Jay Rockefeller, likely the last of a political dynasty
Uncle Nelson was vice president. Uncle Winthrop a
governor. Great-grandfather Nelson a
Political bloodlines, he had.
But the great American electoral dynasty that abruptly announced its end
Friday, or at least signaled what looks to be a long, long pause, always evoked
more. That name on the ballot — Rockefeller — meant money. It meant epic-scale
success. It meant everything.
And it meant that Jay Rockefeller wasn’t ever going to be just some
Democratic senator from West Virginia. Rockefeller, who said Friday that he
would not seek reelection in 2014 after nearly three decades in the Senate, was
always going to be the oil titan John D. Rockefeller’s great-grandson, too. One
of the heirs to a legendary fortune.
“He’s proud of being a Rockefeller. He talks about his uncles and his
grandfather, about that legacy. It’s an important part of who he is and how he
thinks about himself,” Rockefeller’s longtime political adviser, Geoff Garin,
said in an interview. “He found a way to be a Rockefeller that was about serving
Dynasties like these roll across American political history. Not just
Rockefellers, but Adamses and Kennedys and Bushes. A nation formed to escape
power granted as a birthright still embraces power that follows the contours of
a family tree. Voters even expect it, and so do political scions.
“It’s so predictable!” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior
fellow emeritus and author of the book “America’s Political Dynasties.” “It’s daddy’s business and
increasingly it’ll be mommy’s business, too.”
For Hess, each dynasty takes on a different aura. There were the “crafty”
Roosevelts, headlined by a couple of presidents — Franklin Delano and Theodore —
and his favorites, the Tafts, whose standout, William Howard, was about the
“nicest” guy ever to occupy the Oval Office, in Hess’s estimation, and who also
managed to become chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The Rockefellers were almost incidental dynasty builders, Hess said. “That
generation — the robber barons, if you want to call them that — wasn’t
interested in politics. Politics was something you could marry into.”
Indeed, John D. Rockefeller’s only son married the daughter of Nelson
Aldrich, a prominent Republican senator of the late 1800s and early 1900s who
wielded tremendous influence over monetary policies. Their son, Nelson Aldrich
Rockefeller, became governor of New York and was Gerald R. Ford’s vice
president. Another son, Winthrop Rockefeller, became governor of Arkansas.
“My great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, worked at it very, very hard.
There’s an ethic in the Rockefeller family of hard work,” Jay Rockefeller wrote
in an e-mail late Friday. “It’s expected that everybody work hard. And there has
been a tradition of public service.”
John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV entered politics unconventionally, drawn into
that sphere by his experiences as a volunteer for VISTA (the precursor of
Americorps) in Emmons, W.Va., a small coal mining town. “Coming to West Virginia
was life-changing for him,” Garin said. “West Virginia exposed him to a whole
new world that broadened his world; and in a lot of respects it gave his career
a defining purpose.”