Two free-spirits ramble into a New York City restaurant bar looking for a drink. It’s late afternoon and the bar is darkly lit; even though the year is 1972, the décor and ambiance of the establishment is Mad Men to the core. The two young men order drinks at the bar. Hippies by appearance and mindset, they plan to get something cheap to eat – elsewhere – after soaking in their drinks.
Behind them, seated at a table, an older establishment type enjoys a steak dinner. Alone, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, handsome and self-assured, he slowly savors his meal while reading a newspaper. His presence in the near empty restaurant is unmistakably fitting; like a lion on the savannah, he has no competitors. Eventually, he pushes his half-finished meal aside and sits back farther in his chair and continues to read. The considerable remaining steak calls the attention of the two hungry hippies at the bar.
“Excuse me, are you going to finish that steak?” The question is almost as out of place as is the presence of the two hippies in a downtown Manhattan joint in the days of Nixon and Vietnam.
“Actually, no. You can have it if you let me ask you a few questions.” An agreeable bargain, the two hippies join the distinguished middle-aged gentleman at his table. Animated and engaging, the ensuing conversation flows back and forth. The gentleman learns that the young men have been living on a utopian commune in northern California. He wants to know if idealism is truly flourishing among the young these days. And what is the whole back-to-the-land movement about? The two hippies have just as many questions for their inviter as he has for them. They have a sense that the world is going off-track, through pollution, over-consumption and intolerance, and they want to know if someone from the older generation shares their views. More food and some delicious Cabernet is ordered by the lion for his new tablemates and the conversation goes on for an hour or so, longer than either party anticipated. The vaunted generation gap itself seems to vanish before their eyes in the soothing darkness of the bar. Two distinct worlds and mindsets – hippie and establishment – meet and commingle. Questions beget insight, and the two previously distinct worlds are understood, if momentarily, to inhabit shared space. The three men shake hands, and bid adieu; the law of homeostasis – all things return to their natural state – reasserts itself. But a lasting impression is made, and a bond is fashioned as American as Rockefeller and 1960s-’70s era hippies.
On their way out of the bar, one of the hippies asks the bartender, Who was that masked man? Oh, that’s Winthrop Rockefeller, the bartender answers. The Governor of Arkansas. Grandson of the original titan, John D. Rockefeller.
Good friend, author, and native New Yorker Michael DiLeo was one of the protagonists on the other side of the table in this story. He related his story to me a few years back when I told him I was researching the Rockefeller family for a book I was working on. I appreciate Michael letting me share his story and its encouragement to have a conversation with “the other.”
Winthrop Rockefeller was a native New Yorker, but developed a fondness for Arkansas during a trip there in the 1950s. By 1966, he was elected the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, philanthropist, and rancher, Winthrop Rockefeller served two terms (2 years each) as Arkansas governor. Later, his son, Win Paul Rockefeller, would serve as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor. Winthrop Rockefeller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the impromptu meeting with the two hippies in Manhattan. He died in 1973 at sixty years of age.
My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, tells the story of the interplay of two great American traditions: egalitarianism and liberty. The story starts with the titan himself, Winthrop’s famous grandfather, who was the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known. American liberty allowed him to become the world’s first billionaire. Rockefeller’s business acumen was unmatched in his day; his ruthlessness, however, was certain and unquestionably damaging to competitors and innocents within his vicinity. John D. Rockefeller’s legacy is mostly good but it is also complex: his incredible wealth gave American society the permission to leave behind its egalitarian foundations. American egalitarianism, properly understood, is not an equality of material goods or wealth, but the opportunity for the weaker members of society to join forces in order to stand up to or have equal footing with society’s more powerful members. “No taxation without representation” – that’s liberty and egalitarianism working together. America has seen its best days when liberty and egalitarianism balance each other’s excesses – the pendulum does swing in both directions – and America’s darker days have occurred when the two traditions are out of sync or unbalanced.
I argue in JaLBM that since 1980, American society has been out of sync because of the domination of liberty. Today, many Americans don’t know what the word egalitarianism means because its use has diminished significantly in the last decades. American society, since 1980, has become increasingly isolated. The rich live and consort with fellow rich, and don’t know anyone who is poor. As an example, Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe during the 2012 presidential campaign is entirely indicative of the age.
John D. Rockefeller had humble beginnings. But even as he became Rockefeller, he continued to consort with rich and poor alike. Winthrop was like his grandfather in this sense – he actually consorted with others, including a couple of hippies of the early ’70s. He shared a table and genuine conversation, replete with curiosity. He didn’t have all the answers, and consequently was interested in talking to two fellow citizens with whom he had differences in lifestyle and opinion. Even so, conversation and exchange happened – akin to the interplay of liberty and egalitarianism. Two different entities working together can do much more than one alone.
Winthrop Rockefeller was a “good government” Republican who didn’t eschew a compassionate side to his politics. As Arkansas governor, he facilitated prison reform and oversaw the racial integration of the state’s public schools. His last act as governor was to commute the death sentences of Arkansas’ death row inmates to life imprisonment.
What would it be like if Fox News and MSNBC didn’t play into well-worn stereotypes and spent less time on accusations of the “other side”? I suppose ratings would plummet and we’d actually have to talk to one another to hear and understand each others’ opinions and viewpoints.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
– John Lennon, Imagine (1971)
Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.