To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald: The rich may be different from other people, but the Rockefellers are different from everybody. Where common dreams end, theirs begin. Many years ago it must have occurred to John D. Rockefeller IV that it might be nice to be the leader of the Free World. He has yet to acknowledge this thought publicly; nonetheless, most astute political observers expect the two-time Governor of West Virginia, only 46, to waltz into the Senate next year. Then—perhaps in 1988 or, more likely, in 1992—they believe he will run for President of the United States. In his own strange way, Jay Rockefeller has been running for a long time. He has had many opportunities for failure, but he has yet to lose his way.
Consider the concept: a Rockefeller in West Virginia. While it is true that Jay’s Uncle Winthrop wound up in Arkansas, it has been said that he fled there in disgrace. Available evidence suggests Jay wanted to go to West Virginia. In hindsight, it looks like a masterstroke. But it could have been a disaster, a jarring clash of classes and cultures. Here was this rich kid from New York by way of Exeter, Harvard and Yale coming into poor Appalachian coal country, where strangers are looked upon with distrust. To complicate matters further, this was no ordinary rich kid. This was a Rockefeller—and coal miners and Rockefellers hadn’t gotten along too well since 1914, when troops financially supported by the Rockefeller-controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company machine-gunned and burned a tent colony of striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colo., killing 26.
So when Jay, then working for a federal youth program, arrived in August 1964 in Emmons, W.Va.—a town whose collective annual income probably didn’t equal his clothing allowance—he anticipated problems. What to do? He called a community meeting and entertained the crowd with a slide show of scenes from his life, like the Rockefeller clan gathered around the family Christmas tree. “We’re going to be working together,” he explained, “and I want you to know exactly where I’m from and who I am.”
Somehow, the approach worked. Charmed by his honesty or bemused by his innocence, Emmons’ 56 families accepted him. “Some of the people were suspicious,” recalls Brookie Bell, now 72, then the town’s postmistress. “But he was just one of us. He joined in, ate what we ate, even if it was meager.” Together, the rich kid and his new acquaintances bought a condemned elementary school in a nearby town, carted it to Emmons on flatbed trucks, and set it up as a community center. They also built a softball field. “It was wonderful, a pivotal experience,” Jay remembers. “I was extremely close to those people.”
Despite the mutual affection, nobody expected Jay to remain in Emmons forever. And he didn’t. In 1966 he prudently switched his affiliation from Republican to Democrat—the Democrats have dominated West Virginia politics for more than 50 years—and ran for the state House of Delegates. The first step in the proverbial 1,000-mile journey to the White House? Governor Rockefeller is cool and coy about such speculation. “I enjoy it,” he says with a grin. “No matter how many times I say, ‘No, I’m not going to run,’ nobody believes me. So it’s like I’ve got it both ways.”
The prospect of Jay Rockefeller running for President inevitably raises an intriguing question: How much would he spend? In 1980 he greased his reelection campaign with nearly $12 million of his own money, making his one of the most expensive nonpresidential runs in U.S. history, while putting barely a dent in his personal fortune, estimated at more than $100 million. In the process, he inspired supporters of his opponent, Arch Moore, to cover the state with bumper stickers reading “Make Him Spend It All, Arch,” outraged the national press—and won in a landslide. “The New York Times was extremely upset about it,” Jay says, “but I have no problem at all in spending that kind of money on an election. The name of the game in campaigns is media, getting your message across.”
Apparently, most West Virginians don’t worry about it either. In a state whose history of corruption makes Cook County look like Sunnybrook Farm, electing a public official who can make ends meet without accepting bribes is regarded as a sensible means of ensuring clean government. “The Governor is viewed by many to be a breath of fresh air,” says David Lieber, statehouse reporter for the Charleston Gazette. “He’ll be remembered for eight years of honest administration.”
He’ll also be remembered for his golden genes. John Davison Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, was America’s first billionaire. The very personification of the Gilded Age, he was hailed as a munificent philanthropist and excoriated as an amoral robber baron. His son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., managed his father’s empire. One of Junior’s sons, David, served as chairman of the multinational Chase Manhattan Bank. Two others entered politics: Winthrop, Governor of Arkansas, and Nelson, Governor of New York and later Vice-President of the United States. Junior’s other sons were Laurance, an avid conservationist, and John D. Ill, a full-time philanthropist.
Jay is one of 23 cousins, the children of John D.’s grandchildren. Though his father christened him simply John Rockefeller, in an attempt to spare him the burden of The Name, Jay requested permission at age 21 to become John D. Rockefeller IV. “I wanted the responsibility,” he explains. “Being a Rockefeller is important to me. I have never had to fight it inside myself, so I never felt uncomfortable with it.”
After Jay’s junior year at Harvard, he studied in Japan for three years. In 1961 he received his degree from Harvard in Far Eastern culture and history, then entered Yale for graduate work in Oriental studies. He never finished that program. Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, he joined the Peace Corps as an assistant to director Sargent Shriver. One Corps colleague, Charles Peters, now editor of the influential Washington Monthly, calls Jay “one of the most natural people I have ever known. You did not feel there was an unreal word coming at you.”
From the Peace Corps Jay moved to the State Department, but found Foggy Bottom’s bureaucracy frustrating. “Having spent all my years doing European things—trips over there and studying those languages—and then Japan, I saw that there hadn’t been any real American experience for me. That’s what I wanted.”
