Our guest essay this month is by Ralph Blumenthal, a prize-winning reporter for The New York Times from 1964 to 2009. During those 45 years, he covered a wide range of topics and reported the foibles and inner workings of city government starting in the administration of Mayor Bob Wagner, and continuing through Mayors John Lindsay, Abe Beame, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. He also covered arts and culture, crime, and the environment, and was a foreign correspondent from 1969 to 1971. He is the author of multiple non-fiction books.
In 2009, Blumenthal left the Times. He was already a distinguished lecturer in journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and soon took on a role, as well, in the Baruch archives, a rich repository of New York City government history.
Through his research, he rediscovered Luther Halsey Gulick III, who was an important player in the administration of Mayor Robert Wagner in the early days of Blumenthal’s reporting career. Blumenthal did not know Gulick personally, but recognizes him today as a master administrator – a man who worked in the shadows, transforming city government, re-designing the federal executive branch for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and playing key roles in relief and reparation efforts in World War II.
“He was a guy who realized the importance of government, what it can accomplish, and how to do it better. He wasn’t interested in politics. He wasn’t interested in running for office. He was interested in how to implement,” Blumenthal says.
By Ralph Blumenthal
In these troubled times of disdain for public service, it’s worth recalling a man who truly loved government. Luther Halsey Gulick III was born before the age of the automobile, aviation, movies, radio and television, and lived to see moon landings, cell phones and the Internet.
Gulick, New York’s first City Administrator who died in 1993 at almost 101, was a mastermind of public administration. Founding father of the influential Institute of Public Administration (IPA), he dissected troubled municipalities from coast to coast and around the world, reorganized President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House, advised on Social Security and defense preparedness (working alongside Bernard M. Baruch), streamlined the bureaucracy and modernized New York, often diagramming his innovations on meticulously hand-drawn charts.
Abroad, he advised a host of foreign governments and helped save priceless monuments of ancient Egypt.
To Kenneth J. Meier, Distinguished Professor and Chair in Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, Gulick was simply “the leading intellectual light on the question of administrative structure and reform in the 20th century.”
At Baruch College’s Newman Library of the City University of New York, generous grants from Carnegie Corporation of New York
are funding the digitization of Gulick’s voluminous archives, yielding a blog named for the slogan of his hugely influential National Institute of Public Administration (later just the IPA), “An Adventure in Democracy”.
Gulick was born in Osaka, Japan on January 17, 1892 into a prominent American missionary family. (His uncle of the same name inspired James Naismith to invent the game of basketball in Springfield, Mass., in 1891.)
Young Luther moved to the United States in 1906 and studied politics and philosophy at Oberlin, In 1915 he moved to New York City to study law at Columbia. But on the advice of the noted historian Charles Beard, he (along with future power broker Robert Moses) entered the Training School for Public Service, endowed by Mrs. E.H. Harriman and managed by a good-government experiment called the New York Bureau of Municipal Research.
Behind the intentionally bland name stood a revolutionary goal: to throw out the crooks and bosses, teach the benefits of budgeting and audits, and create a new science of efficient, effective, honest and transparent government. It quickly claimed the scalp of Manhattan Borough President John F. Ahearn, in 1907.
Gulick was soon running the Training School, then the Bureau of Municipal Research which under his leadership grew into the powerful Institute of Public Administration. In the 1930’s Roosevelt named Gulick to the President’s Committee on Administrative Management to reorganize the executive branch. Every federal agency then was reporting directly to the White House. Gulick drew a chart creating an executive staff – the beginning of the powerful chief executive.
He then wrote FDR’s speech to Congress.
From his experience, Gulick wrote “Notes on the Theory of Organization,” where he introduced the concept of POSDCORB as the functions of an executive — Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Coordinating, Reporting, and Budgeting. Later he wrote, “Administrative Reflections from World War II,” explaining how an inefficient democracy could defeat totalitarian enemies — by crucial elasticity in adapting to shifting circumstances.
Gulick’s reverence for government was particularly evident in a foreword he wrote for John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s 1936 study on liquor reform called “After Repeal.” Every state had a different idea of what different kinds of alcohol could be sold, where, when and by whom.
This was perfect for Gulick. How to apply alcohol control? — that was an issue “particularly rich in lessons for the administrator.”
And then he wrote this:
“The real work of government is not to be found behind the Greek columns of public buildings. It is rather on the land, among the people. It is the postman delivering mail, the policeman walking his beat, the teacher hearing Johnny read, the whitewing sweeping the street, the inspectors – dairy, food, health, tenement, factory, on the farm, in the laboratory, the slaughterhouse, the slum, the mill; it is the playground full of children; the library with its readers; the reservoirs of pure water flowing to the cities; it is street lights at night; it is thousands and thousands of miles of pavements and sidewalks; it is the nurse beside the free bed; the doctor administering serum; and the food, raiment and shelter given those who have nothing; it is the standard of weight and measure and value in every hamlet. All this is government and not what men call ‘government’ in great buildings at capitols; and its symbol is found not in the great flag flown from the dome of the capitol but in the twenty-five million flags in the homes of the people.”