Elmer B. Staats: Friend and Extraordinary Public Servant

Westbook Murphy, General Counsel of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, reflects on the extraordinary life and career of Elmer Staats.
Elmer Boyd Staats, Chairman Emeritus of the Harry S Truman Scholarship Foundation, died on July 23, 2011, after a long illness.  He was 97.  A public memorial service is scheduled for 10:00 a.m., Saturday, September 10, at the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.  

Elmer’s Six Decades of Public Service

Few Americans in history have been such committed public servants as Elmer Staats.  His six decades of public service at high levels of government are reminiscent of John Quincy Adams’ 53 years as ambassadorial secretary, ambassador, President, and member of Congress; or  Carl Hayden’s 56 years in the House and Senate.

After receiving his doctorate from the University of Minnesota and working several months for the Brookings Institution, Elmer began his public service career in May of 1939 at the Bureau of the Budget—now the Office of Management and Budget.  That was three months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland to start World War II in Europe; seven months before I was born; and forty years before Ronald Regan was elected President.

Elmer held appointments under every U.S. President from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.  That means that Elmer served under one quarter of all the men (and, yes—so far—they all have been men) who have served in that office.

But Elmer’s long public career is even more distinguished by the quality of his public service.

– During President Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration, he helped to organize the civilian effort that won World War II.
– In the Truman Administration he—along with my father Charles Murphy—began the first-ever structured government-wide approach to creating a Presidential legislative agenda.
– President Eisenhower appointed Elmer to be Deputy Director of OMB.
– President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to a fifteen-year term as Comptroller General of the United States, heading the General Accounting Office.
– President Reagan appointed Elmer to his first of three 6-year terms as a Truman Scholarship Foundation Trustee (and the Trustees elected Elmer to be Chairman).

Some of his accomplishments in these positions are noted below.

Elmer During the Roosevelt Administration

The U.S. government was woefully unprepared to organize both itself and the country to fight World War II.  Washington Goes to War by David Brinkley (later anchor of NBC’s Nightly News) gives a good picture of the chaos involved in ginning up the war effort.

Working in the War Agencies Division of the Budget Bureau’s Division of Administrative Management immersed Elmer totally in the attempts to organize this chaos.  He once told me that he and his colleagues succeeded only because they were too young to have learned what they could not do.

A personal vignette from that period: In the early summer of 1944 Elmer was waiting to see Jimmy Byrnes, Director of the White House Office of War Mobilization and Resources.  Byrnes was meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt.  Elmer later surmised that during this meeting Mrs. Roosevelt was telling Byrnes that he would not be the Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee.

Elmer During the Truman Administration

In 1947 Elmer was appointed an Assistant Director of the Budget Bureau, working in the Division of Legislative Reference.  One BoB colleague described Elmer’s contribution as follows:

“Elmer Staats was the first real head of what was then called the [BoB’s] Division of Legislative Reference…
“Very early on the president [Truman] approved the concept of trying to get together a total picture of what legislation might be recommended to the forthcoming session of Congress.  Accordingly, the Budget Bureau annually called for the legislative programs from all of the departments and agencies; subsequently the bureau’s staff separated the proposals into several categories.   First there were those items important enough to be considered by the president for inclusion in his legislative program.  Then there were items which were of a minor nature, but about which the president certainly had to know since he would be asked to support them in his budget.
“Another category consisted of items which had to do with expiring laws. . . .  Before Elmer and I started working on this operation there had been a number of instance in which the White House in an earlier era had been caught short with a sudden realization that a law would expire in the thirtieth of June and that nothing had been done about setting the stage to get it continued.
“And finally, there were those items which seemed to us, on the first go-round, to be so far afield that they should not receive serious consideration by the White House…” (1)

Elmer himself added to this description:
“[G]iven the close adjunct relationship which this function had with the [White House] special counsel’s office. . . , we were never quite sure who we were working for, the budget director or the counsel, but that didn’t really make too much difference.  The only time the budget director said we had to come back and check with him was if a very large amount of money was involved; otherwise we went ahead and worked with Clark Clifford and Charlie Murphy.” (2)

