by Chris R. Morgan

Nelson Rockefeller Flips Off Hecklers

I’m told that it is a common nicety shared by scores of Americans of dispositions that can best be considered reasonable to never speak ill of the dead. I can’t recall ever having heard of this custom, nor, to be frank, have I ever considered myself to have anywhere approaching a reasonable disposition or an even temperament or a chill outlook. Furthermore, it hardly seems fair for someone of my aims and abilities to be born so long after both the prime and the death of the target against whom I want to apply them. However, if it means that much to all those people, I’m willing to compromise. If it helps, I will hold off my comments until Nelson Rockefeller’s remains have been exhumed and Andrew Cuomo temporarily relieves himself of his position of Governor of New York so that said remains can be safely sworn back into office and seated in Albany for however long it takes for me to carry out this task. I’ll wait.

Anyway, I suppose I should, at the very least, know that Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller was a scion of one of the most powerul families this nation has ever produced. Or that he was, for a short time, vice president of said country, not to mention a frequent but not altogether successful applicant to the higher office. He was, indeed, a champion of “moderation” against the rush of “extremism” that captivated his chosen Republican party in the mid-1960s. In the hearts of some, he is lionized for that alone, for standing athwart history yelling, “Hey, hold your horses.” I don’t consider myself a stupid person, but for those who are inclined to disagree at their leisure, I will cede them in this instance. There is only so much knowledge I can retain, and when it comes to Nelson Rockefeller, I could only dedicate those few seconds out of my day spent not actively fretting over literally any other problem to reminding myself that he and Walter Mondale are two completely different people.

In fairness to me, it’s not hard to see why this could be. For all of their obvious distinctions—the urbane, cultured rich boy Republican versus the Plain Jane Minnesotan Democrat—Rockefeller and Mondale generally represent the same Wonder Bread banality of mid-20th century politics, or the kind that a certain generation prefers to remember: civil, averse to confrontation, and dedicated to sound policy and “good government.” In fact, one could just as easily deem this knowledge as sufficient for basically either of them, though more so in the case of Nelson, whose prime achievement may well be the natural dignity he lent to the office in which he served the greatest portion of his political career.

We tend to think of the state governorship as a kind of way station, a necessary holding place for people on the way to a more dignified level of public service. To wit, a single term of governor seems to go hand in hand with two or three terms in the House of Representatives. To grasp what is actually done in those positions isn’t as important as grasping that he or she who has sought that office has attained it, and will be able to provide greater subsequent results, and with your support there may be some incentives. And with 50 states, it’s an impossibility to keep total track of who is currently serving in any of them at any given time. It is not like in Canada, whose C-SPAN counterpart can create a multi-episode program dedicated to the arguably most notable premier of each of its provinces. Governors distinguish themselves in two ways. One is through infamy, whether it’s Orval Faubus in 1960s Arkansas or Rick Snyder in contemporary Michigan. The other is through prestige. We may never know the governor of Rhode Island, but some of us have more than passing familiarity with a Pat Brown, a Mario Cuomo, or a Deval Patrick simply by the prominence of their states. As governor of New York for four straight terms, Nelson Rockefeller had automatic reverence. It is as if he barely needed to accomplish anything, and yet that did not stop him, as we’ll see.

From 1959 until his resignation in 1973, Nelson Rockefeller’s tenure in Albany was characterized by what political lifers like to call “robustness,” the kind perhaps not seen in that office since the 1920s, when Al Smith carried out the policies that later served as the model for his successor’s own New Deal program. Indeed, to say that there was such a thing as Rockefeller policies would merit accusations of pointed insult. “Policies” are those meager morsels of political exertion that pop and crackle like flairs over state house domes, hopefully bright enough to see from Washington and from any number of donor hives. These concessions of middling radiance seemed so beneath a leader like Nelson that a whole new concept of governance had to be fashioned for accommodate its epic proportions.

