David Rockefeller: An Alternative Obituary

Over a 101-year life, David Rockefeller used political influence and repression to shore up his family’s power.

David Rockefeller (center) in 2010. Alliance for Downtown New York / Flickr

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As a child growing up in a mansion on 54th Street in Manhattan, David Rockefeller remembered roller-skating with his siblings down Fifth Avenue trailed by a limousine in case they got tired. Rockefeller and his family, which included billionaires and politicians at all levels of government, spent a lifetime ensconced in this kind of luxury. At the time of his death on March 20, Forbes estimated that the 101-year-old Rockefeller’s investments in real estate, share of family trusts, and other holdings stood at $3.3 billion.

The obituaries and tributes waxed nostalgic, giving us all the gilt with none of the grit. Instead of a reckoning with what this man, alongside his powerful family, wrought over a 101-year life, the eulogies have been hollow celebrations and stories of celebrity-filled parties.

Not to be confined to the obituaries, JP Morgan Chase & Co. took out a full-page advertisement in the business section of the New York Times. With a half scowl, a black-and-white photograph of David Rockefeller looms in the center of the page, while a message from Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JP Morgan, attempted the poetic.

Dimon writes that Rockefeller left “an indelible, positive mark on our world as a leader in philanthropy, the arts, business and global affairs.” A former member of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Dimon sat in that seat during the economic collapse of 2008 and was widely criticized for his role in the financial crisis that devastated millions. He also occupied the main seat at JP Morgan Chase, the same one Rockefeller held as chairman of Chase Manhattan from 1969 –1981, during the depths of New York City’s fiscal crisis, decades before Chase acquired JP Morgan.

A Family Affair

Sometimes the idea of a “ruling class” can seem abstract. In the figure of David Rockefeller, who died March 20, and the Rockefeller family, the abstraction melts away. His life and his family’s history give us a unique view into how those with the money shape everything from who gets elected to public office, to how cities are built, to what kind of art is allowed to be produced.

David Rockefeller was the central banker for the family that epitomized Gilded Age opulence. While David managed the money, his brothers and nephews took on the work of governing. His brother Nelson was both the governor of New York and vice president, his other brother Winthrop was governor of Arkansas, his nephew Winthrop Paul Rockefeller was lieutenant governor of Arkansas, and Jay Rockefeller, another nephew, was governor and a US senator for West Virginia.

David Rockefeller’s ruling-class origins is the stuff of legends. He was the grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, and the son of John D. Rockefeller Jr.

David learned his capitalism at his daddy’s knee and from his grandfather’s university. He was a PhD student in economics at the University of Chicago, which was founded in part with his grandfather’s money. The school, according to David, “boasted one of the premier economics faculties in the world.”

He denies his legacy status as important, saying “the fact that Grandfather had helped found the university played a distinctly secondary role in my choice.” He has sat on the board of trustees in various capacities for seventy years, and the university created the David Rockefeller Distinguished Professorship in his name.

David Rockefeller’s connection to the economics department would have longstanding implications for those in other parts of the world with a bit less privilege. Eventually the home of the infamous neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, faculty in the economics department at the University of Chicago led the ideological fight for a deregulated and privatized economy, championing the gutting of social welfare programs.

Naomi Klein exposed the brutal logic of those pushing the neoliberal agenda in her book The Shock Doctrine. She also linked the project to David Rockefeller. With a US-backed junta in place in Argentina, Henry Kissinger made sure to extend an invitation to the military government’s minister of the economy. He offered to make the introductions needed to keep Argentina financially solvent and said he would “call David Rockefeller,” then president of Chase Manhattan Bank, to gain access to the resources to do so.

Kissinger didn’t stop there. “And I will call his brother, the vice president [of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller].” David’s Bank, as Chase became known during this time, shored up Argentina’s economic needs, while Nelson took care of the political front.

Bolstering dictatorships was no aberration. David Rockefeller traveled the world in service of accumulating capital. He rarely met an oil oligarch or crony capitalist he wouldn’t do business with.

Rockefeller went so far as to “become embroiled in an international incident when in 1979 he and long-time friend Henry Kissinger helped persuade President Jimmy Carter to admit the shah of Iran to the United States for treatment of lymphoma, helping precipitate the Iran hostage crisis,” Reuters reported, a rare half-criticism in the mostly fawning obituaries.

Martinis and the Media

But Rockefeller preferred to wear a velvet glove over his iron fist. His friends and eulogizers have followed his lead.

