destined for the White House when he took office as governor. During America's post-Second World War imperial age, the Rockefellers were America's 'first family' in business and in philanthropy, pace-setters in developing national agendas. If he had won the presidency, Rockefeller might have pre-empted Ronald Reagan's defence appropriations. As governor, he warmed to a $100 million programme to build atom-bomb shelters. But, blocked by state legislators, he could spend only $4 million – for a bunker underneath the Governor's Mansion.

Like Reagan, Rockefeller campaigned as a fiscal conservative. There, similarities between their financial policies end. The governor increased taxes as often as possible. During most of his administration, the electorate approved his budgets, partly on the theory that a Rockefeller was too rich to use the money for graft.

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