Parallel Lives of Nelson Rockefeller and Jon Huntsman, Jr.


Note: I wrote this piece a few years back and published it at the now-defunct The American Moderate website. Given that Governor Huntsman is, as of August 2019, planning to retire from the Russian Ambassadorship and presumably will reenter national domestic political advocacy, if not domestic politics in Utah itself, I figure it is useful to have it re-published here on my blog. -LNP

Word on the street in Utah has it that the Beehive State’s favorite living son, former Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr., will undergo his confirmation hearing for the Russian Ambassadorship very soon, possibly arriving in Moscow as early as mid-September. When he gets there, Huntsman will be adding another distinguished post to his long and ongoing career in public service in the national spotlight, which has included the Governorship of Utah, service to four Presidents (Trump will be the fifth,) and his own 2012 run for the Presidency. Many are wishing the best for the Ambassador, and at age the ripe young age of 57, it can be reasonably assumed that he has ambitions for further influence in public life. But in the opinion of this author, Huntsman should take heed of the life of another long-term, bipartisan, moderate Republican public servant from the 20th century, to minimize his mistakes and maximize his usefulness and influence- Governor of New York, subcabinet secretary, and Vice-President Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller.

Nelson Rockefeller is typically remembered as a failed presidential candidate and a lingering holdout of a lost liberal Republicanism, but his long career in public service should overshadow his otherwise eccentric flights of wannabe presidential fancy. A scion of the great wealth of the Rockefeller clan, a notable philanthropist, and a modestly successful businessman in the oil industry, Rockefeller entered public service in 1940 and went on to serve four Presidents in cabinet or commission roles, including being Dwight Eisenhower’s Under-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and as Gerald Ford’s Vice-President. He served as Governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and ran for the Presidency three times, losing the GOP nomination to the more pragmatic Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968 and to the heavily conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was the major voice for moderation in Republican politics throughout the “thirty years’ war” for the soul of the GOP between conservative and moderate Republicans that ran from 1950 and 1980. His failure to forestall the transformation of the GOP into a uniformly conservative party was one of the pivotal political events of the late 20th century.

Ambassador Huntsman should look to Vice-President Rockefeller’s legacy, not least to see where “Rocky” failed at his great quests, and achieved lesser stature and influence than he otherwise might have. Huntsman has taken on himself some of those same quests, and if he is to succeed at them in the interests of the country, he must not make the same mistakes Rockefeller did.

To begin, Huntsman and Rockefeller both came from great wealth. Huntsman’s father, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., is a billionaire and the founder of Huntsman Corp., a titan in the chemicals manufacturing industry, and of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Indeed, Jon Huntsman Jr. has based much of his political career and influence in Utah state politics off of the wealth of his father, and his father’s net worth is probably one of the main factors explaining why Huntsman Jr. can speak the language of Republican moderation without having to please more socially conservative, fiscally dogmatic GOP donors. Additionally, Huntsman counts among his ancestors two major figures in the history of the church of the Latter-Day Saints.

Nelson Rockefeller’s family origins were even more opulent and influential- his tremendously wealthy father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was himself the son of the legendary figure John D. Rockefeller Sr., who defined both the Horatio Alger mythos of the late 19th Century and the contours of the American oil industry in the early 20th Century. Rockefeller’s mother, meanwhile, was daughter of the powerful progressive-era Republican Senator Nelson Aldrich, one of the “Big Four” Republican Senators and a major sponsor of the efforts to create the Federal Reserve. Rockefeller’s privileged youth was one of the main reasons he was able to sustain the political career he did, as well.

