Words of Commemoration: Memorial Service for Nelson Rockefeller
That Nelson Rockefeller is dead is both shattering and nearly inconceivable. One thought him indestructible, so overpowering was he in his energy, warmth and his deep faith in man’s inherent goodness. For twenty-five years, he had been my friend, my older brother, my inspiration and my teacher.
I first met Nelson Rockefeller when, as an assistant to the President, he called me, a graduate student, to join one of the panels of experts he was forever setting up to ponder the nation’s future. He entered the room slapping backs, calling each of us by the best approximation to our first name that he could remember, at once outgoing and remote. Intoxicated by the proximity of power, all of us sought to impress him with our practical acumen and offered tactical advice on how to manipulate events. After we were finished, the smile left his face and his eyes assumed the hooded look which showed that we were now turning to things that mattered. “What I want you to tell me,” he said, “is not how to maneuver. I want you to tell me what is right.”
“What is right?” For Nelson Rockefeller this was the quintessential question, both naïve and profound, at once shaming and uplifting. It was the definition of his integrity. All that was twenty-five years ago. When that phone call came last Friday night, it seemed that our relationship had just started. And now, it was already over.
No one who did not have the privilege of experiencing Nelson’s selfless dependability, his infinite thoughtfulness, can possibly appreciate how desolate our life has now become. And yet we would not trade places with anyone; his friendship will be our badge of honor so long as we live.
He permeated our lives. He was always steadfast. He took enormous pride in the accomplishments of his family, of his friends and of his associates. He asked nothing in return except that they do their best, keep their faith, love their fellow man and set their sights in pursuit of honorable goals.
Nelson Rockefeller was a man of contrasting qualities; ebullient and yet withdrawn; gregarious and lonely; joyful and driven; full of the moment yet somehow marked by eternity. He could be pugnacious in asserting his beliefs, but he respected those who differed with him. He could be hard but never petty; single-minded but never malicious. His enemies were the slipshod and the second rate.
Nelson always had a marvelous time. Nothing was too trivial for his attention. He would rearrange the furniture in a friend’s living room with the same enthusiasm that he rebuilt Albany or threw himself into projects to study the nation’s future. He loved caviar, and he loved hot dogs. He loved parties and travel and meeting people. And he loved art, not only for the sake of beauty but because it expanded the reach of the human spirit.
He was a noble man who gave strength but asked for no reciprocity. None of us ever heard him complain. He never shared his sorrow, only his inspiration. He considered himself so blessed that he felt that he had no right to burden others with the doubts and worries inseparable from the human condition even in a man so strong as himself. It was an extraordinary burden which cumulatively drained him though he would never have admitted it. Nelson was truly his brother’s keeper.
Nelson could not express in glib words the wellsprings of his motivations. One had to know him well to understand the tactile manner in which he communicated the meanings of the nudges, the winks and mumbles by which he conveyed his infinite caring.
He was an artist. Sudden, unexpected flashes of insight startled, and sometimes astounded, one.
I have known no public figure who so often reflected about the spiritual. The Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God was not a cliché for Nelson; it was a call to action, the motive force of his life. He practiced his faith, but he was too humble to preach it. He fought against injustice and fostered equality, but he thought it unseemly to adopt the clamoring tone of protest. He helped the downtrodden, but he thought it demeaning to publicize acts of Christian love.
Untypical as he would seem to be, Nelson Rockefeller was quintessentially American. For other nations, utopia is a blessed past never to be recovered; for Americans it is just beyond the horizon. One has to work with Americans not listen to them to experience their faith. One had to work with Nelson Rockefeller to sense his dauntless strength, his pragmatic genius, his unquenchable optimism. Obstacles were there to be overcome; problems were opportunities. He could never imagine that a wrong could not be righted or that an honorable aspiration was beyond reach. Self-pity, or rage, or resentment were incomprehensible to him.
He was born to leadership. Every decade, Nelson had another project: to build Rockefeller Center, to inspire a Museum of Primitive Art, to gather the nation’s experts to study the problems of coming decades, to expand the State university system, to rebuild the State capital, to survey the problems of Latin America, to define our critical choices, to solve the energy problem. His faith in reason and democracy and the human personality was boundless. He never looked back. He often seemed remote because he was already living in a future which most of us had not yet understood.
He loved his family, and he loved his country. In his mind, the two were connected. It is not a simple matter to be born to great wealth and power in an egalitarian society. But he was proud of his heritage which he interpreted as a summons to honor and to duty. He deeply believed that his moral obligation was a privilege. Service was not a favor he rendered to others; they did him honor by permitting him to help.