Elmer particularly admired Truman’s understanding of the budget process:
“I worked closely with four presidents on the budget, and am often asked which of the four was most deeply involved in the budget process.  It has been an easy question to answer: President Truman.  He understood the budget process, having served on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate; he had a retentive mind and could remember figures from one year to the next; and he did his homework. . . .  [He] was the only president of the United States who ever held his own press briefing on the budget.” (3)

From personal conversations, I know that Elmer was particularly proud of his association with President Truman, and concurred when polls of historians began to rank Truman fifth among U.S. Presidents.  Elmer admired Truman for the same reasons as did the rest of the White House staff: the willingness make decisions—decisions made by applying common sense to the best facts available, untainted by personal ego or partisan politics.  Elmer shared this characteristic, and shared with Truman as well a respect and concern for those working with and for him.

Stories from the Eisenhower and Johnson Administrations

In the summer of 1960 Elmer and his wife Margie drove out from DC to spend the afternoon at my parents’ house on the water in Annapolis, MD, where I was living for the summer.  Elmer was either brave or foolish enough to try to learn to water ski.  I had him lined up behind the boat for his first or second attempt to get up on skis when he caught a stinging jellyfish in his bathing trunks.  That ended my least-successful-ever session of water skiing instruction.  Four decades later Elmer still vividly recalled that afternoon.  

President Johnson asked Elmer (who then was Deputy Director of OMB) and my father (who then was President Johnson’s Under Secretary of Agriculture) to brief Former President Truman on that year’s federal budget, and then to report on President Truman’s reaction.  They met President Truman in his Library, where he gave them a personally conducted tour.  For a while the three of them sat in the replica there of the Oval Office, so that the tourists who were visiting saw not just the office, but the former President and his former staff at work in it.  

Elmer and my father then flew to the LBJ Ranch in Texas to relay President Truman’s views about the budget.  There, President Johnson gave them a tour of the LBJ Ranch, making them the only two people in history to receive on the same day a tour of the Truman Library conducted by Harry Truman, and a tour of the LBJ Ranch conducted by Lyndon Johnson.

President Johnson Appoints Elmer Comptroller General

In February, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Elmer to a 15-year term as Comptroller General of the United States.  The Comptroller General headed the General Accounting Office.  Elmer was speedily confirmed, and sworn in in a White House Ceremony on March 8, 1966.

At that ceremony President Johnson captured much of the spirit of his new appointee:

“I was informed that Elmer Staats hoped that any complimentary remarks which might be made at his swearing-in ceremony this morning be directed to the staff of the Bureau of the Budget rather than to him personally…
“Of course, I am always delighted to compliment the staff of the Bureau of the Budget. The energy, the dedication, the imagination, and the uncomplaining hard work of these loyal American men and women who work in the Budget are a never-ending source of pride to me.
“Because I remember in the first hours of my Presidency, the largest problem that I had to face was the construction of a budget during the month of December. Through long days (and seemed like much longer nights) the Budget people were my prime allies in getting that job done. And in those beginning days, the man always by my side was Elmer Staats.
“He has served this government faithfully and well for 26 years. He has been Deputy Director of the Bureau of the Budget under four different Presidents.
“Whether they were Democrat or Republican, he served them all with equal fidelity and equal wisdom.
“And that is why I chose him for this new assignment. . . .
“What really lasts and endures and prospers is the work of the builders. And this is the hard way, and this is the long journey, and this is sometimes the most difficult path. But nothing very valuable is very easily won. . . .
“And we who know him, know that Elmer Staats has always been a builder, a believer-not a doubter.
“He believes in our system of government. He has confidence in the wisdom of the Congress. He doesn’t dwell on the minor imperfections that are always the part of any human system. He declares his faith in the hopes of this nation, and in the people who try to faithfully serve it.
“So, General Staats, . . . we have full confidence that the entire Nation will reap the profits from your achievements–as you continue in the next 15 years of this term, as you have for the last 26, the work of the builder always serving faithfully and diligently all branches without fear, without favor, or without fuss.” (4)

