Jay Rockefeller Retirement Brings the Old Money, Big Fame Era to an End

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misidentified Sen. Robert Casey.

Jay Rockefeller’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection in 2014 marks the end of an era in American politics.

It’s not just that for the first time in 60 years there won’t be a Kennedy or a Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate.

In a larger sense, it marks the end of old money and nationally known dynasties in the Senate. There are plenty of rich folk among the 100 senators—self-made tycoons like Mark Warner who got rich in the cell-phone business or John McCain who married into great wealth. There are plenty of political heirs. Sens. Mary Landrieu, Robert Casey, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Mark and Tom Udall had fathers who were political figures. But the dynastic lines that combined wealth and national notoriety and political longevity no longer seem to lead to the U.S. Senate. Who else could tell a joke like Jay Rockefeller’s famous line: “I grew up playing with blocks—49th Street, 50th Street....”

That could change in the coming years with the Bushes, who have proven even more protean and lasting than the Rockefellers or the Kennedys. The Bush family tree includes two presidents and a governor, of course, with George P. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush, looking ahead with the prospect of a rich political future before him. Beginning as Episcopalians, they’ve become Methodist (George W.) and Catholic (Jeb) and Hispanic (George P.) For their part, the Rockefellers became governors of three states—West Virginia, New York, and Arkansas. Jay was the Democrat. Winthrop was an Arkansas Republican. Nelson defined New York and moderate Republicanism and his being dumped from consideration as Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 marked the beginning of the end of his kind.

Jay Rockefeller was unique in that he chose the poverty of West Virginia as the place to make his stand while Prescott Bush represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate and George H.W. Bush represented wealthy sections of Houston. Rockefeller was drawn to West Virginia at a time when Appalachia was part of the national conversation. Robert Kennedy had famously visited the hollows of the mountain East and cast a national spotlight on poverty that was white, grinding and enduring. It was my old boss, Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters, who encouraged Rockefeller to go to his native West Virginia as a young Vista volunteer. The rich kid fell in love with it and had his family’s knack for politics, rising through the State House to become governor in 1972 and senator in 1984. Bumper stickers from one of his opponents, Arch Moore, the father of the next likely senator, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, famously said, “Make him spend it all, Arch.” But Rockefeller didn’t, and he kept winning.

From the Capitol, and a mansion set in Rock Creek Park, he was a Washington fixture along with his wife Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the chair of PBS and the daughter of the late Illinois Republican and moderate senator. Rockefeller toyed with running for president in 1992 but he was a man of the Senate, making a mark in health care where he co-authored the leading children's health insurance program and the regulation of telecommunications. He had Pat Moynihan’s knack for balancing national affairs and constituent services. Teamed with former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, the two funneled billions back home.

Rockefeller never got below 60 percent after his first Senate race, but he would have faced a stiff challenge in 2014. The state, once reliably Democratic, has become a Republican bastion as white, working-class voters have abandoned the Democratic party and the state is flecked with “End Obama’s War on Coal” signs. At 75, it made sense to leave.

The Rockefellers will continue to be a great American dynasty combining wealth, politics and fame. The Senate, though, is a place for strivers and lesser political families. It’s more meritocratic in a way with Klobuchars instead of Kennedys and Reids instead of Rockefellers, but it’s also a little less celebrated, too.