More than a politician, Nelson Rockefeller was a craftsman, and his policies approaching something more akin to artistry. More than pleasing the party machinery, he sought no aim higher than the greater good of the state he was elected to administrate multiple times. His achievements are myriad and a bit difficult to summarize outside of just listing them. His fingerprints can be detected on New York’s massive education system, its environmental policy, its affordable housing policies, its tough drug laws, though not so much its current state of capital punishment. Moreover, his works have replicated on the national stage. Under his governorship, New York pioneered the abortion reform we were abruptly bestowed in Roe v. Wade. His patronage of the arts helped form the basis of the National Endowment for the Arts. He supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Sure, there were errors. Rockefeller played a tough hand in the Attica crisis, though the Department of Corrective Services made some effort to negotiate before ultimately cracking down.

Though they did not parlay Nelson into the White House or the Senate, these actions did cement in the minds of particularly mindful Americans an idea of Republican governance that was, on the whole, redeemable compared to what was on offer nationally. Rather than divisive, Rockefeller’s Republicanism was amenable to unity. Civil rights and “law and order,” for instance, were not mutually exclusive interests. The “Rockefeller Republican” was often considered a high honor, mostly from Democrats, and it seems the desire for the model is slipping its way into the nocturnal visions of current Republicans.

Yet Rockefeller’s achievement cannot be fully and fairly grasped on the actions he deliberately undertook. In greatness, especially so contoured and verifiable as that of Nelson’s, there is a double side, or perhaps a law of physics. For every few consequences born of action there is maybe one consequence wrought by inaction. This, too, is common among political systems, but leaders like Rockefeller practically demand inaction as outsized as their actions, and their cults.

Much of what remains of the Willowbrook State School sits in unkempt ruins in the middle of Staten Island. Closed in 1987, it functioned for four decades as a state-run healthcare center for patients with intellectual disabilities, primarily children. By the time Nelson Rockefeller had become governor the school had been functioning for 12 years, yet it never received greater attention than it did while he was in office.

Willowbrook was initially designed to house 4,000 patients within 375 acres. It was one of the biggest mental health hospitals of its kind with a design similar to Long Island’s then-massive Pilgrim State Hospital. The mid-20th century was the cultural peak of this type of building. Whatever advances had been made in understanding mental and developmental disorder, they did little to lessen the burdens, or at least the stigma, of being a family with so disordered a member, who was often sent to a place like Willowbrook on the advice of a local authority figure, a priest or doctor. This turned out to be popular advice, as hospitals found themselves quickly overtaxed. In fact, by 1965, Willowbrook’s population had exceeded its capacity by 2,000 patients, it was also the same year that Robert Kennedy went on television to personally deem Willowbrook a “snake pit,” ushering in seven straight years of bad publicity, culminating in 1972, when then-local reporter Geraldo Rivera was snuck a key to the facilities, allowing him to film and report the state of the school in grotesque and horrific detail.


Willowbrook resident, 1972, LIFE magazine.

One of the most perplexing phenomena of the 20th century for people of the 21st is that of the “mental hospital.” Its popularity as a setting for numerous horror films is proof of that, yet few can quite come out and explain what makes it entirely compelling or what, besides the aesthetic spookiness of neglected infrastructure, makes it seem evil. Often a supernatural or expressionistic explanation suffices. Institutions and the people running them being inherently good and well-meaning become corrupted in time, possessed even, by what can only be otherworldly intrusion.

It’s a fair enough ideation in a time of group homes, communal care, medication, and the smaller scale psychiatric ward, and also of the progressive, proactive approach to welfare as popularized by the leadership of Rockefeller. Rockefeller, after all, would not willfully allow Willowbrook’s population to expand while its staff atrophies, resetting the attendant-to-patient ratio from one-to-four to one-to-40. He would furthermore never tolerate patients being kicked, slapped, or otherwise struck by those overworked attendants. He would not allow the patients to be left to sit in their own excrement and filth, to be improperly fed and bathed, and to develop hepatitis, or to be subjected to experiments related to hepatitis. He would surely balk at seeing this “school” functioning more along the lines of a warehouse, its educational function degrading into a name-only nicety. Perhaps, in private moments, he did balk at this turn of events. One would hope that with each subsequent public exposure of these conditions, he expressed a sentiment higher than mild irritation. That he was, in some way, shaken to his core, his sense of morality loosened.