Todd Purdum wrote in the New York Times that David Rockefeller “will always be the man who served the second martini I ever drank in my life.” He used his limited space in this column to recount his family history with the Rockefellers and the personal good deeds of a dead man.

Purdum notes that all Rockefeller’s loyal aides called him “D. R.,” before adopting the use of the nickname himself further in the column. If not for Purdum’s occupation, this would be just another vapid toast to the departed billionaire. However, it was as the City Hall bureau chief at the New York Times that Purdum had that martini with D. R. surrounded by “priceless art” after being “summoned” to Rockefeller’s East 65th Street townhouse “to discuss the fortunes of Mayor David Dinkins.” This two-martini lunch is a stark reminder of how the system functions with its willing media presided over by generations of billionaires.

For the Love of Art — or Money?

Other media outlets happily played along. UChicago News wrote that “David Rockefeller’s civic work included . . . serving as a key supporter of New York’s Museum of Modern Art” while the New York Times touted that he “courted art collectors” and lent his extensive collection to art museums.

His “love of art,” however, may not have been so pure. Reuters noted that “a Mark Rothko painting he bought in 1960 for less than $10,000 was auctioned for more than $72 million in May 2007.” Seen in this way, his love seems to be more for the art of the deal.

Forgotten by the eulogists touting David Rockefeller’s love of art is the infamous destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural, Man at the Crossroads, at the hands of David’s brother Nelson. Famously depicted in the 2002 movie Frida, Rivera was commissioned in 1934 by the family to paint a mural at the newly constructed Rockefeller Center. When Rivera added the visage of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin to the mural, he discovered the Rockefellers’ love of art had found its limits. Nelson ordered the mural destroyed.

He justified its destruction by saying, “Unfortunately, what [Rivera] painted was different from the sketch.” It was not the addition of Lenin alone that prompted the demolition of this lost masterpiece, Rockefeller continued. “The picture of Lenin was on the right-hand side, and on the left, a picture of [my] father drinking martinis with a harlot and various other things that were unflattering to the family and clearly inappropriate to have as the center of Rockefeller Center.”

In a city of stark inequality, Diego Rivera’s mural was too prescient, too true, to stand. But David Rockefeller’s justification for the mural’s destruction, that it was “clearly inappropriate,” tells only part of the story of the Rockefellers’ contempt for some of the finest art of the century.

Like Rivera, there were other artists who helped build a culture of opposition to the Rockefellers. Folk-singing troubadour Woody Guthrie wrote the protest anthem to the massacre at Ludlow where mine workers and their families were killed by private detectives and the Colorado National Guard.

David’s father, John D. Rockefeller Jr, supplied guns to his private detective agency and the National Guard as they shot up and burned the Colorado miners’ camp.

John D. Rockefeller Jr was also the developer of Rockefeller Center. Pete Seeger and Sis Cunningham recall auditioning alongside Woody as members of the Almanac Singers for a job at the Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of Rockefeller Center. After poking mild fun at the rich by singing lines like, “The Rainbow room is mighty fine. You can spit from here to the Texas Line,” management requested that they make it a real “hick act” by dressing in “country clothes.”

The group refused, and on the way down in the elevator they made up less innocuous lyrics. “At the Rainbow Room, the soup’s on the boil. They’re stirrin’ the salad with that Standard Oil,” Seeger remembers Woody singing.

New York City’s Banker

Beyond his “love of art,” David Rockefeller’s role in the New York fiscal crisis may be the most talked-about aspect of his life in the flattering obituaries. The University of Chicago News noted that his “civic work included helping New York City through its financial crisis,” while the New York Times claims, “He was instrumental in rallying the private sector to help resolve New York City’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s.”

Though the Times seemed to consider this enough coverage of Rockefeller’s role in New York City’s fiscal crisis, we have to pause here to consider exactly what he did to “help resolve” the fiscal crisis.

Historian Joshua Freeman writes in his book Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II that as chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1971, David Rockefeller formed the Financial Community Liason Group and used it

as a vehicle for pressuring city leaders to adopt reforms that would reassure investors — especially themselves — of the city’s solvency. . . . [T]he financial community also pressed for a program of municipal austerity, including a freeze or cutback in the number of city workers, an increase in their productivity, reductions in capital spending, cutbacks in city services, and increased fees and taxes.

Rockefeller had learned his lessons well at the University of Chicago and from his father and grandfather. He saw the crisis as a growing risk to the bank he headed, rather than a grave risk to millions of New Yorkers. His plan for resolving the crisis returned Chase Manhattan to solvency while destroying the social safety net built up over generations in New York City.

