Neustadt, Richard Elliott

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Neustadt, Richard Elliott

(b. 26 June 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 31 October 2003 in Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire, England), political scientist and public servant who wrote extensively on presidential power and advised numerous presidents and other government officials.

Neustadt was the only child of Richard Mitchells Neustadt, a progressive activist and social worker, and Elizabeth (Neufeld) Neustadt, also a social worker, who died when Neustadt was four years old. Three years later his father married Minna Blum, a widow with two daughters whom Neustadt came to consider his sisters. The youthful Neustadt’s family background introduced him to a number of prominent political activists as well as to the practical operations of government. Neustadt’s father was employed in assorted settlement houses and government unemployment programs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Greatly influenced by President Theodore Roosevelt’s reformist precepts and advocacy of public service, Neustadt’s father became an ardent supporter of the New Deal in the 1930s, working for several federal agencies in Washington, D.C., before heading up the Western Region Office of the new Social Security Board in San Francisco.

Neustadt attended several schools during his bicoastal upbringing, including the District of Columbia’s Western High School, from which he graduated in 1935. In 1939 he received his BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and then, in 1941, his MA in political economy and government from Harvard University. His first position in government was a job as an assistant economist in the Office of Price Administration from 1941 to 1942. Neustadt left the Office of Price Administration to become a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, serving as a supply officer in the Aleutian Islands and in Oakland, California. After the war ended in 1945, he returned to Washington, D.C., where, on 21 December, he married Bertha Frances Cummings, a teacher. The couple had two children.

In 1946 Neustadt joined the Bureau of the Budget as assistant to the director, Ken Hechler. He moved four years later to the White House as a special assistant to President Harry S Truman. In addition to his many duties as a presidential assistant, Neustadt completed a graduate degree in government, receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1951. Until President Truman left office in January 1953, Neustadt drafted numerous speeches for him and worked on policy issues.

Neustadt left government work for academic employment in 1953. After a one-year appointment teaching public administration at Cornell University, he joined Columbia University’s Department of Law and Public Government as an associate professor in 1954. He remained at Columbia until 1965, eventually becoming a full professor and head of the department. An enthusiastic teacher, Neustadt sought to convey to his students the realities, not simply the theory, of the practice of power. Short, chain-smoking, and intense but possessing a notable sense of humor, Neustadt was an inspiring and caring mentor to numerous students. A committed Democrat, Neustadt served on the Democratic Platform Committee’s staff in 1956. He became a consultant to the committee in 1960 and chaired it in 1972.

In 1960 Neustadt published his first and most famous book by drawing on his White House experience. Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership was implicitly critical of the Republican incumbent, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Neustadt not only delineated the obstacles impeding any president from achieving his objectives but also urged the chief executive to use the office’s substantial persuasive powers to attain his ends. When the 1960 Democratic President-elect, John F. Kennedy, was photographed carrying a copy of Presidential Power, the book became an immediate best seller. Neustadt subsequently updated it four times, adding new material that made the final 1990 edition twice the length of the 1960 version.

Neustadt was particularly interested in the process of transition between presidential administrations. He had admired Truman’s efforts to facilitate the transition to Eisenhower’s incoming administration in 1953. In 1960 Neustadt’s former White House associate Clark Clifford recruited him to advise Kennedy on the forthcoming transition. Neustadt drafted several memoranda on the subject and also recommended personnel for key positions in the Kennedy administration, including David Bell for the position of budget director.

After Kennedy’s inauguration, Neustadt continued to teach at Columbia but also undertook consultancy work for the White House and government agencies. During the 1960s he served as a consultant to Senator Henry M. Jackson’s congressional subcommittee on national security organization. He also advised the Bureau of the Budget from 1961 to 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission from 1962 to 1968, and the Department of State from 1962 to 1969. In 1963 President Kennedy commissioned a report from Neustadt on the Anglo-American dispute precipitated by the decision made by the United States in 1962 to cancel the Skybolt missile on which Britain’s independent nuclear deterrence depended. Neustadt subsequently incorporated his research on the Skybolt crisis into his 1970 book, Alliance Politics, which also covered the 1956 Suez crisis. In 1965 Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, sought Neustadt’s advice on the diplomatic ramifications of the projected North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s multilateral nuclear force. Johnson also appointed him to lead advisory groups on campaign finance, an anticipated airline strike, and U.S. policies in the Near East and southern Asia. In 1970 Neustadt publicly condemned the Nixon administration’s bombing and invasion of Cambodia.

