Our thanks to Scott Christianson for bringing this story to our attention.
On September 8, 1968, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller returned to Albany, after a 3-week vacation and a summer spent campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. He ran as a liberal, during an era of urban upheaval, and (for the second time) lost the nomination to former Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, who promised “law and order.”
On Monday, his first full day back in office, the governor toured the South Mall construction site. On Tuesday, he announced the appointment of Rep. Charles Goodell to the Senate seat vacant since Robert Kennedy’s assassination three months earlier. That evening, Rocky and Happy dined with Pat and Dick Nixon at Kykuit, the Rockefellers’ Pocantico Hills estate. Rocky later introduced his former rival to a large and enthusiastic crowd at a rally in White Plains. It was the two men’s first public appearance together since the Miami Beach nominating convention.
In the weeks that followed, Rocky threw himself into the campaign. He traveled throughout the state and across the nation on behalf of the GOP ticket, perhaps hoping for a position in the future Nixon cabinet. (Scuttlebutt was that he was in the running for the position of either Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State.)
As Election Day neared, it appeared that Nixon might carry New York State, at least, so the candidate hoped. That is why, during the final week of the campaign, he and his wife flew into Albany.
As their plane touched down on October 28, Pat and Dick Nixon were welcomed by the governor, in a show of party unity, with “winks, smiles and breezy good humor.” Cheers erupted from a couple hundred well-wishers.
From the airport, Rocky crammed into the backseat of a car with the Nixons for the ride to the Governors Mansion. There, the candidate led 39 of the state’s 62 GOP county chairs in an “Operation Extra Effort” pep talk. Despite a new Daily News poll showing that he trailed Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Nixon predicted that, with their help, he could win the state’s 43 electoral votes.
The highlight of the Nixons’ visit to Albany was a rally on the Capitol steps, across from the South Mall. Balloons, banners, banjo players, and a brass band greeted the candidate as he ascended the podium. Nixonettes waved flags and pompons as they serenaded the future present with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” (An onlooker shouted, “Put ’em on the Lawrence Welk show!”)
The crowd of 6,000—many of them state workers—cheered loudly. Nixon’s supporters far outnumbered and out-yelled a small contingent of hecklers, drowning out Yippie-style oinks with chants of “We Want Nixon, We Want Nixon.”
Nixon took the stage, looking tan and rested. Smiling, he raised his arms overhead, hands in the victory sign. The candidate promised to lower crime, prices, and taxes, while increasing national pride. “The American flag is not going to be a doormat for anyone at home or abroad.”
Nixon concluded by urging voters to give him a “mandate for change.” He said, “There is nothing wrong with America that a good election won’t cure. Let’s have a good a election.” He then left the stage, returning briefly to announce, “We’re going to sock it to ‘em.”
After the rally, Pat and Dick signed autographs, while the Nixonettes chanted campaign slogans. Then the candidate and his wife accompanied Rocky across the street to the shake construction workers’ hands and admire the expansive South Mall work site. Less than 2½ hours after their arrival, the Nixons were back at the airport, on their way to a Pittsburgh rally. Rockefeller would later head to Connecticut for a GOP fundraiser.
While in Albany, Nixon proclaimed to loud applause, “No man in this country has worked harder for this ticket” than Nelson Rockefeller. The comment sparked renewed speculation that there might be a place for the governor in a Nixon administration. But Rocky never got the call. His protégé Henry Kissinger did.
On November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon won the U.S. presidency but lost the State of New York by a wide margin. Perhaps that is why Rocky remained in Albany. But days after the election, “sources very close to” the governor were providing the press with a different explanation. Emmet O’Brien of Gannett News Service reported that Rocky “is far more interested in carrying out his extensive program in New York State … than being tied down in a Washington department waiting for word from the White House.”
During the 1968 campaign, the governor’s ambitious building program had become the object of controversy—among Republicans as well as Democrats—when Comptroller Arthur Levitt called halt to construction of a shockingly expensive South Mall housing project.
Rocky remained in Albany for another five years, overseeing construction of the Empire State Plaza, almost to completion. During that time, the man who once embodied liberal Republicanism built a new reputation for being fiscally conservative and “tough on crime.” Even after three failed attempts, he was still looking for shot at the presidency.