It was just a casual comment during a typical debate week for the Republican presidential candidates, but for me it was an annoying one. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were busy trying to define who the other guy was and were using every word in the dictionary to send their message. Gingrich thought he’d hit a home run when he stopped calling Romney too “liberal” and instead attacked him as a “Rockefeller Republican.”
If you’re in one of those redneck states and are sitting around with a group of hard-core conservatives, if you call someone a Rockefeller Republican, you’re talking about the worst kind of Republican. If you have that same conversation in New York with any veteran Republican office holder, you’ll probably get a much more defensive reaction.
It’s hard to believe that Nelson Rockefeller, a man who had such a strong impact on the history of New York state, was born over 100 years ago. His death in 1979 attracted a great deal of media attention because he was with a female companion, but nevertheless, it marked the end of a historic figure whose accomplishments are all around us.
By the time he died, the words “Rockefeller Republican” had been used by conservative Republicans for over 25 years to describe the enemy, almost the equivalent of being a liberal Democrat. Shortly after Rockefeller died, as a member of the Democratic leadership, I was one of the few members who rose to praise his service to the state, after seeing that so few Republicans were willing to stand up and eulogize him.
So who was he, and was he really some kind of Republican vampire? For New Yorkers, Rockefeller was a leader in times of plenty. He was a big spender who spent our money freely on things that made New York state so prominent. He created the state university system, which today boasts 72 campuses. He built many of the state’s major roads, including the Long Island Expressway. Because he was born with dyslexia, he was an avid supporter of funding for children with special needs.