(Excerpted from James Rogan's 2018 book, On to Chicago: Rediscovering Robert F. Kennedy and the Lost Campaign of 1968)
On April 23, 1968, three weeks after declaring – again – that he would not run for the presidency, the New York governor entered the White House quietly through a side door for a private dinner with the occupant – Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, who himself announced recently that he would not seek re-election that year.
During dinner, LBJ revealed that his first choice for the presidency was not a member of his own party – it was his Republican guest. Johnson regarded the governor as a sensible moderate and, far more importantly, the one man who could beat either of LBJ's bitter foes should they win their respective party's nominations: Democrat Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Republican former Vice President Richard Nixon. LBJ urged his guest to reconsider his decision and, to sweeten the pot, promised that if he ran, LBJ would support him privately and not campaign against him publicly.
Not many presidential contenders could consider such a course change only three months before the nominating convention convened, but then, not many political leaders were like Nelson A. Rockefeller, the three-term governor of New York, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, heir to the greatest wealth accumulation in history and the leader of the GOP's liberal wing. Over many months prior to his clandestine White House dinner, the middle-aged, sturdily built governor met repeatedly with the Republican Party's liberal and moderate major domos over whether, in 1968, he should make a third try for the GOP presidential nomination. At each of these meetings, the leaders pleaded with him to challenge the more conservative Nixon, but at the end of every session, his answer remained the same: no.
Rocky (a nickname so universally identified with him that he used it when signing autographs) did not suffer from timidity – he wanted to be president. After considering a challenge to Nixon for the 1960 nomination, he made a vigorous play for it four years later promoting his brand of Republicanism – free enterprise and massive government spending. Theodore H. White noted that of all the big-spending governors, "Nelson Rockefeller was the biggest spender of them all –in his decade [as governor] spending in the state budget had almost quadrupled. … Rockefeller's dreams dazzled large scale planners – but the costs shocked ordinary Republicans."
If Rocky's freewheeling spending shocked ordinary Republicans, it positively enraged the party's conservative base, who registered their disapproval by supporting Barry Goldwater over him for the 1964 presidential nomination. Goldwater was the anti-Rockefeller, opposing virtually every federal income redistribution program from compulsory government-controlled Social Security to Medicare to welfare. During their primary campaign, Rocky attacked Goldwater as a tightfisted, trigger-happy, anti-civil rights kook. Conservatives returned fire, slamming Rocky for both his obscene big-government profligacy and his moral deficiencies (citing his recent divorce and remarriage to his mistress). After a bitterly divisive fight ended with Goldwater's nomination, Rocky refused to endorse him. When Rocky addressed the convention, conservative delegates booed him for 16 uninterrupted minutes. On Election Day, with Lyndon Johnson's utter destruction of Goldwater and many down-ticket Republicans, conservatives blamed Rocky for the catastrophic losses.
Now, four years after the Goldwater challenge, Rocky understood (even if his supporters did not) that the aftertaste of 1964 likely dashed his national prospects, at least for now. However, by 1968, many rank-and-file Republicans started giving him a second look. Following the Goldwater debacle, this time around Republicans wanted a winner, and they had nagging concerns that Richard Nixon was a perpetual loser after his back-to-back defeats for president in 1960 and for California governor in 1962. With polls showing Rocky beating every Democrat in head-to-head matchups, and with Nixon often lagging behind them, forgiving his previous heresy remained a possibility worth considering.
Even with LBJ's tempting pledge ringing in his ears, Rocky knew he had to overcome other hurdles to pull off a successful 11th-hour run. He was too late to enter any primaries, but that limitation was not fatal. In 1968, the primary states picked only a small percentage of the delegates needed to win the nomination – and, in many of those states, the GOP governors controlled their delegations as "favorite son" candidates. The selection of most convention delegates would occur in caucuses, state conventions and smoke-filled rooms – the places where politicians understood the meaning of winners and losers. If Rocky entered now, he would need to convince the delegates of two things: 1) he could beat any Democratic Party nominee, and 2) Nixon could not. True, every poll showed that most delegates preferred Nixon over Rocky, but they qualified this preference: They wanted Nixon only if he could win in November.
With the temptation proving too great, Rocky threw the dice. And so, 50 years ago today, on April 30, 1968, Nelson Rockefeller declared his candidacy for president of the United States.
Rocky's 1968 blitz followed a three-prong underdog strategy: First, barnstorm to as many states as possible between now and the convention to meet delegates and urge them to "stay loose" – keep an open mind. The second prong involved influencing public opinion directly with an unrelenting media and direct mail saturation campaign to drive up and maintain his favorable poll numbers. The third prong was trickier: entice California Gov. Ronald Reagan (already holding more than 80 delegate votes automatically as California's favorite son) into the race to challenge Nixon's right flank, especially among Southern delegations that loved Reagan and where Nixon's support was soft. If Rocky could bring 400 delegates to Miami, and Reagan added a couple hundred more Southern delegates to his California pledges, their combined forces would block Nixon's first ballot nomination and resurrect his fatal "loser" image. Once the pledged delegates cast Nixon adrift, that would leave the final nomination showdown between these two powerhouse governors.
Lest anyone not take Rocky's candidacy seriously, the day after announcing his entry, and without appearing on the ballot, he beat both Nixon and the favorite son governor in the Massachusetts Republican presidential primary, and he did it with write-in votes (since he declared too late to appear on the ballot). Rocky pocketed every one of the 34 delegates the Bay State would send to the Republican National Convention.
In Miami three months later, and despite the combined Rockefeller-Reagan effort to block Nixon, the former vice president held his Southern flank and won the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Nelson Rockefeller went on to win re-election to a fourth term as New York governor in 1970; after Nixon's 1974 resignation, President Gerald Ford selected him as his vice president. Declining to seek the 1976 GOP vice presidential nomination for a full term, Rocky retired from public life in 1977 and returned to his philanthropic and business interests. He died of a heart attack at age 70 on Jan. 26, 1979.
Nelson Rockefeller's memory remains a Republican Party presence. Forty years after his death, GOP activists still identify themselves by – or hurl as an epithet – the defining phrase:
"A Rockefeller Republican."