In 1965 Neustadt became the founding director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, a major component of the John F. Kennedy School of Government created to commemorate the dead president. Neustadt energetically played a key role in establishing programs that brought together scholars and practitioners to train not just academics but also actual and potential policy makers. Among those students permanently influenced by Neustadt’s outlook was Al Gore, the future vice president, who met with him for weekly tutorials. Neustadt also continued to publish extensively, focusing on the pitfalls of official decision making in such books as The Epidemic That Never Was: Policy-Making and the Swine Flu Scare (1983), written jointly with Harvey V. Fineberg, and Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (1986), developed from a course taught together with the eminent Harvard historian Ernest R. May. Neustadt’s staunch Democratic affiliation notwithstanding, those who consulted him on transition policies included not just the incoming president, Jimmy Carter, in 1976 and the unsuccessful presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, in 1988 but also the incoming Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in 1980. Despite Reagan’s regard for him, Neustadt considered Franklin Roosevelt his presidential ideal.

Neustadt’s wife was affected by multiple sclerosis in the 1970s; he nursed her devotedly until her death in 1984. In 1987 he married an old friend, the British politician Shirley Williams, a former Labour Party cabinet minister and cofounder of the Social Democratic Party. In 1993 Williams became the Baroness Williams of Crosby, serving as the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004. In 1989 Neustadt retired from teaching, dividing his time between his house on Cape Cod and his second home in England, a country he had known well and liked ever since his 1961 sabbatical at Nuffield College, a graduate college of the University of Oxford. Active until his last illness, he still published numerous articles and two books based on his earlier presidential memoranda and reports. In 2002 Neustadt briefly became the subject of controversy when he praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adept handling of Anglo-American relations, while advising Democratic politicians to emulate their Republican opponents’ organizational skills. Neustadt died of complications from a fall caused by recurrent sciatica.

Sometimes characterized as an “operator,” Neustadt considered the term a compliment. An academic with practical policy-making experience who frequently advised government officials, he sought to bridge the gap between theoretical and applied political knowledge in his own career and in founding the Kennedy School of Government.

Neustadt’s personal papers are deposited in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts. The Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Missouri, holds a small collection of his White House files. Later in life, Neustadt published Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective (1999) and his subsequent reflections on that episode. His memoranda advising several incoming presidents on transition policies are in Charles O. Jones, ed., Preparing to Be President: The Memos of Richard E. Neustadt (2000), to which Neustadt contributed an autobiographical essay. Nelson Lichtenstein, ed., Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years (1976), summarizes Neustadt’s contributions to the Kennedy administration. Neustadt’s administrative theories are discussed in Matthew J. Dickinson, “Neustadt, New Institutionalism, and Presidential Decision Making: A Theory and Test,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (June 2005): 259–288. His contributions to education are in Charles O. Jones, “Richard E. Neustadt: Public Servant as Scholar,” Annual Review of Political Science 6 (June 2003): 1–22, and M. B. Marcy, “Rawls, Neustadt, and Liberal Education: A Reflection on Two Scholars,” Liberal Education 90, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 54–59. Tributes to Neustadt include S. J. Wayne, “Richard E. Neustadt as Teacher and Mentor: A Personal Reflection”; J. H. Kessel, “Richard E. Neustadt’s Intellectual Contributions”; and M. J. Kumar, “Richard Elliott Neustadt, 1919–2003: A Tribute,” all in Presidential Studies Quarterly 32, no. 1 (Mar. 2004): 3–24. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (2 Nov. 2003); the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times (all 3 Nov. 2003); and the Times (London) (4 Nov. 2003).

Priscilla Roberts