Winthrop Rockefeller’s death in 1973 at the age of 60 was especially poignant because the cancer that caused it seemed to have been brought on by a peculiar sort of intractable grief, his inability to reconcile his sacrifices for people with their utter rejection of him at the polls. He did not expect defeat after four frustrated years as governor, and friends said he was devastated by the sheer magnitude of it and could not recover. Cancer killed him two years later.
It is possible only to suspect that the same pathological yearning fed the malignancy that on Sunday morning felled his son, Winthrop Paul, at the age of 57. Winthrop Paul spent much of his adult life calculating the moment at which he must accept his duty like his dad and run for governor. Sensing time’s winged chariot hurrying near, he decided agonizingly in 2004 that despite suddenly terrible odds — his party had become a right-wing monolith — the moment had to be at hand. That is when the fatal malignancy set in. A year ago today, he pulled out of the race to seek radical treatment in Seattle.
Win Paul and his father were very different men, probably because the youngster grew up on an Indiana farm with his Lithuanian-born mother, Bobo, and became close to his father only as a young man when he came to live on the Petit Jean farm and experienced the elder’s political triumphs and his confounding weaknesses.
But he was like his father in two important ways, one imparted to him by example and the other by genetics. There was the sense of duty, of noblesse oblige, which his father may have felt more keenly than anyone of his time. Having alighted in Arkansas in 1953 as a Manhattan playboy in flight from the tabloids and his scornful patrician family, the elder Rockefeller created his life’s mission from the teachings of his mother. Those born with great unearned gifts, she told the boys, are obliged to use them to help others.
His mission, he decided, would be to bring this poor state into the sunlight by his philanthropy and, finally, by transforming its benighted and uncaring government. After his landslide defeat in 1970, he told legislators in his farewell address that he had found Arkansas in 1953 like a beautiful antebellum home that was boarded up to deny the coming of change. Despite the defeat of his cherished programs, he said he hoped he had succeeded at least in throwing open the windows “to allow those fresh winds to penetrate our home and, yes, even our minds.”
Gov. Rockefeller wrote a small book for his son on his 21st birthday. It was an apologia for the strange course of his life and it explained that duty.
“Through the different stories and insights in the book,” Win Paul would say later, “he gently reminded me of his life’s message: The greater your gifts, the more you are obliged to do.”
The other likeness, a particularly perverse one, was a void in the usual talents that make people succeed in politics. Winthrop was the worst ad-lib speaker from the back of a flatbed truck anyone had heard. Glad-handing and schmoozing with strangers was painful but he forced himself to do it, clumsily and often with the aid of a shot of vodka. Win Paul became only a little better at both. Well, he was elected lieutenant governor three times. He moved with easier grace and confidence.
Winthrop Rockefeller was the most liberal American governor of his century. He proposed in his second term the most sweeping program in Arkansas history, including a 50 percent increase in taxes. He would have raised income taxes on his class from 5 percent to 12 percent, the highest rate in the United States, and he demanded that lawyers, architects, accountants and doctors remit sales taxes on their services. It all went down to crushing defeat, twice, presaging his own landslide defeat in 1970.
Though he left office trailed by the gloom of failure, the elder Rockefeller has been beatified by history. Win Paul took inspiration from that.
Writing about his dad in 2003, he said, “I know that I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son” and to have been challenged to follow his vision.
What he would have done with the mantle if the illness had spared him and he had somehow wrestled the nomination from a Republican Party far different from his dad’s, he gave few clues except by the gentle and compassionate examples of his life. He did complain almost offhandedly to students at Rogers last year that taxes on rich people were burdensome, which would have perplexed his father, and he seemed to be repackaging his ideas on social issues for a more conservative constituency. But he never catered to prejudices against gays and immigrants and he manifested none of the flintheartedness of the men who now carry the banner for the GOP.
It’s safe to guess in the absence of reality that his instincts and his inspiration would have guided him to a better place in history.