The young Jon Huntsman was perhaps more eccentric than the young Nelson Rockefeller- Huntsman evidently dropped out of high school to play keyboard in a rock band called “Wizard”- but both received Ivy League educations (Huntsman at UPenn, Rockefeller at Dartmouth) and rubbed elbows with national political elites while traveling frequently, thanks to their privileged parents. And for various reasons, both seem to have developed temperaments inclined towards bipartisan public service and pragmatic problem-solving by an early age, in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. One can speculate on the old WASP-y cult of public service that animated the “Eastern Establishment” Rockefeller was raised in, and the Mormon Church’s communalistic ethos and Huntsman’s own formative experiences in the Boy Scouts of America. Regardless, compare Rockefeller’s quip in an interview concerning why he accepted Gerald Ford’s offer of the Vice-Presidency, with Huntsman’s rebuke of Mitt Romney in a 2012 GOP presidential debate-

“I felt there was a duty incumbent on every American who could do anything that could contribute to a restoration of confidence in the democratic process and in the integrity of government…” –Nelson Rockefeller

“I was criticized for putting my country first… [Romney] criticized me for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy… I will always put my country first…” –Jon Huntsman

Meanwhile, Robert Connery and Gerald Benjamin’s analysis of Rockefeller’s political style as Governor of New York could be copied verbatim to describe Huntsman’s style as Governor of Utah:

Rockefeller was not committed to any ideology. Rather, he considered himself a pragmatic problem solver, much more interested in defining problems and finding solutions around which he could unite support sufficient to secure their enactment in legislation than in following a strictly conservative or liberal course. Rockefeller’s programs did not consistently follow either a liberal or conservative ideology.” –from Rockefeller of New York: Executive Power in the State House.

 Of course, it could be argued that most any politician outside of the Ted Cruz/Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican Party or the Bernie Sanders/George McGovern wing of the Democratic Party would claim similar mantles of policy pragmatism and public service. But Nelson Rockefeller uniquely lived up to those mantles, as has Jon Huntsman, as I hope is made clear through the following summations of their lives.

Rockefeller first entered national public service in his early 30s, appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. He had previously worked in New York county government and had carried on his business career with various petroleum companies. Throughout the Second World War, Rockefeller worked on U.S. diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts in Latin America, and was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for American Republic Affairs in 1944. (President Harry Truman would fire him from this role, and later appoint him to work on his international development efforts in 1950.)

After a brief hiatus from public service, Rockefeller was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to be Under-Secretary of the newly-formed Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, before transferring back to foreign policy when he was appointed as Eisenhower’s Special Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs. Around this time, Rockefeller met Henry Kissinger, and the two would be close partners until Rockefeller’s death in 1979.

In 1958, Rockefeller was elected Governor of New York, an office he would hold until 1973 and a bully pulpit from which he would launch multiple campaigns for the Presidency and advocate for “Rockefeller Republicanism” against the growing insurgency of conservatives led by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Rockefeller proved himself to be a pragmatic activist in state domestic policy, equaling the contemporary Governors of California Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan in both Brown’s infrastructure and education spending and in Reagan’s emphasis on law-and-order politics and police expansion. His state agenda looked something like a combination of Lyndon Johnson’s investment programs and Richard Nixon’s governance reform efforts.

Over the course of his governorship, Rockefeller ran for President three times. Each time he would strive to influence the direction of the Republican Party, to keep it on the liberal/progressive/moderate track and off of the conservative track Barry Goldwater represented. In 1960 he signed the Treaty of Fifth Avenue with GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon, aimed at improving the GOP’s civil rights stances. Rockefeller’s speech at the 1964 Republican Convention encouraged Republicans to repudiate extreme conservatives, even as Goldwater announced that extremism “in defense of liberty” was “no vice.” After losing the nomination again to Nixon in 1968, Rockefeller worked to influence Nixon’s domestic agenda towards something more like his own agenda in New York.

Rockefeller worked informally in the Nixon Administration as well, serving on study commissions of Latin America and domestic water quality. After Nixon’s resignation, Rockefeller became chairman of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, which was a bipartisan group aimed at studying and promoting new national initiatives in domestic and foreign policy. President Gerald Ford appointed Rockefeller to be his Vice-President, and Rockefeller served in that role through the end of Ford’s term, despite being widely-regarded as a relatively unimportant and uninfluential Vice-President. His career in public life ended, more or less, with his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. Rockefeller died in 1979.