Rockefeller would not only initiate the policies to end or erode the social-democratic programs in New York City, which provided health care through publicly funded hospitals and educational opportunities through free and low-cost college education, but he would be sure to see them through to the bitter end. Chairing the Business/Labor Working Group on Jobs and Economic Revitalization in New York City in 1976, the group’s recommendations were draconian, Freeman recounts, including “lower business and individual taxes, regulatory simplification, federalization of welfare, ending rent control, and reductions in the energy costs by loosening environmental standards.”

Of course, this was not a “shared sacrifice” — the reductions in taxes on commercial banks benefitted Rockefeller and his banking buddies while depriving the city of much-needed tax revenue.

Freeman notes that Rockefeller’s attacks on education were particularly harsh. The committee for “reforming” education was made up of presidents of New York’s elite private universities as well as a representative from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, leaving out union members and public-school representatives.

Freeman writes that “in the fiscal crisis atmosphere, private interests attempted to grab public resources in the name of efficiency.” CUNY was encouraged to “concentrate on education at the junior college level allowing the thirty-three private colleges and universities . . . to concentrate on full undergraduate- and graduate-level education,” creating a clear two-tier system of education in New York City that remains today.

This is also a part of David Rockefeller’s legacy, whether or not the New York Times chooses to recognize it.

Still, David Rockefeller went further, determined to remake the very power structures of the city. In 1979, he founded the Partnership for New York City, affiliating it with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Merging into one organization in 2002, the newly named Partnership for New York City moved beyond the old mission of the Chamber with its narrow focus on “business interests.”

“Under Rockefeller’s vision,” the partnership would now “allow business leaders to work more directly with government and other civic groups to address broader social and economic problems in a ‘hands on’ way,” according to its website.

Rockefeller achieved the goal of having “business leaders work more directly with government . . . in a ‘hands-on’ way.” So while Reuters characterized the Partnership for New York City as an organization “to help the city’s poor,” and the New York Times said the partnership “fostered innovation in public schools and the development of thousands of apartments for lower-income and middle-class families,” in fact the partnership became a lever to gain real-estate tax breaks for developers.

In From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974-Present, Kim Moody says that the partnership “issued a policy proposal calling for the abolition of the city’s land use procedures, which gave local community boards, borough presidents, and the city council a say in development projects” in 1990. Moody notes that from 1990 to 1993, these policies resulted in an average of $144 million in tax reductions per year — a boon for developers and a drain on city resources.

But the partnership went further still. When Deputy Mayor Sally Hernandez-Pinero questioned these “incentives” for development, the head of the partnership wrote a New York Times op-ed suggesting she get the boot in place of “an experienced and distinguished business executive.” Moody notes that she was readily replaced by “a long-time Chase, i.e., Rockefeller, veteran.” David Rockefeller moved beyond shaping policy behind the scenes to getting politicians in place to protect his and his friends’ interests.

So while the New York Times writes that David Rockefeller “pulled the city out of the crisis,” we should remember that what he did was lead the charge to privatize and deregulate a social-democratic city. By 1981, he was able to retire as the head of Chase Bank having restored it “to full health.” The health of Chase Bank meant immiseration for the majority living in Rockefeller’s city.

Ruling Mystique

David Rockefeller was born into a family of billionaires and politicians, and all contributed to the individual he became. It should come as no surprise that during the 1980 transit workers’ strike, Ed Koch led opposition to the strikers with David Rockefeller standing by his side.

Of course, the Rockefeller family was no stranger to opposing strikes. David would have learned early on not to shy away from such opposition. His father funded the violence to break the Colorado coal miners’ strikes, while his brother Nelson oversaw the brutal repression and the killing of thirty-nine people during the National Guard’s brutal repression of the Attica Prison uprising in 1971.

This is the face of the US ruling class, seen in one family. Instead of covering the dark side of this history, the New York Times chose to highlight the “mystique” of the Rockefeller family name, quoting David saying, “I have never found it a hindrance” — as if we should find this insightful. The paper notes his “reserve” in stating the obvious, that “having financial resources . . . is a big advantage.”

In the end, Rockefeller directed much of his money to philanthropic endeavors, giving “tens of millions of dollars” to places like Harvard and Rockefeller University. But his reserve and philanthropic giving are not likely to be in New Yorkers’ minds as they struggle to find a publicly funded hospital or pay tuition or outrageous rents in a city gutted by the institutions built and operated by David Rockefeller.

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