Oral History Interview with
Member of the staff of the Bureau of the Budget, 1943-68, including service as chief of the government organization branch and as Assistant Director for Management and Organization
Dr. Harold Seidman
July 29, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate
the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened April 1971
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
Dr. Harold Seidman
July 29, 1970
by Jerry N. Hess
HESS: Doctor, to begin would you give me a little of your personal background; where were you born, where were you educated and what are the positions that you have held during your career?
SEIDMAN: I was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 2nd, 1911. I went to school in New York City to Poly Prep. From there I went to Brown University where I took my bachelor's degree, and I also took my master's in political science at Brown, and from Brown I went to Yale University where I received my Ph.D. in government,
I think about 1940. Early in my career I was interested in writing. While I was still at Brown I worked in the summer on the editorial staff of the Nation magazine. I did articles on such subjects as labor racketeering. And then for one summer I worked with the special rackets investigation as an adviser to Tom [Thomas E.] Dewey on labor racketeering, where I met William Herlands, who was Dewey's principal assistant.
When I completed my work in residence at Yale University in 1938, Mr. Herlands became Commissioner of Investigation of the City of New York. He asked me to come with him, and I joined the staff of the Department of Investigation of the City of New York in 1938 as Director of Research. I was responsible there for both organizing an internship program for graduate students and honor
students in the New York City area working with the city government as well as conducting investigations.
I remained with the Department of Investigation until 1943 when I joined the staff of the Bureau of the Budget, as a member of the government organization branch, and I remained with the Budget Bureau until 1968. In the Budget Bureau I ultimately became chief of the government organization branch, and in 1961 under President [John F.] Kennedy, I became Acting Assistant Director of the Budget Bureau for Management and Organization. Under President [Lyndon B.] Johnson I became full Assistant Director for Management and Organization of the Budget Bureau where I remained until 1968 when I left to become a scholar in residence at the National Academy of Public Administration and the Ford Foundation has
very generously given me a grant of $80,000 to write a book, more or less summing up what I had learned in the twenty-five years in the Federal Government, which is now completed and will be published this year.
I have also done some teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, Syracuse University, and George Washington University, and I've served as a consultant to a number of governments; the United Nations, Guatemala, Turkey, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and some others, and done special assignments for the State Department in Africa and Asia.
HESS: As an official of the Bureau of the Budget who was there for a good many years, just how has the role of the Bureau of the Budget changed since its organization in 1921?
SEIDMAN: Oh, I really can't go back entirely to 1921. I can talk of what has happened since 1943, and you have to sort out the pieces. I think a number of things have changed in the role of the Government which have affected the role of the Budget Bureau, as I think I go in in quite some detail in my book, the role has been...
HESS: What will be the title of your book?
SEIDMAN: The title of the book is, Politics, Position and Power -- the Dynamics of Federal Organization.
And the development in growth and size of the White House staff, and the personal staff of the President, really has eroded the original concept of the Executive Office of the President which envisions that you have the institutional staff in the Executive Office
of the President, which in effect serves and supports the interests of the Presidency. While the staff of the White House itself, the White House staff, would be the personal staff of the President, concerned with supporting and safeguarding the interests of the incumbent President.
I think the last President who intellectually recognized that there was a distinction between serving the Presidency and the President, was probably Franklin D. Roosevelt, although I think President Truman certainly was sensitive to this, but there has been an erosion of this concept.
I recount one anecdote which is relevant to this, which I checked with James Rowe, who was one of the first of the Administrative Assistants to the President, with the so called "passion for anonymity." And Jim Rowe told me
that he had gone into President Roosevelt and told him that he needed an assistant. And President Roosevelt told Mr. Rowe that if he needed an assistant he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing, that no Administrative Assistant would have an assistant.
Well, Mr. Rowe wrote to me that Roosevelt had told him to work with the Budget Bureau on enrolled bills. And he said, "Now, you remember, your purpose in working on this is to support the personal, political interests of the President; and the Budget Bureau's is to be concerned with the interests of the Presidency, and these are not the same thing." Well, this continued more or less under Truman.
Under Roosevelt and Truman, probably the official who saw the President more than any other official of the executive branch was
the Budget Director. It was a very close, almost day-to-day association between the Budget Director and the President, even though I'm sure you've seen the incident that when Mr. Truman appointed James Webb as the Director he wasn't sure exactly of the name of the gentleman he was appointing as Budget Director. But I think Mr. Truman came very heavily to rely on him.
At that time under the Truman administration, too, there were the -- the structure of the White House staff was very informal, you know. From time to time people would say, "You ought to have a head of the Executive Office of the President." President Truman would reply, I've heard, "I am the head of the Executive Office of the President."
Now, Mr. Truman probably was the last President who in fact presided, as I understand
it, at the meeting of the White House staff and made the assignments.
The staff was small; nobody had assistants under the Truman administration. They looked to the institution of the Budget Bureau to do a lot of the background work. And as you know, there was a considerable interchange between the Budget Bureau and the White House staff. In fact, Mr. Truman drew very heavily on the Budget Bureau for assistants. Dave [David E.] Bell, and Dave [David H.] Stowe, Dick [Richard E.] Neustadt, had all -- and there was someone else, oh, Andrews, Russ [Russell P.] Andrews. There were a group of people that moved from the Budget Bureau over to the White House staff, and the channels of communication between the White House staff and the Budget Bureau were quite informal. When they would want something, they would call direct.
