Richard Rosenbaum, 88, Loyal Rockefeller Republican, Is Dead

Richard M. Rosenbaum, an ebullient Republican state chairman of New York who helped deliver to Nelson A. Rockefeller the job he avowed he never wanted, the vice presidency of the United States, died on Sunday in Rochester. He was 88.

The cause was complications of a fall, his son, State Supreme Court Justice Matthew A. Rosenbaum, said.

Mr. Rosenbaum presided over the Republican Party in New York in the 1970s as most of the so-called Rockefeller liberals — including Mr. Rockefeller himself — were retiring or losing re-election to Democrats or conservative challengers in statewide races.

Nearing the end of his fourth term as New York’s governor, Rockefeller resigned in December 1973 and bequeathed the position to his lieutenant governor, Malcolm Wilson.

Spiro T. Agnew had quit in disgrace as vice president two months earlier, and President Richard M. Nixon filled that vacancy with Representative Gerald R. Ford of Michigan. When Nixon resigned the following year and Ford succeeded him, Ford sought a No. 2 and potential running mate in 1976.

“I worked my tail off, trying to counter the belief that Rocky was ‘too liberal’ and that he could never be satisfied being merely ‘standby equipment’ for Gerald Ford,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote in his autobiography, “No Room for Democracy: The Triumph of Ego Over Common Sense” (2008).

He galvanized longtime New York allies to endorse Rockefeller for vice president while seeking to keep vacillating Republicans from supporting his chief rival for the job, George H. W. Bush, who was the party’s national chairman at the time.

“If they weren’t for us,” Mr. Rosenbaum recalled, “I wanted to make sure they weren’t against us.”

On Aug. 20, 1974, Ford nominated Rockefeller as the interim vice president. “The hard work and the hours of lobbying had paid off,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote.

Rockefeller, who had sought the presidency in 1960, 1964 and 1968, had famously declared, “I never wanted to be vice president of anything.”

But when the opportunity actually presented itself in 1974, Rosenbaum wrote, the former governor was primed for national exposure after 15 years in Albany.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy and Nixon’s resignation had reminded Rockefeller of the vice presidency’s heartbeat-away proximity to the White House, Mr. Rosenbaum recalled. Rockefeller was also driven, he wrote, by “a kind of noblesse oblige that led him to believe that he could be of real service to a country that faced months of uncertainty caused by Watergate and its aftermath.”

But Ford dropped Rockefeller as his running mate when he ran for president in 1976 in favor of Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. He lost the election to Jimmy Carter.

“Rockefeller and I always suspected that Donald Rumsfeld, then Ford’s chief of staff, was the perpetrator of the conspiracy to jettison him from the ticket — an act that arguably cost Ford the election,” Mr. Rosenbaum later wrote. (It was not intended as retribution, Mr. Rosenbaum insisted, that he introduced the president at a fall campaign rally as “Gerald R. Fraud.”)

As the state chairman from 1972 to 1977 and later as a Republican national committeeman from New York, Mr. Rosenbaum was instrumental in getting the state’s convention delegates to back the nominations of Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Richard Merrill Rosenbaum was born on April 8, 1931, in Oswego, N.Y., to Jack and Shirley (Gover) Rosenbaum. His father was a salesman for Sears in Rochester, his mother a homemaker.

Richard was prone to being bullied as a child both as a Jew and because he was balding prematurely as a result of alopecia totalis, which causes complete hair loss. But by the time he was 13 he was a strapping 6 feet 2 inches tall and fully able to defend himself. He graduated from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., in 1952 and then Cornell Law School, where he was president of the student association.

He married Judith Kanthor, a fellow Cornellian, who survives him. In addition to her and their son, Matthew, he is survived by their daughters, Amy Steklof, Jill Ascher and Julie Skolnick, and 13 grandchildren. He died in a Rochester hospital.

Mr. Rosenbaum served as a town justice in Pennfield, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, where he lived, and in the Monroe County Legislature. He was a State Supreme Court justice when Rockefeller recruited him for the party chairmanship. He later worked as a lawyer in private practice.

At Hobart, Mr. Rosenbaum was an undefeated heavyweight boxing champion. But in 1975, he was nearly floored during a Republican fund-raising match against Floyd Patterson, the former heavyweight champ.

He also lost two bouts for his party’s gubernatorial nomination — in 1982, to Lewis E. Lehrman, and in 1994, to George E. Pataki.

“Afterward, I gave myself a new name — Picasso,” he told The New York Law Journal in 2008. “Why? Because I was always on the canvas.”

He was known by two anomalous nicknames: “the Iron Chancellor,” for being a strict party disciplinarian; and “Rosie,” for being a genial raconteur, whose repertoire featured a favorite anecdote about flying home on Rockefeller’s private Gulfstream jet one night over Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

“I leaned over and peered expectantly out of the window; all I could see were pinpricks of light shining out of the darkness from the towns far below,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote in his memoir. “I suppose Rocky could see by my expression that I was really disappointed.”

Rockefeller got up from his seat and disappeared toward the rear of the plane. Moments later, the mountain was bathed in blazing light as the jet circled the sculptured granite presidential profiles three times.

“I realized that Rocky must have phoned the National Park Service from the plane and called in a favor,” Mr. Rosenbaum wrote. “ ‘Let there be light,’ I could imagine him saying, and then there was light. Until that night, I thought only God could accomplish that.”

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