It was the picture that was worth a thousand words. There was our Vice-President giving the finger to some hecklers at a Binghamton, New York, rally for Robert Dole.
It was the finger that received the publicity, largely due to some very quick photographers, but it was the facial expression of Nelson Rockefeller that seemed most revealing. A perceptive editor of a woman’s Magazine who saw the still picture on the evening television described the former New York Governor’s expression as a mixture of “satanic, sneering derision.” How times have changed! Old John D. Rockefeller used to give out dimes to small children on the advice of his public relations counselor. Now his grandson, nearing the end of a long political career, bursts forth with the classical obscene gesture.
No one who knows Rockefeller was terribly surprised. They knew that he always displayed little verbal inhibition in private and that he had been keeping his powerful gut reactions to critics under difficult control. So when he erupted, they felt he was getting off years of steam that’s been a’building on the sump.
President Ford declined to comment on the Rockefeller obscenity. He was reported, however, to have told an aide that Rocky sure seems to be having a fine time on the hustings.
Meanwhile, in homes around America, the picture of the Vice-President, looking like a corner rowdy taunting his adversaries, was on page one of the local newspapers. There can be much sympathy with political figures who are heckled without condoning such a response. Vice-Presidents along with Presidents are symbols of substantial communicative power.
While millions of children were not taught anything new by the Rockefeller gesture, they saw this gesture elevated from the school playground, corridor or classroom to the Vice-Presidential stage by a man of great wealth and social status. And some children were taught a new lesson in silent communications, as parents struggled to deflect their youngster’s curiosity.
Rockefeller refused to apologize for his outburst. “I was just responding in kind,” he said, neatly avoiding the point that the apology was not expected to go to the hecklers but to the general public.
Recently, a tennis star was fined heavily and reprimanded for making the same gesture to the fans at a tennis tournament. It was considered an unsportsmanlike offense and thereby contrary to the rules of the game.
The political game has no such rules. Its sanctions are in a turned-off public and a loss at the polls. But Rockefeller is not up for re-election. For him, the defiant middle finger was a kind of declaration of independence freeing him from the unspoken rule that politicians must always flatter the audience and ignore the hecklers.
But as the years pass, that impression will not be the recollection. Rather, that picture will come to symbolize what many believe the Rockefellers have been doing all along first to consumers, with John D’s oil monopoly, and later to taxpayers, with Nelson’s ballooning of New York State’s public authority debt and expenditure. Sonic groups may even raise funds by selling the photograph, or buttons and paperweights with the shibboleth of the sneering Rockefeller complete with upward-thrust hand and finger.
One group will be sure to be challenged. Cartoonists will have to search deeply their imagination to come up with a fictional rendition of Rockefeller that will surpass what he gave the future that day in Binghamton.