Our second course arrives, with my $25 Carneros Chardonnay, and we discuss his own philanthropy. A competitive yachtsman who got his first boat at 13, he now campaigns for ocean conservation. As he elaborates on the threats to the world’s seas, I remark that I’m glad I didn’t order the lobster. “Lobster would have been all right, actually,” he says, noting that as waters warm around the Long Island Sound the creatures are moving north. “If I were Canadian I’d be investing more in lobster,” he says. I take a bite of chicken (again, the salt is coming on strong).
Rockefeller’s efforts to save the oceans have run into an unsympathetic Washington since Donald Trump’s election. “Unfortunately a minority in the country discovered how to manipulate public opinion” by sowing doubt about science, he says, and as this administration prioritises offshore oil and gas extraction, “we have a fight on our hands to get the right balance”.
It is, he acknowledges, an unexpected critique to hear from the scion of an energy empire. The family fund announced in 2016 it would divest from its petrochemicals holdings. Some accused them of biting the hand that fed them, Rockefeller tells me, but the shock value of people with his surname disavowing an industry he now likens to Big Tobacco was useful for drawing attention to the cause. “My family has been financed on the back of petrochemicals, but I say to people my great-grandfather was a smart man and very interested in science... He’d be in the solar business today.”
His uncle Nelson was the prototypical Rockefeller Republican, representing a moderate, establishment wing of the party that is all but extinct now. Measured and reasonable, Rockefeller has no appetite for political life but identifies as a Democrat, even as he says the party still has much to learn from its 2016 loss. “I believe the people who voted for Donald Trump will see, not that their reasons for dissatisfaction were inappropriate but that the solution was not in the Trump administration,” he tells me. “I’d love it if we could create Rockefeller Democrats who’d be close to the centre, who’d believe in the importance of government and the importance of business and the importance of the NGO sector working together.”
With his resources, he could push the party in that direction, but is more money really what American politics needs, I ask. “It’s not,” he replies. “It’s too powerful and it distorts what the country should be about in a terrible way, I think, but, having said that, I think until both sides lay down their money swords you’ll have to fund your beliefs with money for the candidates.”
He is still unsure who those “moderate, credible, public-spirited” candidates might be, though. He knows Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire chief executive, actor, television host and rumoured presidential hopeful, but says he would prefer someone with government experience. “You don’t get to become a political leader in China unless you go through the training,” he observes.