This, however, did not carry over into the public. In fact the opposite seems to have been the case. In spite of Rockefeller’s dynamism elsewhere, management of state mental health fell by the wayside. Where programs in education and housing expanded, the Department of Mental Hygiene was subject to budget cuts and what LIFE magazine described in 1972 as “legislative indifference.” (GOP Assembly Speaker Perry Duryea aided in cutting nearly $50 million in the mental health budget, cutting over 2,800 jobs in the process.) Attempts to right the course, moreover, were met with obstructive legal technicalities. It took a massive class-action lawsuit to be filed on behalf of the 5,000-plus residents to make way for the reforms we now have and to establish the civil rights of the disabled and disordered. Rockefeller’s successor Hugh Carey signed a consent decree allowing for the closure of state-run complexes and the creation of non-institutional treatment centers.

Supporters of Rockefeller are encouraged here to stand up for their man. They are encouraged to point out what a nightmare it was across the United States to administrate these institutions, or that the system in itself was both inadequate and the best we could offer in alleviating these problems, and that even the lobotomy was a Nobel-worthy achievement at one point. They are encouraged to point out Rockefeller’s probable dedication to the letter of the law in such matters, the technical details—such as Willowbrook not technically being a public school and hence not subject to the scrutiny petitioners demanded of it in the 1960s—that prevented any reform from happening. Perhaps it is somewhat unfair to judge a man’s actions against the tools and the knowledge he had at the time he faced these problems. As much as I’d like to think that I could do better, there is precious little proof of that, nor am I interested in testing it if given the chance. Yet my own tools—the clarity of hindsight and the moral framework with which Americans as a whole tend to judge its individual actors—keep my position resolute.

In today’s Republican Party, there is unraveling what some people see as nothing short of a hostage situation, carried out by one man and the unthinking legions his blunt words inspire to gross and devilish action. This one person, through sheer force of will, is altering a once great party into something they do not recognize. It is a party long on ignorance and brutality and short on empathy and mercy. Donald Trump waltzed from the bowels of his golden tower in Manhattan to sing a praise chorus of torture and exclusion of whole peoples in the name of national restoration. It is then the suggestion of these anxious onlookers that he be stopped. Though many practical strategies have thus far failed, there remains the overriding need for a return to what they deem sound political judgment and firm principles of leadership. They trot out failed presidential hopefuls like John McCain and Mitt Romney, champions of prudence, moderation, a compassioned, unity-friendly ethic and other abstract satellites that orbit around Planet Rockefeller.

Compassion and moderation are fine enough values to profess on their own, and with Rockefeller as their embodiment, the party people can’t help but rally around them more readily. They can work, in governance. See? But in action we find a compassion that is sectioned off, that comes with caveats. We see it denied, for whatever reason, to those most in need of it. In action, we see moderation for what it is, less of an equitable distribution of empathy and more of a rigid, technocratic, almost reactionary, tyranny of the normal. We see in Rockefeller Republicanism a reflection of Clintonian Democracy, this notion that one can profess to feel pain while at the same time taking little or no steps to heal it or even soothe it. The principle so publicly lauded—or selectively criticized depending on what type of Republican one is—in Rockefeller stands on oddly unprincipled, even merciless, ground. If distraught Republicans are finding refuge in Rockefeller from the tundra of Trumpism, they are simply moving to a slightly more vegetated tundra.

This kind of situation leaves little direction for the Republican Party to go. We can, on the one hand, give a seemingly ambitious and robust man of action control over what is in essence a rabid dog. He will do his best to give it strength and vigor while at the same time making it only more rabid than it already has been for several decades. Some are learning to live with this option, possibly hoping that if Trump smooths his intensifiers to the cadences of Macbeth, he will approach a more palatable ideal of steely Republican resolve.

For the hopeless and the romantic, however, we can simply kill the dog, take its bones and the innumerable other baggage accrued over the past century, and pile up into something of an elephant graveyard. Perhaps it can be done in Staten Island, and perhaps to distinguish this pile of refuse on an island known for its piles of refuse, one might add a monument at its center to make pilgrimage routes easier to map, perhaps a bespectacled and stately scarecrow that maybe someone didn’t quite feel like putting back where he or she had found it.

I can’t say that these are ideal solutions, in fact they are abysmal, yet they are the best options with the knowledge and the resources currently available to me.