WASHINGTON – Jay Rockefeller’s uncle Nelson was a vice president. His uncle Winthrop was a senator, as was his great-grandfather Nelson. But the great American electoral dynasty abruptly ended Friday when Rockefeller said he will not seek re-election in 2014 after nearly three decades in the Senate.
Rockefeller wasn’t ever going to be just some Democratic senator from West Virginia. He was always the oil titan John D. Rockefeller’s great-grandson, too — and 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,” said Rockefeller’s longtime political adviser, Geoff Garin. “He found a way to be a Rockefeller that was about serving people.”
Dynasties such as these roll across American political history, not just the Rockefellers, but the 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.
For Stephen Hess, author of “America’s Political Dynasties” and a Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus, 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 became 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 served as Gerald Ford’s vice president. Another son, Winthrop Rockefeller, was elected 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,” Sen. Rockefeller wrote in an email 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, West Virginia, 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.”
In the eyes of some, the newcomer who had grown up in New York was “a carpetbagger,” said John Raese, a West Virginia businessman who lost a tight Senate race against Rockefeller in 1984. He tried to “save Appalachia,” Raese said mockingly.
Rockefeller won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1966. He was elected secretary of state in 1968, but lost a campaign for governor in 1972. He ran again and won two terms before spending millions of his own money to finance his successful run for the Senate in 1984.
With a famous name came expectations, and many assumed he would someday seek his party’s presidential nomination — like his uncle Nelson, who made three failed attempts. In Washington, he struck colleagues with his mild manner.
He became close friends with Sen. Ted Kennedy, forming a bond between two sons of famous families, each of whom had benefited from their legacies and carried their weights.
For Rockefeller, standing on his own in the Senate meant crafting a reputation as a progressive champion of health care for the poor, an issue with particular resonance in his poverty-racked state. He was the author of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provided coverage to 8 million children. He also was a leading supporter of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care reforms.
“From his time in the state legislature to the governor’s office to the Senate floor, Jay has built an impressive legacy, one that can be found in the children who have better schools, the miners who have safer working conditions, the seniors who have retired with greater dignity, and the new industries that he helped bring to West Virginia,” Obama said in a statement Friday.
Few think that another Rockefeller will occupy an office on Capitol Hill in the foreseeable future. “I don’t think his own kids are interested in (elected) public service,” Garin said. “He’s got great kids and I think they’ll find other ways to serve.”
Still, in his email Friday, Rockefeller said he isn’t ready to completely discount the possibility, saying his family’s future contributions “could mean public service, like me, or doing good work for the environment, health care and other important fields.”