Of course, there would be an engraved invitation for David Rockefeller’s memorial service to be held next week at The Riverside Church in New York City. “You are invited to join the family”, it read, to celebrate the memory of this very private, public man. Opening the envelope my memories of the corporate statesman, for whom I had worked decades ago writing speeches and handling press chores, surged. There was “DR” , the financier and former Chairman of The Chase Manhattan Bank; the billionaire philanthropist who helped build The Rockefeller Brothers Fund supporting enlightened social change worldwide. Yet, I thought of David, the understated beetle collector, a boyhood hobby that expanded and deepened throughout his life of 101 years. This “David” was a gentle, understated man who stood with us in a controversial fight to open the Republican Party to gay and lesbian Americans.
“David Rockefeller Joins Gay Republican Group”, announced the “Advocate”, an LGBT publication and one of the few papers that had never written a word about him. “David Rockefeller Joins the Republican Unity Coalition” (RUC), wrote Dan Balz of “The Washington Post”, with an equal tone of amazement that this Establishment titan would help us make a difference. The Republican Party in 2003 could barely sputter the word “gay”, much less take a progressive half-step forward. We had given our all to build the RUC, a Republican “gay-straight alliance”, chaired by Senator Alan K. Simpson with his close friend President Gerald Ford serving on the Advisory Board, the only time a former President has ever joined a gay and lesbian organization. The idea was to build momentum within the Republican Establishment, in those days alive and well. Who better to help us than “DR” ? But how to ask him, what would he say, and how to allow him to say “no” with ease, in his characteristic gracious manner ?
It was a terrible time for gay and lesbian Republicans, crossing currents of animus and political cowardice. Senator Rick Santorum had compared gay and lesbian relationships to incest and beastiality and been defended as a “good man” by President George W. Bush. Republican National Committee Chairman Mark Racicot had been widely criticized by far-right conservatives for even meeting with a national gay group. The Bush re-election campaign, managed by Ken Mehlman, who would later come out as gay himself, had launched a crusade nationwide against same-sex marriage supporting anti-gay initiatives and referenda, as well as the Federal Marriage Amendment.
How, we asked ourselves, could David Rockefeller at age 87 be made to understand this or wade into such waters? Talk to DR about Rick Santorum sliming gay and lesbian Americans? That would be a non-starter. We believed the answer would lie in Mr. Rockefeller’s understanding of history. He was raised in a culture of progressive Republican ideals. As a young boy with his father, he would “summer” (a verb to him) in Colonial Williamsburg. He had spoken in glowing terms of Riverside Church, founded in 1930 by his father and minister Harry Emerson Fosdick. Over the decades, Riverside Church had been a focal point of progressive social change. Jackie Robinson’s memorial service was held there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had spoken from its pulpit; and Riverside had a longstanding LGBT ministry. On a long shot, we might mention Gertrude Stein and her art collection which he purchased and donated to the Museum of Modern Art. He had told me about enjoying meeting Stein.
As things turned out, we did not have to invoke Gertrude Stein! Our conversations about LGBT civil equality emerged from dear friends and a core of trusted advisors at the storied family office, “Room 5600” at Rockefeller Center. His former chief of staff and lifelong friend, the late Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed , appealed to him on our behalf. Ambassador Reed had served as Chief of Protocol for President H.W. Bush. He was passionate about the future of the Republican Party and despised its anti-gay and lesbian policies and tone. Likewise, DR’s close advisor Peter Johnson, himself a historian who had overseen the writing of Mr. Rockefeller’s memoir, spoke on our behalf; as did Marnie Pillsbury, his philanthropic advisor, who wanted us to have a fair hearing. Even my old boss Fraser Seitel, Mr. Rockefeller’s public relations advisor, joined us at this very special luncheon.
“Mr. Rockefeller”, I said, drawing a deep breath to begin my pitch.
“Please, call me David”, he interrupted and disarmed me. With a degree of warmth and gravitas I will never forget, he said, “ I and my family have always thought of the Republican Party in a broad and progressive way. We completely support what you and Alan Simpson are doing, and I would be honored to join your effort. For whatever it may be worth, please feel free to use my name and let me know how I can help you succeed with this terribly important effort.” What a luncheon it was, and a historical moment of hope.
That was almost fifteen years ago, as today we look back on the ruins of the Republican establishment DR embodied. With us, he was true to his word. For the GOP? He donated an unprecedented $5 million to their convention the next year in his beloved New York City. On that stage, President George W. Bush railed on about “the protection of marriage against activist judges” and defended the onerous “Defense of Marriage Act” in a campaign that would leverage fear of “gay marriage” to the hilt. The Republican Unity Coalition had struggled to make “homosexuality a non-issue” for the Republican Party, and instead, it had become the issue.
Last year, DR (age 101) spoke warmly to us of friendship and ties so long ago. He rose comfortably, steadied on a walker, in the so-called “Playhouse” lodge of his home on the Hudson River. There were no dry eyes among us. I walked down a paneled hallway and stopped before a display of beetles of startling colors and shapes, the passion of his open mind in love with nature’s diversity, one image of the great man he came to be.