Learning to live with a powerful name

With so much talk about politicians struggling to find time to spend with their children, this scene was as sweet as it gets: a senator and his grown son sitting side by side at a national presidential convention.

There they were, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), towering and balding, and his son, Justin, with a full head of dirty-blond hair, sitting proudly on the convention hall floor amid an assemblage of West Virginia delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Justin, 29, a Princeton graduate, lives in Manhattan and works for Generation Engage, a group aiming to get young people interested in politics by connecting them to well-known politicians. In essence, his life work is connecting young people who have little access to the political process with politicians.

He wasn’t always a proud Rockefeller, eager to carry on the family name of political service. As the youngest of four siblings, at times he felt burdened by the powerful name. So much so, he wouldn’t initially tell people he was a member of the renowned family.

His mother could not attend the convention because of complications from having cancer. The cancer has not returned, he said, adding, “She’s going to be just fine.”

Justin speaks of his father in a way that suggests he looks up to him with admiration as a politician, not simply with the love of a son. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him give the same speech twice even though I know politicians do that,” he said.

He recalled inviting his father to Princeton in 2000 to give a speech on healthcare. Justin asked to see the speech ahead of time — for curiosity purposes, he said. “Not to veto him. I don’t have that kind of veto power in my family.”

What startled Justin and the rest of the Ivy League audience was that when it came time to deliver his speech, Sen. Rockefeller scrapped it and spoke extemporaneously about public service. He discussed what it means to him personally and to the Rockefeller family.

“It was my father raw,” Justin said.

There were times when he wasn’t eager to introduce himself as a Rockefeller. “I used to be nervous about it because I thought it would change the way people looked at me,” he said. “I always used to just introduce myself as ‘Justin.’ ”

But as he learns more about his family legacy, he views it as “inspiring,” and not something to hide. “I used to view it as daunting,” he explained.

When asked if he’ll someday run for office, he shrugs it off, but not completely. “Who’s to say what could happen?” he said. “I don’t see it happening before 20 years.”

Like many in the convention crowd in Denver, he is an avid supporter of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and has met the presidential nominee three times — once at a fundraiser in New York, though he won’t say how much he has contributed.

Being at the convention was a thrill for him. “Honestly, it gives me hope that people are still utterly passionate about politics,” he said. “It’s great to be in a political environment among peers and political junkies.”

Asked to name something that surprised him at the convention, he thought of the ride home to his hotel one night. He and his wife, Indre, a ballerina with the Suzanne Farrell ballet, were trying to flag down a taxi when he ran into a conservative columnist he had met once in passing. Once they got talking, and he reintroduced himself, the columnist offered them a ride.