Poor old Nelson Rockefeller. I’ve been thinking of him lately.
My interest in politics and political journalism dates to the mid 1960s. In September 1968, Rockefeller visited St. Cloud, making him the first national politician I saw in person.
In those days, the St. Cloud airport was on the north side. Now its former hangers house the Whitney Recreation Center.
When I heard Rockefeller’s plane was going to land there, I rode my bike the few blocks from my house near St. Cloud Hospital so I could see him.
A crowd of about 200 waited to greet Rockefeller and a news story from the event described his welcome as appropriate for a presidential candidate.
But Rockefeller wasn’t running for president. He was here to campaign for Rep. John Zwack, an unremarkable Republican with a farming background. He represented the Sixth District, which in the 1960s was primarily a farming district running from St. Cloud southwest to Marshall and the South Dakota border.
Rockefeller might have been a presidential candidate, or even president. In 1964, as leader of the Republican’s “Eastern Establishment,” he was the front-runner for the nomination. But a recent divorce ended Rockefeller’s campaign and Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. President Lyndon Johnson clobbered Goldwater, partly by painting Goldwater as an extreme conservative ready to start a nuclear war.
Rockefeller tried again in 1968, but his record as the liberal Republican governor of New York didn’t stand up to Richard Nixon’s law-and-order pitch.
During a speech before some 1,500 people at Cathedral High School, Rockefeller promoted Nixon’s candidacy as well as Zwack’s by speculating that Nixon might carry Minnesota. (He didn’t. Minnesota’s former Sen. Hubert Humphrey won the state with 54 percent of the vote.)
So a divorce changed presidential politics and perhaps history. How would the world be different without the presidencies of Johnson and Nixon?
Rockefeller returned to St. Cloud in November 1975 and by this time I was a working journalist. I covered his appearance at the state Republican Convention, including protestors opposed to his pro-choice politics. Rockefeller was now Gerald Ford’s vice president, a largely ceremonial role that didn’t exploit his considerable talents.
Twenty years after Rockefeller’s first St. Cloud appearance, Sen. Gary Hart, a Democrat from Colorado, dropped out of the presidential race. Like Rockefeller, he was the front-runner for his party’s nomination until photos turned up of him with a girlfriend aboard a yacht unfortunately named “Monkey Business.” His campaign was scuttled when he wouldn’t answer a question about committing adultery.
Again, sex and politics didn’t mix well. But then things changed.
Bill Clinton dodged a string of claims about affairs and managed to get elected in 1992. After his relationship with an intern, an encounter that would get pretty much any manager at any company in America fired, the House of Representatives impeached him. Most people didn’t seem to care. He left office with an approval rating of 66 percent, the highest for a departing president in the history of polling.
Martin Luther King Jr. is credited with this quote that originated with Unitarian minister Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I’d like to amend that a bit to “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward sleaziness.”
We now have a president with more divorces than Rockefeller, more girlfriends than Hart and who has denied having sex with more women than Clinton. And he’s bragged about being a serial sexual assaulter.
We’ve come a long way since 1968. Today the words of a porn star are more credible than those of the leader of the free world.
Poor old Nelson Rockefeller. Fifty years later, he could have been a contender.