WASHINGTON - Uncle Nelson was vice president. Uncle Winthrop a senator. Great-grandfather Nelson a senator, too.
Political bloodlines, he had.
But the great American electoral dynasty that abruptly announced its end Friday, or at least signaled what looks to be a long, long pause, always evoked more. That name on the ballot - Rockefeller - meant money. It meant epic-scale success. It meant everything.
And it meant that Jay Rockefeller wasn't ever going to be just some Democratic senator from West Virginia. Rockefeller, who said Friday that he would not seek reelection in 2014 after nearly three decades in the Senate, was always going to be the oil titan John D. Rockefeller's great-grandson, too. One of the heirs to a legendary fortune.
"He's proud of being a Rockefeller. He talks about his uncles and his grandfather, about that legacy. It's an important part of who he is and how he thinks about himself," Rockefeller's longtime political adviser, Geoff Garin, said in an interview. "He found a way to be a Rockefeller that was about serving people."
Dynasties like these roll across American political history. Not just Rockefellers, but Adamses and Kennedys and Bushes. A nation formed to escape power granted as a birthright still embraces power that follows the contours of a family tree. Voters even expect it, and so do political scions.
"It's so predictable!" said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus and author of the book "America's Political Dynasties." "It's daddy's business and increasingly it'll be mommy's business, too."
For Hess, each dynasty takes on a different aura. There were the "crafty" Roosevelts, headlined by a couple of presidents - Franklin Delano and Theodore - and his favorites, the Tafts, whose standout, William Howard, was about the "nicest" guy ever to occupy the Oval Office, in Hess's estimation, and who also managed to become chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The Rockefellers were almost incidental dynasty builders, Hess said. "That generation -the robber barons, if you want to call them that - wasn't interested in politics. Politics was something you could marry into."
Indeed, John D. Rockefeller's only son married the daughter of Nelson Aldrich, a prominent Republican senator of the late 1800s and early 1900s who wielded tremendous influence over monetary policies. Their son, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, became governor of New York and was Gerald Ford's vice president. Another son, Winthrop Rockefeller, became governor of Arkansas.
"My great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, worked at it very, very hard. There's an ethic in the Rockefeller family of hard work," Jay Rockefeller wrote in an e-mail late Friday. "It's expected that everybody work hard. And there has been a tradition of public service."
John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV entered politics unconventionally, drawn into that sphere by his experiences as a volunteer for VISTA (the precursor of Americorps) in Emmons, W.Va., a small coal mining town. "Coming to West Virginia was life-changing for him," Garin said. "West Virginia exposed him to a whole new world that broadened his world; and in a lot of respects it gave his career a defining purpose."
In the eyes of some, the newcomer who'd grown up in New York was "a carpetbagger," said John Raese, a West Virginia businessman who lost a tight Senate race against Rockefeller in 1984. He tried to "save Appalachia," Raese said mockingly.