In many ways, Jon Huntsman’s career in politics, government, and public life has generally followed similar contours to Nelson Rockefeller’s, and Huntsman has even pursued similar goals and aims in a dramatically different political environment, both in the Republican Party and in the nation as a whole. Huntsman entered public life early on as well, serving in Rockefeller’s great rival Ronald Reagan’s White House as a staff assistant. He entered national public service at a similarly young age to Rockefeller, becoming at age 32 the youngest United States Ambassador in over one hundred years (representing President George H.W. Bush’s Administration in Singapore.) After a hiatus from public life after the Bush Sr. administration, Huntsman was appointed by President George W. Bush to be Deputy United States Trade Representative.

After serving in the Bush Administration, Huntsman ran for Governor of Utah and won, assuming the office in 2004. As Governor, he pushed for a variety of liberal and conservative reforms, on taxation, environmental regulation, immigration reform, and abortion regulations, “sin taxes,” and LGBT issues. The Huffington Post has described Governor Huntsman, in his tenure in the Governorship, as “a conservative technocrat-optimist with moderate positions,” while Politico calls him “moderate by temperament, conservative by ideology, and pragmatist by approach.” He definitely is a child of the Reagan Revolution, having grown to political maturity (with fellow John Weaver clients John McCain and John Kasich) working in the post-Rockefeller era in Republican politics. But he is far less dogmatic on any set of conservative issues than most other Republican elected officials have been, contributing, very likely, to his successes and 80+% approval rating as Governor.

Barack Obama tapped Huntsman to be his Ambassador to China after his election as President of the United States, a post Huntsman accepted and entered in 2009. Huntsman returned from China in 2011 to run for President against his former boss, and it’s been widely rumored that the Obama campaign team regarded the Huntsman candidacy as more serious than any of the other 2012 GOP presidential contenders. Huntsman came nowhere near the nomination, of course, but his star in the national spotlight rose through his brief campaign, and he cashed in on that capital to become chairman of the foreign affairs think-tank The Atlantic Council in 2014, and Co-Chairman of the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels in 2012. He has since been tapped to be President Trump’s Ambassador to Russia.

Through his presidential campaign and through No Labels, Huntsman has consistently called for political reform efforts and for the moderation of the Republican Party’s policy stances and political strategies. Though Huntsman heads no “Huntsman Republican” faction other than his loyal fan-base, he generally has been one of the main voices speaking out for Republican moderation and reform efforts, while being willing and eager to show off working with politicians from both sides of the aisle (for example, there aren’t many contemporary public servants who’d be willing to work for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.) And as some have speculated, Ambassador Huntsman may well make a fine candidate for Secretary of State in due time, even as he has not denied prospects for a U.S. Senate run in Utah in 2018 or beyond. He may have a further future in public life, and that would be a very good thing- Huntsman is one of the last popular public servants in contemporary American politics to genuinely exhibit the old “country-first” mentality of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, along with so many other post-Cold War Cabinet Secretaries and Congressional leaders. Perhaps he can succeed where Nelson Rockefeller failed.

Scions of great wealth and great legend, influential and popular Republican Governors of politically important states, bipartisan public servants in American foreign policy, philanthropic civic leaders when out of government, successful businessmen, leaders in moderate Republican politics- Jon Huntsman and Nelson Rockefeller may well have been cut from the same cloth, born in different times to different realities. And they certainly pursued, at the very least, three of the same goals- the adaptation of U.S. foreign policy to a different and dangerous world, the energetic reform of government in their own states, and the preservation of the moderate/liberal/reformist idea in conservative-dominated Republican politics. They also walked the same path of the bipartisan public servant in the foreign policy and domestic policy spheres, and the path of the civic philanthropist dedicated to pushing for pragmatic policy even while out of office.

No one can know if Huntsman aspires to be a future Senator, Secretary of State, Vice-President, or even President of the United States. But if he does continue his public service, even if he doesn’t climb to higher public office, there are probably a few lessons he can learn from the failure of Rockefeller to fully institutionalize moderate Republicanism, and thereby live beyond his own death the way Barry Goldwater’s conservatism lives on today. Richard Norton Smith’s biography of Rockefeller, On His Own Terms, and Geoffrey Kabaservice’s magisterial history of the moderate Republicans, Rule and Ruin, both can provide greater detail on the arguments here.