HESS: Were there any particular people on the White House staff that you worked with more than others?
SEIDMAN: No, I worked at that time very extensively with all of them. I worked very closely with Dave [David D.] Lloyd, Marty [Martin L.] Friedman, Neustadt, [Stephen J.] Spingarn, Dave Stowe, [Charles S.] Murphy, Bell, depending on the subject matter.
When I was working on reorganization of the Panama Canal, it was with Stowe. The Governor of the Panama Canal at that time did not really understand how the Truman White House operated and he thought, you know, at that time I was not even chief of a government organization branch, "Here was a Grade 15 in the Budget Bureau, and after all all I have to do is get the Secretary of the Army to
oppose something and that will be the end of it, so I'll just wait back until it gets to the White House."
Well, of course, they didn't know the system. When it got to the White House, I was doing the staff work for Stowe. I was also writing the replies that were coming from the White House on this. I was not only serving in the capacity of working for the Budget Bureau, but I was also assisting the staff of the White House, and Governor [Francis K.] Newcomer was quite chagrined. He thought, you know, after all, all he has to do is bring up his big guns and that would end that. The Panama Canal was reorganized and the Panama Canal Company was created. And the message, of course, that Mr. Truman sent, I did draft in the Budget Bureau.
But this was a very informal -- government
was smaller, the problems were considerably less complex. So, I think one of the differences which was very significant, is the role, size, and influence of White House staff. Now when the White House staff was small, they didn't have assistants, they had really no place else to go but the Budget Bureau. The role and size of the White House staff has changed dramatically. In the Johnson, and particularly in the Nixon administrations, strong power centers have developed in the White House which regard the Budget Bureau as a competitor. And if people on the White House staff don't have enough to do and they have an organization, they're going to be looking for things to do. So, they've increasingly been doing the technical, professional work which normally had been done by Budget Bureau staff, and I must say, in probably a prejudiced point of view, work which
can be done a lot better by people who know what they are doing.
But there began to be, even in the Johnson administration, with Mr. Johnson's passion for secrecy, even when they would deal with me, they'd say, "You can't tell your staff about it." Well, you know the head of an organization isn't necessarily the most competent one to do a job. He is not the professional expert -- you have people who are supposed to have expertise in these areas, and when you are debarred from using your staff you can't be fully effective. Even worse they'd sometimes take a member of your staff and say he couldn't tell you what he was doing. And I think you will find this has a significance, because you will find some of those in the White House who were on the Johnson staff insisting, "Oh, we used the
Budget Bureau, we used them extensively." Joe [Joseph A., Jr.] Califano will say that.
They didn't use the Budget Bureau as an institution. They used individual Budget Bureau staff as leg men to do the pick and shovel work. This was not using the Budget Bureau. They did not see the difference between using the Bureau as an institution and using individual members of the Budget Bureau staff on an ad hoc basis to supplement their own staff. And because today, well, the White House establishment is as large as the Budget Bureau, even larger, the last count in the Nixon staff is five hundred and eighty-six, and the Budget Bureau is only slightly more than five hundred.
So, I think you have to view the evolution in the change of the power position, size, role of the immediate personal political staff
of the President as opposed to the institutional staff of the Budget Bureau.
HESS: In the recent reorganization, has it been downgraded further?
SEIDMAN: That was not the intention. Now, you will find certain words in the message that are not there entirely by accident, which refer to some of the things I've mentioned, particularly the erosion of the distinction between institutional and personal staff. The intention at least of some of those that were involved with it was quite the reverse, it was to strengthen the role of the Budget Bureau. And I think, and this is again hearsay, and probably pretty reliable hearsay, that unlike any of its predecessors, Mr. [Robert P.] Mayo, saw the President on rare occasions, that he worked primarily through one of the assistants to
the President. The other, which historically has been a problem since the Truman and the Roosevelt Bureau of the Budgets. The Bureau of the Budget was conceived in '21 to have a dual role; to be responsible for both the budget and also for the management functions. That is the structure, organization, efficiency and so on of the government. The management side has always gone through a series of ups and downs.
The first Budget Director when the Bureau moved to the Executive Office of the President, Harold Smith, was a public administrator, who was very much interested in management as was Mr. Webb, and [Frank] Pace.
As we moved to bankers and accountants and finally to economists as Directors, the management arm of the Budget Bureau was allowed more or less to atrophy. I, as Assistant
Director, had this problem. I found economist Budget Directors, at least recent ones, were not greatly interested in organization, administration, and institutions. They also were on continuing pressure from the budget side of the Budget Bureau as to why the new positions were going to the management side, when the Budget Bureau's job was to get out the budget document. So, there were several reorganizations of the Budget Bureau whose main purpose was to conceal a number of people who were actually engaged in management and non-budgetary functions.
And so one of the purposes of the recent reorganization was to emphasize the duality of the role of the Budget Bureau, that the Budget Bureau's job was not lim