Sex, Scandals and Might-Have-Beens

The airwaves and blogosphere are now filled with the latest details about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cover-up of his  illegitimate child and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s hotel check-out procedures. The list or narcissistic male politicians seems to grow longer every day: Mark Sanford, John Edwards, John Ensign, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton. Men whose infidelities cause jaws to drop–and usually, on some level, disappoint those who looked up to them or worked on their behalf in the political trenches.

Being of a certain age, my own list goes back a bit farther: Gary Hart onboard the “Monkey Business,” taunting the press to bring his infidelities to light. And the “scandal” that derailed another presidential campaign, that of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

In 1962, Rockefeller divorced his wife of 31 years (and the mother of his four children). In May 1963, he married Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, a former aide, one month after her own divorce became final. In her divorce settlement, the new Mrs. Rockefeller gave up her custody rights to her own four children, probably the most scandalous aspect of the story at the time. Rockefeller had been viewed as the front-runner for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, but his approval ratings went south after his divorce–and particularly the news of his remarriage.

From that fount of all 1960s historical wisdom, the “Mad Men” blog, I found this typical quote from  U.S. Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the father of George H.W. and grandfather of George W.:  “Have we come to the point in our life as a nation where the governor of a great state — one who perhaps aspires to the nomination for president of the United States — can desert a good wife, mother of his grown children, divorce her, then persuade a young mother of four youngsters to abandon her husband and their four children and marry the governor?”

Elly Peterson was a big fan of Nelson Rockefeller–and remained so throughout her life. In fall of 1963, as Peterson was about to become assistant chairman of the RNC, she traveled with her predecessor, Clare Williams Shank, to New York for “tea” with Happy Rockefeller. In her memoir, she wrote: “I could not believe this shy, attractive, but simply-dressed lady could be the one about which so much had been written, when Nelson married her after their mutual divorces. Surely those who had written about her had never taken the time to meet her. She was far from the ‘femme fatale’ I expected.” 

Later, in 1976, Peterson was touched when Rockefeller invited her to join him on Air Force Two, when as Gerald R. Ford’s vice president, he made a final campaign swing through Minnesota and Michigan, her home state. Later she observed to her sister, “We had a ball. . . . He will always be the greatest in my mind for being natural . . . .”  (Peterson did not record her reactions to the news of Rockefeller’s death, which prompted another round of headlines when he suffered a heart attack in the presence of a young female aide. )

Rockefeller struggled in the early Republican presidential primaries in 1964, but doggedly continued in the race and scored some important victories. But his fate was sealed when his new wife had the bad timing to deliver their first child a few days before the California primary, reminding voters why they no longer liked him. Rockefeller returned to New York to be by his wife’s side, and Barry Goldwater came from behind to win California’s large pot of delegates–and the Republican nomination.

It’s tantalizing to wonder how history might have been different if Rockefeller had stay married.

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Filed under Politics and Journalism, Republican Politics

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