But what American experience? How could a Rockefeller discover his native land? Peters, born in Charleston, suggested that he try West Virginia. A flight over sections of the state blighted by strip mining convinced Jay to go to Emmons—and he has lived in West Virginia ever since.
Eighteen years later Jay is once again in flight over West Virginia. He is shuffling papers, and his wife, Sharon, the 38-year-old daughter of Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, is munching hard-boiled eggs when the subject of boy-meets-girl is broached. Though he can be terminally “proper” in public life (when not wearing a necktie—even in a coal mine—he is not at peace with himself), in the privacy of his jet Jay has been known to indulge what friends, with some overstatement, call his Saturday Night Live sense of humor. “I was panhandling on the Bowery,” replies the Governor, “when I saw this good-looking broad…”
Sharon has another version. “I was touring Greece with my parents in 1964,” she says, “and I was dating the Egyptian hairdresser on the boat and…”
“Cut! Cut!” Jay bellows. “What hairdresser? I want my ring back!”
“A woman on the boat wanted to extract me from the clutches of this hairdresser,” Sharon continues. “She knew a lot of people in Washington and Jay was on her list. He had a friend of his take me out first—to check me out.”
Despite that excess of caution, the two obviously hit it off. On April Fool’s Day, 1967, they were married in a modest little ceremony. “Just Chuck Percy and 3,000 of his closest friends,” Jay recalls. Sharon has her own poignant memories of that blessed day: “Jay’s great-grandfather had conveniently built a university called the University of Chicago, and the church there—the one we were married in—is called Rockefeller Chapel.”
If anything, Sharon Percy Rockefeller is sharper of tongue than her husband. She is also chairman of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a job that helps round out her day. “Without it, I’d be extremely frustrated,” she says. “I just couldn’t call being Jay’s wife a full-time job.”
In the midst of this two-career marriage, the Rockefellers have managed to raise their children—Jamie, 13, Valerie, 12, Charles, 10, and Justin, 3. All, Jay is quick to point out, were born in West Virginia and all have attended public schools. This evidence, he hopes, will help bury the old charge that he is a political carpetbagger, an outsider using West Virginia as a stepping-stone to national power.
That charge was first raised in 1966, when Jay ran successfully for the House of Delegates. It resurfaced when he campaigned, again successfully, for West Virginia Secretary of State in 1968. But what the carpetbagger accusations couldn’t do, Jay did to himself in 1972, when he ran for Governor while urging the abolition of strip mining. Moore, his incumbent opponent, used that issue to feed fears that Jay was a Yankee environmentalist, ready to sacrifice the coal industry to protect the environment. “Moore made it look as if Jay was against coal,” remembers political consultant Donovan McClure. The ploy worked, and the voters buried Jay.
Ironically, though, his loss to Moore—and Jay’s reaction to it—laid the carpetbagger issue to rest. Instead of leaving the state for greener pastures, Jay remained, taking a job as president of West Virginia Wesleyan College. “There was a lot of feeling that he wouldn’t stay after he lost the election,” recalls Cecil Roberts, a West Virginia native who is a vice-president of the United Mine Workers. “But he did stay, and people’s opinion of him changed.”
It changed so radically, in fact, that Jay got 66 percent of the vote in the 1976 governor’s race—the largest gubernatorial landslide in West Virginia history—and was reelected in 1980. But it wasn’t just wealth that won Jay his job. His patrician good looks and his folksy—yes, folksy—charm didn’t hurt. “He loves to campaign and he’s got a great sense of humor,” says Peters. “Jay has movie-star charisma. You could see the crowds following him down the street.”
Today, though, Jay is having problems. What is a painful recession in much of America is a full-blown depression in coal country, where unemployment has exceeded 20 percent according to federal figures. Inevitably, Rockefeller has been stung by the political fallout. “He promised 50,000 jobs and 50,000 miles of roads, and he failed on both counts,” says State Senator Lacy Wright Jr., who supported Jay in 1980. Other critics charge that Rockefeller has abandoned the liberal positions he took in 1972. Could this be the start of a shift toward the political center in anticipation of broadening his national appeal? “He made his reputation working on environmental issues, but he changed his mind on strip mining after he lost his first election,” says David Grubb, director of the West Virginia Citizens Action Group. “Some people here think his political convictions are very thin.”
Still, even Jay’s critics concede he’s still popular. Lieber, who calls himself “the Governor’s least favorite reporter,” sees him as a shoo-in for the Senate seat that will be vacated by the retirement of Jennings Randolph next year. And beyond that looms the specter of a presidential campaign. “I don’t know what the Governor’s aspirations might be,” says Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd, “but I do know that he is considered a bright young light in the party.” Pamela Harriman, Averell’s wife and the doyenne of Washington Democrats, is less cautious. “I think he’s got leadership quality,” she says. “People get excited about him and think of him as a future President—which he probably is.”
Jay, meanwhile, is playing it close to the vest. He hasn’t even announced for the Senate yet and remains sensibly mum about the still-distant run for the White House. But when asked who possesses the vision and abilities to lead America in the future, he pauses and then flashes that grin. “I think,” he says, “that Sharon and I together have those qualities.”
That’s what’s so impressive about a Rockefeller’s dreams. They’re big enough to include the whole family.