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Sunday, September 14, 1997


MARK SOMMER Executive Features Editor

Nelson Rockefeller seldom did anything on a small scale. Perhaps that's why biographer Cary Reich needed 769 pages to tell his story in last year's National Book Award finalist, ``The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller: Worlds to Conquer'' (Doubleday).

Actually, it's only part of the story, since the book leaves off with Rockefeller being elected the Republican governor of New York in 1958 at the age of 50. The concluding volume, which will follow Rockefeller until his death in 1979, isn't expected to reach bookstores until 1999.

Judging by the reviews the first book has garnered, it may be well worth the wait. Publisher's Weekly proclaimed Reich's book the ``definitive portrait'' of Rockefeller, and the New York Times Book Review gushed: ``the portrait of Nelson Rockefeller is as rich and nuanced as we will ever have.''

Reich will discuss the project that has absorbed him for more than nine years when he speaks on ``The Art of Political Biography'' at the University at Albany on Thursday, Nov. 6. His appearance will be a highlight of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series that begins Tuesday and runs until Dec. 15. A film series will run concurrently.

Other writers scheduled to speak include 1997 Pulitzer Prize recipient and novelist Steven Millhauser, satirical novelist Don DeLillo, novelist and poet Jessica Hagedorn, Israeli writer Amos Oz and Times Union staff writer and political biographer Paul Grondahl.

Unbridled power

The 49-year-old Reich, who grew up in Brooklyn, graduated from Brooklyn College and attended graduate school at Northwestern University, remembers being drawn to New York state politics from an early age. He was particularly fascinated by the man who would occupy the governor's chair from 1959 to 1973, and as the son of John Rockefeller Jr., and grandson of John D. Rockefeller, extend a family name synonymous with unbridled American wealth and power.

``Nelson Rockefeller was the most commanding figure of all the players then. He was also someone who was larger than life in many ways, in his successes, his aspirations and his failures,'' Reich said in a recent interview from his home in New York City.

``This was a man who had everything going for him, someone who by many people's reckoning was the best-equipped man of his generation to become president, and yet never was.''

Reich was no neophyte to political biographies when deciding to undertake what he hoped would be the definitive Rockefeller biography. A former executive editor for Institutional Investor, he had authored ``Financier,'' about Andre Meyer, and chronicled others among the rich and famous in magazine profiles.

As he immersed himself in Rockefeller's past, Reich says what surprised him most were Rockefeller's prodigious accomplishments before serving as governor of New York. Among them: overseeing the construction of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan; helping to found New York's Museum of Modern Art and guide its affairs for decades; all-but-running Latin America while serving in the State Department under Democrat FDR during World War II; having a hand in rewriting the United Nations charter; and designing the first government health care system under Republican Eisenhower.

Another surprise for Reich was his discovery that Rockefeller was a ``hardline, consummate Cold Warrior,'' a characterization that ran counter to what he had presumed about him.

``He was obsessed with communists and all that entailed. He was the guy who really pushed fallout shelters on us in the late '50s and '60s, because he was convinced we could win a nuclear war if we all hid underground for 90 days,'' Reich said. ``The great, gregarious Rocky had close to a paranoid view of communism. I don't think Ronald Reagan in his most strident moments could have matched what Nelson Rockefeller thought.'' Liberal irony All the more ironic, then, for how Rockefeller has come to personify GOP liberalism. Eighteen years since his death, the term ``Rockefeller Republican'' has become a pejorative term for many in the party, a political slur that was hurled at retired Gen. Colin Powell in 1995 by opponents to thwart his potential run for the presidency.

``Rockefeller symbolized the liberal wing of his party, and was the last great liberal Republican,'' said Reich. ``He represents the last gasp of liberalism -- the `we'll throw money at a problem and solve it.' He was the last extension of FDR's New Deal philosophy. After Rockefeller, no politician would venture on the scene talking about big projects and big money to solve problems. In that sense, when you tell the Nelson Rockefeller story, you also tell the story of what happened to liberal Republicanism.''

Reich says Rockefeller relished his role as governor of New York, a subject he will be talking about in his next book.

``He enjoyed being governor, no question he loved that role. He loved doing things, and in a sense viewed the state as a great playground, a great place to solve problems. He believed there was nothing that couldn't be solved with enough brains and money, and the state of New York became a launching pad for that philosophy.'' Monument to self So did Albany, and in particular, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza.

``The plaza had a grandiosity to it. It was Nelson Rockefeller's great monument to the state, but also undoubtedly to himself. He was basically the supervising architect for the plaza. What you see there is Nelson Rockefeller, for better or worse. There is no question the guy took enormous delight in the whole thing.''

Reich said the then-governor didn't understand the criticism the controversial remake of downtown Albany provoked in many quarters. Nor has the plaza lived up to what Rockefeller envisioned, the author said.

``I don't think Nelson would have imagined it would be this place where office workers would scoot around underground and go home. You can view the mall as the biggest fallout shelter in the world,'' he joked.

It's well known that Rockefeller deeply aspired to the presidency, having failed to gain his party's nomination, first in 1964 and again in 1968. He served as vice president in 1974 under Gerald Ford, but by then his political star seemed to have already set. Nonetheless, Reich believes Rockefeller left behind few political regrets.

``He savored his life in politics and felt fulfilled on many levels. He lived and enjoyed life to the fullest, squeezing every bit of joy out of life that he could,'' said Reich.

When asked if he thinks he would have liked Rockefeller had he known him, Reich said it's a question he has asked himself a number of times. The answer, he says, is certainly yes.

``There are times, I know, when I wouldn't have liked him, times he could be cold or act like a patrician. But fundamentally, I would have liked him, because that sparkle in his eye would probably have pulled me in. I think I would have been seduced by him like so many were. To that extent, I'm probably better off having not met him, since as a biographer I would probably be less objective than I am now.''

Later this fall, there will be a display of Andy Warhol's portrait of Nelson Rockefeller in the Erastus Corning Tower of the Empire State Plaza.

Copyright 1997, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

Cary Reich