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Last Rockefeller's final crusade

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The long shadow of the family name will follow John D. Rockefeller IV into retirement.


The long shadow of the family name will follow John D. Rockefeller IV into retirement.

WASHINGTON -- The old dude in the black Escalade with West Virginia plates who is blasting his horn behind you is the son of the son of the son of the greatest robber baron who ever lived.

"You need to understand -- I'm pretty hardline on this," he is explaining to a squirming roundtable of lesser lords and geniuses, most of whom are half his age. "If it were up to me, cellphones in cars would be illegal."

Of all the things that have been up to the man who is speaking, being born with a surname synonymous with rapacious wealth and world-changing philanthropy was not one of them. Now, nearing the age of 77, John D. Rockefeller IV -- known universally as "Jay" -- is about to retire after 30 years in the United States Senate, leaving no one from his celebrated lineage serving in elective office in any of the 50 states.

"I drive myself to work in my good GM car," Rockefeller says. "When the light turns green, if I see someone in front of me looking down, I honk my horn until it stops."

Depending on which website you believe, the net worth of the senior senator from West Virginia is either $86 million (, $120 million (, or exactly $101,290,514 ( (Whatever the correct figure is, he may be the last man in the Senate who wears suspenders.)

But this is a pittance compared to the treasure amassed by his great-grandfather John the First before the Supreme Court trust-busted Standard Oil in 1911, or by his 98-year-old uncle, David, the Manhattan banker, or by his late uncle, Nelson, governor of the State of New York and vice-president of the U.S.A.

As a final crusade before he leaves the stage, Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from a state where Barack Obama lost all 55 counties in 2012, has chosen distracted driving and the toll of death and disability it takes each year on this country's youngest and most inattentive motorists. At a moment it is estimated that 3,000 teenaged U.S. drivers are killed annually in road accidents while texting, he convenes a session of his committee on commerce, science, and technology, invites (all male) senior executives from Google, Samsung, Toyota, General Motors, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Apple to gather around him, and then tears into them in a spirited harangue that leaves the technophiles stammering.

"If any of you think you're creating a social good," he snarls, "I'd like to hear from you."

The man from GM tries to parry this by saying the automakers are simply giving the consumer what he wants, and what he wants in 2014 is broadband more than horsepower.

"I understand the profit motive," Jay Rockefeller responds. "Thank God, I had a forebear who understood it a lot better than I do.

"Some of my relatives say 'Jay, get with it.' It's easy to use cultural evolution as excuses. I find that to be capitalistic and entrepreneurial, but it is a depressing development in American society. I think it's wrong. I think it's wrong."

In the middle of the hearing, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a southern Democrat who is in grave peril of losing his seat this year, enters the committee room, sits down, immediately takes his smartphone from his breast pocket and checks his inbox.

"Why is it that you all can't sit down and work together?" Sen. Rockefeller resumes. "What's so important about kids driving along and making Facebook updates? It's not how many people have died. It's how many people have almost died.

"I'd go up there and make a bill -- I would not get any co-sponsors, you'd make sure of that -- and make all of this illegal. Why does there have to be 200, 300 buttons?"

I'm in a front-row seat in the ornate chamber, watching the old lion so secure in his power and privilege, and wondering what I would have made of my life had I been born a Rockefeller or a Kennedy or a Mellon or a Ford, rather than the son of a stationer whose own patriarch had shortened his name from the ungainly Abelowitz.

In a recent autobiography entitled Being A Rockefeller, Becoming Myself, we get a glimpse behind the oilcloth curtains from the senator's cousin, Eileen.

"John D. Rockefeller was my great-grandfather," she writes. "For years, my siblings and I tried to keep this a secret because his name created such a buzz... This preconception of my family as akin to royalty contributed to my sense of isolation and loneliness. I live with anxiety and gratitude, just like the generations of Rockefellers before me."

Before me in the Senate Office Building is but one strand of one of this country's most consequential clans.

"One of the most remarkable things of my lifetime," he is saying, "is the ignorance of people who should understand."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 0


Updated on Monday, February 24, 2014 at 7:12 AM CST: adds photo

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