Both Nelson Rockefeller and Lyndon Johnson were born 100 years ago this summer. Their legacies speak to us still.
One was born in the family summer cottage in Bar Harbor, Maine. The other was born in a house without electricity near Stonewall, Texas. One was reared amid the greatest riches in the world at the time. The other was reared in struggle and poverty. One grew up with the glitter and lights of New York City. The other grew up in the hardscrabble of Texas hill country.
Nelson A. Rockefeller and Lyndon B. Johnson were part of different worlds, with different experiences and different assumptions. But though this may be the first time in the century since they were born that they have been grouped together, it is increasingly apparent that in the important things - and in the legacies they left behind - Rockefeller and Johnson may have been more similar than different.
Rockefeller was born 100 years ago last Tuesday, Johnson 100 years ago Aug. 27, and it may now be safe, with both of them in the grave and unable to object, to speak of them in the same breath, to write of them in the same sentence and to think of them in the same way.
Giants of their time
Indeed, the way to speak, write, think and remember these two men can be summed up in one word: big. There is something about the two of them that prompts the fingers to write that they were giants of their time and of their type, and that the footprints they left behind were huge. So were their buildings, their legislation, their impact, their vision - and, though it may seem odd to apply this word to men who reached the vice presidency at the mature ages of 66 and 52 - their dreams.
Because the two men, perhaps the two most unlikely vice presidents since Thomas Jefferson, were, above all, dreamers. The two - one who in his youth worked in subsidiaries of Standard Oil and as an officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other who worked on a chain gang and teaching poor children - both dreamed of a society whose government was logical, intelligent, compassionate and active.
Today many believe that government can't be logical, that government officials aren't intelligent, that the compassionate thing is to remove government as much as possible from the daily operation of society and that an active government is a dangerous government. But these ideas, at least in recent history, didn't gain force until later; symbolically, let us note that Ronald Reagan wasn't born until three years after Rockefeller and Johnson.
What Johnson and Rockefeller came to believe - and what, in Washington and Albany, they came to symbolize - was something new, even revolutionary, for the time.
The two men were marked by Franklin Roosevelt, to be sure. Johnson was shaped by his years as director of the National Youth Administration in Texas, a New Deal agency. Rockefeller was shaped by his experience as head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs in FDR's State Department. But they were not Roosevelt clones, nor was their vision constricted by the New Deal.
Not without critics
Neither has escaped into heaven unscathed. Rockefeller is criticized for inflexible, even Draconian, drug laws and ridiculed for having an edifice complex that left Albany scarred with buildings that look like eggs and function without grace. Johnson is reviled for not having the insight or the courage to curb the war in Vietnam and for thinking that Great Society programs were required to produce a great society.
Those are fair criticisms, and weigh heavily on the scales of history.
But the two men also were possessed of remarkable ability; they knew how to get things done and, more important, they knew how to bend others to their will and to enlist them in their causes.
They were big, effusive men, full of bluster and blarney - perhaps, along with the two Roosevelts, the three Kennedys, Hubert Humphrey, Reagan and Bill Clinton, the most accomplished practitioners of the political arts of their century. By contrast, the two Tafts, Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon were introspective figures, possessing powerful strategic minds but lacking the gregarious aggressiveness of the great outdoor politicians.
Even in years when both Johnson and Rockefeller were materially comfortable and confident of an ample, front-page obituary in the New York Herald-Tribune - one sure way to measure a life at mid-century - they possessed a restlessness that set them apart from their peers. In that and so many other regards there are no equals among us today.
"Nelson didn't have to do a damn thing with his life, but he decided to try to make the country a better place," says former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who worked with Rockefeller. "He was a huge human being. He had gigantic ambitions - not for himself, because he had everything, but for the country."
The same words can be applied to Johnson, who in his early life had nothing - nothing but the memories of his own struggle and of the struggle of the Mexican children he taught in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades, coached on the baseball and debate teams, and served as assistant janitor at the Welhausen School in Cotulla, Texas, while working his way through Southwest Texas State Teachers College.
"Right here I had my first lessons in poverty," Johnson said in a poignant speech delivered when he returned to the school as president in 1966. "I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here. Thirty-eight years later our nation is still paying that price."
Legacy worth honoring
Rockefeller and Johnson were of different parties and different classes. Both are largely forgotten and misunderstood today. But what should not be forgotten, and should not be misunderstood, is that the two men brought to government and to their lives real, unbridled passion - a passion for service, a passion for justice, a passion for making a difference, a passion for leaving the world changed, for leaving it better.
A century after they were born we still celebrate that, which is why, in the summer of the centenary of their birth, we should celebrate them.