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He could have been a contender – on his own terms

Pretty much everybody in Michigan knows that Gerald Ford was our state’s only president. We also know that Ford was the only man to become president when his predecessor resigned.

But quick – who was Ford’s vice president? If it took you a while, don’t feel bad. Most people today don’t remember. What’s ironic about that is that he was a man who for most of his life was far more famous than Gerald R. Ford.

It was Nelson Rockefeller – an heir to the famous fortune, flamboyant governor of New York, and for years a serious contender for the presidency who could never get the Republican nomination. He was a riveting and polarizing force – and a man who so far has defied definition. That is, until now.

Richard Norton Smith, who specializes in big biographies, has written a spellbinding book: "On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller."

Smith will be talking about his book and signing copies at seven tonight at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, and tomorrow at the Ford Library at the University of Michigan.

Yesterday I talked with the author, whom I first met 14 years ago when he was director of the Ford Museum. He’s been working on this book ever since, writing and rewriting each beautifully written passage as many as 50 times.

It is, he told me, the book he was born to write. Today, Rockefeller is often remembered for iconic moments: Defiantly denouncing extremism and being booed by Goldwater supporters at the Republican Convention half a century ago; triumphantly giving the finger to a heckler, and his controversial death, alone with a young woman 35 years ago. But there were plenty of those who think of him as a man who might well have been a great president if he could ever have been nominated.

Smith told me

“His definition of government was something that converted problems into opportunities.” “He said, ‘I believe if you have poor health and an inadequate education, society has let you down. And that we have a collective responsibility to one another.”

The author paused.

“Can you imagine anyone in politics saying that today?”

Well, certainly not in the GOP. Even in his lifetime Rockefeller was seen as too liberal for the Republicans, but too conservative for the Democrats. President John F. Kennedy thought he would have lost if he had to face Rockefeller instead of Nixon, and others agreed.

It's hard to remember now, but in the 1970s, conservative Republicans regarded Rockefeller about the way they regard Barack Obama now. President Ford felt he had no choice but to dump him as vice president to win renomination.

That may have been right, but that may also have cost him the election. There is no doubt that Rockefeller was fascinating. But his battles were those of another era. I asked Smith if Rockefeller was still relevant today, and he said absolutely.

He was a man like Disraeli, who understood that conservatives had an obligation to explore reform to forestall the possibility of violent revolution. And he was a man, like Franklin or Teddy Roosevelt, who believed government could be used to get things done. Someday, Richard Norton Smith believes, that attitude will be fashionable again.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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