And just as he unabashedly believed it his family’s duty to serve their country, so he was convinced that it was his country’s duty to vindicate its values by reaching out to the rest of mankind with the message of hope and freedom. Skeptics might scoff at his belief in America’s moral mission. But then cynics do not build cathedrals. He revered his Presidents whether or not he agreed with them. As a patriot, he sought to ease their burden. He winced when associates made unworthy comments about those who in his view had been entrusted with our future and, therefore, the hopes of mankind. One of the few times he became impatient with me was over a decade and a half ago when I had just seen President Kennedy and reported that I had told him what I thought wrong with some particular policy. Did I have a remedy, Nelson wanted to know. And when I said no, he chided me: “You should always remember that a President is overwhelmed by problems. Your duty is to offer solutions.”
Nelson would be proud that two Presidents have honored him by attending this service. He would be touched at the act of grace of President Carter who found time amidst the care of his duties for several gestures to ease the family’s bereavement and then to extend the one solace that would have stirred Nelson the most: that his nation understood and appreciated his love and devotion to it.
He would be grateful to President Ford, whom he loved and whom he served with unselfish dedication as Vice President. He refuted the cynics who expected him to chafe at the limitations of the office, then stepped aside in midterm without slackening in his devotion to his responsibilities. Nelson’s ambition was to serve, not to be.
Much has been said or written about the frustration Nelson experienced because he never achieved the presidency. This misunderstands that man. His failure to reach the presidency was, in my view, a tragedy for the country. What a great President he would have been! How he would have ennobled us! What an extraordinary combination of strength and humanity, decisiveness and vision! Yet, I never heard him express even one word of disappointment. As with everything, he sought the office with zest; but when it eluded him, he went on to challenges undaunted, resilient, inexhaustible.
In a sense, there was something inevitable and even noble in his gallant failure to win the nation’s highest office. And, here again, the myths are wrong. He never succeeded not despite the fact that he was a Rockefeller but because of it. His entire upbringing made him recoil before appearing to the people he wanted to serve as if he were pursuing a personal goal. Having been already so privileged he felt that he had no right to ask anything for himself as an individual. And so this superb campaigner who genuinely loved people eschewed the personal pursuit of delegates. He sought the office by trying to present to the nation the most sweeping vision of its future and the best blueprints to attain it. He had a touching faith in the power of ideas. It is not quite the way our boisterous political process works, more geared as it is to personalities than to programs.
And yet, in the final accounting, it was often Nelson who worked out the agenda which others then implemented as national policy. The intellectual groundwork for many innovations was frequently his. He continually called the nation’s leaders and thinkers to their responsibility, to make their commitments and apply their best efforts to the future of the nation. Destiny willed it that he made his enduring mark on our society almost anonymously in the programs he designed, the values he upheld and the men and women whose lives he changed.
Nelson was never quite sure that he had done enough to fulfill the moral obligations of his inheritance. This assemblage is the best testimony to how well he succeeded. Legislators and diplomats, the eminent and the humble, Americans and foreigners of all faiths and races and nations are here to pay tribute to the scope of his achievements, to the reach of his spirit and, above all, to the greatness of his heart. The distinguished gathering would tell Nelson the one thing that, because of his humility, his friends knew better than he how much he sustained the public life and honor of his country.
As I have thought about my gallant friend, it occurred to me that his role in our society was symbolic of America’s role in the world. Like him, we are uniquely strong; like him, we are idealistic and a little inarticulate. If he were here, he would tell us: Do not look back. The future is full of exciting challenges. Do not be afraid or ashamed of your strength; neither hoard it nor abuse it; it is not a burden but God’s blessing conferring an opportunity to oppose tyranny, to defend the free, to lift up the poor, to give hope to the disadvantaged and to walk truly in the paths of justice and compassion.
When Nelson was relaxed, he did not speak about power but about love. He meant not the sentimental, demanding emotion which too often is a form of selfishness. Rather, it was the grace of the inwardly strong, an all-embracing feeling that only those who are truly at peace with themselves can dare to articulate.
In recent years, he and I would often sit on the veranda overlooking his beloved Hudson River in the setting sun. I would talk more, but understood better. And, as the statues on the lawn glowed in the dimming light, Nelson Rockefeller would occasionally get that squint in his eyes, which betokened a far horizon. And he would say, because I needed it, but, above all, because he deeply felt it: