Ties that Bind
In September 1963, at Hartford, Connecticut’s Bradley Airport, a private plane took off carrying local lawyer Meade Alcorn ’30. The aircraft, owned by classmate Nelson Rockefeller, wasn’t flying far—just a hop across the border to New York City—but the occasion was special. Rockefeller, the multimillionaire governor of New York, was about to launch his second of three runs for the Republican presidential nomination, and he was sparing no fuss to ask Alcorn, a well-connected Republican who had served as his party’s national chairman, to manage his campaign.
Ultimately Rockefeller’s classmate said no. Plenty of other Dartmouth intimates, however, either because of financial need or admiration for Rockefeller’s goals, served in both private and public roles during his four terms as governor (1959-73), two years as vice president of the United States (1974-77) and three presidential runs (1960, 1964 and 1968).
Most politicians have inner circles with shared attributes, says historian and “Rocky” biographer Richard Norton Smith: J.F.K. had his “Irish pals.” Ronald Reagan preferred “suntanned Californians.” When Rockefeller needed to fill an important position, he favored his college friends, who had a continuing and somewhat outsized influence across his long career in public service. About a dozen alums orbited Rockefeller closely, including roommates, fraternity brothers and fellow senior society members. In terms of its sheer numbers the network has few parallels in recent history. Rockefeller thought his Dartmouth buddies would be loyal, explains the son of one friend. He didn’t worry about those friends being on the make, says a former aide.
“It’s not unusual for politicians to have an attachment to their alma mater, to bring their contemporaries into their career,” says Smith, whose Rockefeller book is expected this year. Rocky, he says, “took it to the next level.”
One such friend was Bob Bottome ’30, Tu’31, who, despite solid grades and an M.B.A., was stymied for employment by the Depression. In 1931 Rockefeller offered him an assistant rental agent job at his family’s midtown Manhattan venture, Rockefeller Center, “which was a real white elephant at the time, as hard as that may be to believe,” says Bottome’s son Robert. By 1939 every square foot of office space and stores had been leased, Robert says.
Duly impressed, Rockefeller invited Bottome to go to Venezuela to keep an eye on Rockefeller family
holdings there. Soon after, in Caracas, Bottome built the Hotel Avila, whose sleek look was created by architect Wallace Harrison, later Rockefeller’s choice to recast much of downtown Albany, New York—and the designer of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center.
Rockefeller, who during World War II was the U.S. coordinator of inter-American affairs, also hoped Bottome could neutralize a growing Nazi influence in South America. Through the years Bottome, who went on to head ceramics and cement companies, would become a trusted confidante. Rockefeller would often call when he needed advice on international matters, according to Robert, who is the director of Veneconomia, a Caracas think tank.
“If you had been brought up as one of the richest people in the world, I imagine you would always think that people would want to cheat you in some way,” Robert says. “Rockefeller felt comfortable with his college friends, thought they would be loyal.”
With Rockefeller Center occupied, Rockefeller hired Vic Borella ’30 in 1939 to help manage its staff, a job that blossomed into a decades-long career at the multi-block complex. An editor of the Jack-O-Lantern as an undergraduate, Borella had been sharing a $5-a-week room in Queens and working for a taxi company a few years after leaving Hanover as the Great Depression started.
Ultimately Borella was responsible for all the operations at the center, from planting honey locust trees along Fifth Avenue to overseeing the construction of an underground shopping mall and new high-rises along Sixth Avenue, according to reports from the time. Borella’s dealings with construction crews allowed him to foster close ties to labor unions, which eventually earned him special-advisor status in Albany as a labor expert in Rockefeller’s administration.
Pushing Rockefeller to boost the minimum wage and increase unemployment insurance benefits, Borella was able to deliver key union votes for his boss’ campaigns, even though the unions typically backed Democrats. After Rockefeller was appointed vice president he again tapped Borella as a labor advisor, though a 1975 heart attack cut Borella’s Washington, D.C., career short.
Rockefeller’s closeness with Borella surfaced during the contentious 1974 hearings over Rockefeller’s vice presidential nomination. Fueling worries that Rockefeller’s vast wealth presented too many conflicts of interest, reports surfaced that Rocky had given huge gifts of money to former aides, some of whom became public officials. In 1972 Borella, for example, had received $100,000, though Rockefeller defended his largesse. “Mr. Borella is a long-time friend, associate and advisor of nearly 45 years,” Rockefeller wrote in an official letter. The money paid to Borella was “an expression of my great esteem for him” and would help with “medical expenses and other family obligations.”
Sylvester “Pat” Weaver Jr. ’30 bonded with Rockefeller at school through his work on The Arts, a magazine founded by Rockefeller and Walter Chrysler ’33 to encourage athletes to read more literature. A magna cum laude graduate and philosophy major, Weaver worked in advertising before landing at NBC, where he created Today and The Tonight Show. In 1954 The New Yorker described him as the television industry’s “most unrelenting thinker and most vocal theorist.”
Early on Weaver convinced Rockefeller that he needed to be savvier about his TV image and became his consultant from 1958 through the early 1970s. In 1963, in a then-unusual move because morning TV was considered unserious, Rockefeller announced his second run for president on Today in a 3-minute, 45-second segment that reached almost 4 million people.
Also coaching Rockefeller about how to handle the media while dealing with the public fallout from his divorce from his first wife, Mary, and subsequent marriage to his second wife, “Happy,” was Jerry Danzig ’34, a former reporter and Today show executive.
In addition to being a younger member of Rockefeller’s Dartmouth crew, Danzig was also an Upper West Side Democrat, which suggests that Rockefeller ultimately believed College ties outweighed many other considerations. “My dad was a liberal, and F.D.R. was a hero in my house growing up,” says Danzig’s son Jerry ’74. “He grew concerned toward the end that Rockefeller was growing too close to Richard Nixon.”
But in 1964, when he became a media advisor to the governor, Danzig had an active role. He told Rockefeller that he used “whereas” too much in speeches, according to documents from the Rockefeller Family Archives in Pocantico Hills, New York. Danzig also taught Rockefeller that charts didn’t make for good television. “[Rockefeller] was very appreciative and understanding about the size or potential of a television or radio audience,” Danzig recalled later in interviews. Nevertheless, “because the staff was print-oriented, his primary focus was, what did the editorial page of The New York Times say?”
Danzig’s and Weaver’s fingerprints were likely on a TV spot created in 1964 for the California GOP primary, when Rockefeller and his moderate version of Republicanism had to face Barry Goldwater and his strident far-right version.
In the half-hour ad Rockefeller rails against fringe elements in his party. “Extremists have retreated from the real world into a fairy-tale world where everything is seen in the most simple terms: good and evil, villains and heroes, black and white,” Rockefeller said, according to a transcript. The ad never aired—other Rockefeller advisors thought it might be too over-the-top—and Goldwater won with 52 percent of the vote.
Other alums such as Oscar M. Ruebhausen ’34, an attorney who helped create the National Science Foundation during World War II, shaped strategy for decades—apparently free of charge. As governor Rockefeller tapped Ruebhausen to be his atomic energy advisor, though that job almost got Ruebhausen in trouble. During those 1974 House judiciary hearings that exposed Rockefeller’s ample gift-giving, critics named Ruebhausen, as they had Borella, a beneficiary of Rocky’s money via a secret trust. Rockefeller, though, pointed out lightheartedly that since Ruebhausen didn’t know about the trust—until it was revealed to him at the hearings, according to news reports—it couldn’t be considered improper.
Rockefeller believed there was nothing wrong with helping those who were winding down careers after serving him loyally for decades, says Charles R. Holcomb, a former newspaper reporter who covered the governor from 1964 to 1974 and coauthored Oreos and Dubonnet: Remembering Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (Excelsior Editions, 2012). “Money was a tool for him,” Holcomb says. “He used it all the way through his career to help him get what he wanted.”
Still, some of that retirement goodwill seemed motivated by genuine fondness. “Like any wealthy person, he was worried about attracting people on the make, and these old schoolmates weren’t like that with him,” Holcomb says, adding that Rockefeller’s “relationship was much warmer with the people he had gone to school with.”
Several more classmates served Rockefeller as the need arose. Robert Oelman ’31, chief executive of the National Cash Register Co., became Rockefeller’s campaign director in Ohio during his 1968 run for the presidential nomination. Rockefeller lost badly to Gov. James Rhodes before Nixon claimed the nomination.
Less consistently supportive was Fred Scribner Jr. ’30, a U.S. Treasury undersecretary in the Eisenhower administration. Scribner, who was more of an old guard Republican than moderate “Rockefeller Republican,” declined to work on Nelson’s 1964 campaign, but the two remained close: Scribner was there for a class of 1930 reunion at the Rockefeller family compound in Pocantico Hills, New York, in 1974, and he helped raise $3 million for the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth in the 1980s.
Though Rockefeller seemed particularly fond of his classmates, he drafted much younger alums as well, most notably Robert Douglass ’53. In 1964 the 33-year-old Binghamton, New York, lawyer was hired as counsel but was quickly elevated to right-hand man as Rockefeller passed the then-toughest drug laws in the country, created a $1-billion river cleanup program and expanded the state’s university system.
The success of Douglass, who served as his boss’s campaign director in that final 1968 attempt for the White House, has to be understood in part through the lens of his and Rockefeller’s alma mater, says historian Smith. “He was like a son to him,” he says of Douglass’ connection to Rockefeller. “He could really kid around with him, which was allowed because of Dartmouth.”
Those bonds were tested during the four-day Attica prison riot in western New York in September 1971, when the inmates, who had taken guards hostage in a bid to improve medical care and living conditions, demanded to negotiate directly with the governor. Danzig, his media aide, urged him to go, according to later interviews, but rather than set a precedent for future hostage situations Rockefeller dispatched Douglass.
On September 13 state police stormed the prison with tear gas and guns, resulting in the deaths of 10 hostages and 29 prisoners. “They had to do it. They went in. They did it. They restored order,” Douglass told PBS in 2000. But his association with the event likely cost Douglass his job, historians say. He resigned from the administration shortly after, though his ties to the Rockefellers hardly ended there.
From 1985 to 1993 Douglass served as vice chairman of Chase Bank, in which Rockefellers have held large stakes since around 1930, when the company became the first major tenant in Rockefeller Center after being lured by the young Bottome.
Douglass, a former Dartmouth trustee, is now of counsel at the New York City firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, and chairs the Alliance for Downtown New York Inc., the civic group deemed responsible for the successful development of Lower Manhattan, including Battery Park City, shaped by yet another Dartmouth connection.
Charles Urstadt ’49, Tu’51, founded the Battery Park City Authority in 1968, a year after Rockefeller made him deputy commissioner of housing and urban development. Douglass was to thank for the job, says Urstadt. The two had met one night in the early 1950s over “quite a few beers” in the basement of Theta Delt, which Urstadt was visiting while back on campus to attend Tuck.
Urstadt is currently chief executive of Urstadt Biddle Properties, on whose board Douglass sits, and he appreciates Rockefeller’s affinity for his fellow Dartmouth alums. “When you are running a family company and you have investments like we do now, you want people around you with whom you have something in common,” Urstadt says. “When you graduate from Dartmouth, you have a little something in common.”
C.J. Hughes is a journalist who writes for The New York Times and other publications. He lives in New York City.
Rocky’s Green Gang
Vic Borella ’30, executive VP, Rockefeller Center, New York City, and labor specialist for Rockefeller as governor and VP
Bob Bottome ’30, Tu’31, Rockefeller Center rental agent and later a Rockefeller family representative in Venezuela
Robert McClory ’30, a fellow Psi U brother, later Illinois congressman who voted for Rockefeller’s confirmation as VP
Herm Schneebeli ’30, a congressional representative (R-Pa) supported by Rockefeller
Fred Scribner Jr. ’30, close friend and sometime political advisor, later a key fundraiser for Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center
Sylvester “Pat” Weaver ’30, television executive who served as a media coach
Robert Oelman ’31, Ohio campaign manager during Rockefeller’s 1968 presidential campaign
Jerry Danzig ’34, Today executive who also served as a media coach
Oscar M. Ruebhausen ’34, a legal and political advisor from the 1940s on
Charles Urstadt ’49, Tu’51, Rockefeller’s deputy commissioner, then commissioner of housing and community renewal,
1968-73, supporter of lower Manhattan development favored by the Rockefellers
Robert Douglass ’53, right-hand man and legal counsel, 1968 campaign director