First off, don’t anger the conservatives. This actually doesn’t seem to be hard for Huntsman, given that he’s worked in the Reagan and W. Bush administrations and has a propensity to work with everyone. Although he made what was probably a calculated provocation in a 2012 debate, suggesting that conservatives were anti-science on climate change, in the time since then he has been very open to playing in the sandbox with the other kids. His measured words in a 2015 interview with The American Interest magazine evoked sympathy with Trump voters and conservative activists, rather than condemning them as the cause of the party’s problems as others have. Nelson Rockefeller, meanwhile, encouraged his followers to “repudiate” the ascendant conservatives in the Republican Party, and probably justifiably earned the unending ire of those conservatives.

One of the reasons Nelson Rockefeller never really was able to secure the Presidency was because, as Nixon figured out, you can’t win without the conservatives. In a way, Rockefeller committed the cardinal sin Trump is committing as his presidency draws on- not reaching out beyond one’s own base. It is ironic that someone as ideologically uncommitted and flexible as Rockefeller was not flexible enough to bite the bullet and appeal to conservatives. As suggested earlier, Huntsman is probably more amenable to this strategy; but we have yet to see what role he will play in the coming years, and how that role will be shaped by his explicitly non-conservative recent activism.

Second off, don’t waste your time, and other people’s money, on unwinnable campaigns- focus instead on building political infrastructure. Rockefeller never was a real possibility for the presidency in the 1960s due to the ascendancy of the conservatives, and his great wealth and political influence would very likely have been better spent on cultivating a coherent movement on the center-right to oppose the conservative movement’s organizations. Young Americans for Freedom, National Review, and eventually the Heritage Foundation would come to dominate the GOP’s intellectual discourse by the 1980s, against no significant competition from the center outside the legislatively-focused Wednesday and Tuesday Groups.

There were some attempts to establish moderate infrastructure- Geoffrey Kabaservice and Nicol C. Rae have extensively documented the early history of the Ripon Society and its journal, the Ripon Forum. (This author dutifully copied the Ripon Society’s eloquent manifesto, “A Call to Excellence in Leadership,” onto his blog for public distribution and consumption.)  But the Ripon Society, while receiving some support from a few politicians and intellectuals, never came close to receiving anywhere near the support of the conservatives’ infrastructure. Had Governor Rockefeller set up “The Rockefeller Institute for Policy Reform” or something along those lines to counter Heritage, National Review, and YAF, his influence through institutionalized moderate Republican intellectual discourse may well have lived on long past his death in 1979.

Governor Huntsman seems to have done some of this, namely through his chairmanship of No Labels and The Atlantic Council. But The Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan think-tank (in fact as well as on paper) and No Labels, save some blog posts on fiscal policy and a very brief essay by Bill Galston and Bill Kristol on moderate philosophy, has not produced anything like an agenda for moderate reform. It is bipartisan and transpartisan rather than moderate Republican, as well.

Huntsman, with his father’s chemical manufacturing wealth and his dense network of supporters, could quite possibly dedicate some portion of his influence to setting up “The Huntsman Center for Policy Reform” or something along those lines, dedicated to building up a new cadre of Republican policy thinkers and political operatives supporting a moderate, center-right, applicable governing agenda. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Tuesday Group leader Congressman Charlie Dent would probably appreciate that. And Huntsman easily has the clout to make such a think-tank respectable, especially were such diverse figures as the Reformicons, the new “Localists,” and the “softer gentler Trumpism” types at American Affairs brought onboard. And this reformist-moderate group of Republicans could mount a real challenge to the now-decadent conservative establishment wing, and the increasingly undirected populist conservative wing, of the GOP. Nelson Rockefeller failed at this- Jon Huntsman might succeed, if he tried.

There are probably other lessons to be taken from the life of Nelson Rockefeller- for example, don’t get into sex scandals, and do take as many opportunities from as many Presidents as possible, two lessons Huntsman seems to have internalized. But these two- working well alongside your opponents, and working on building long-term party infrastructure- are two that Rockefeller failed at, which Huntsman should double down on if he wants to maximize his future influence in American public life.

And who knows? Jon Huntsman will likely never be President, but he could well be, as Barry Goldwater was and Nelson Rockefeller wasn’t, more influential in the long run than many who did attain the Presidency.

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