Elmer Transforms the GAO

GAO in 1966 concentrated almost entirely on financial audits.  Elmer expanded the GAO’s role to act as an advisor about, and sometimes critic of, the effectiveness of government activities. GAO’s website notes that its staff, who mostly were accountants, “began to change to fit the agency’s new assignments. In the 1970s, GAO started recruiting physical scientists, social scientists, computer professionals, and experts in such fields as health care, public policy, and information management.”  It took Congress another 25 years formally to recognize the expanded role of GAO’s mission by (in July, 2004) renaming it the General Accountability Office.  

During Elmer’s tenure, GAO’s direct assistance to Congress increased from 10% to 40% of the agency’s total work load.  When in the 1970s Congress greatly increased the use of block program grants to states and municipalities, GAO became an adviser to state and local governments on how to administer them.  Under Elmer’s leadership, GAO led the way in establishing government auditing, accounting, and financial management standards.  

One of those who greatly appreciated Elmer’s advice regarding the use of Federal funds was Missouri Treasurer Christopher “Kit” Bond.  Later elected to the U.S. Senate (R-MO), Bond served as a Trustee of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.  In that role, he attended only one meeting: Elmer’s last as Chairman of the Trustees.  Senator Bond came to this meeting to express his appreciation for Elmer’s help years earlier when Elmer was heading GAO and Bond was Missouri’s State Treasurer.     

More about Elmer’s transformative 15 years at GAO can be found on the agency’s website: http://www.gao.gov/about/history/articles/working-for-good-government/06-gaohistory_1966-1981.html.

Elmer Leads the Truman Scholarship Foundation

When Elmer retired from the GAO in 1981, he remained professionally active, dividing his time about half-and-half between paying pursuits (such as corporate directorships) and civic ones.  The Truman Scholarship Foundation recruited Elmer to serve as it President, with the expectation that Elmer later would succeed John Snyder as the Foundation’s second Chairman.  

As Chairman, Emer led the Truman Scholarship Foundation for almost two decades.  He maintained an office in the Foundation’s headquarters at 712 Jackson Place, where the staff got to know first-hand his graciousness and charm.  

Under Elmer’s leadership, the Foundation:

– Raised the Scholarship maximum award from $10,000 to $30,000, plus a permissible increase thereafter for inflation.
– Inaugurated the Truman Scholars Leadership Week, now in its 21st year; and
– Started Truman Scholars Summer Institute.

One of Elmer’s directorships was on the Kerr Foundation, a charitable enterprise of the Kerr family of Oklahoma.  Robert Kerr was a co-founder of Kerr-McGee Oil and later (1949-1963) elected as a U.S Senator (D-OK).  In 1993 the Kerr Foundation gave a grant to establish the Elmer B. Staats Public Service Award.  This award is presented annually to a Truman Scholar who exemplifies Elmer Staats’ “professionalism, contributions to public service, intellectual and analytical abilities, and integrity and character.”  The recipient is chosen by Truman Scholars themselves.

Here are the winners of the Elmer B. Staats Award:

1993 Carol Camp-White ’78, TN
1994 Dwight Dively ’78, WA
1995 Fred Slabach ’77, MS
1996 Bill Mercer ’84, MT
1997 Daniel Sichel ’81, MI
1998 Awilda Marquez ’77, MD
1999 Margot Rogers ’86, VA
2000 Matthew Crowl ’82, IA
2001 Chris Coons ’83, DE
2002 David Adkins ’81, KS
2003 Lisa Cook ’84, GA
2004 John Cranley ’95, OH
2005 Stacey Abrams ’95, MS
2006 Kent Bradley ’86, KS
2007 Mary Tolar ‘88, KS
2008 Bob Holste ‘83, PA
2009 David Gartner ‘90, NY
2010 Janet Napolitano ‘77, NM
2011 Pat Gilbert ‘91, AZ

Elmer: A Consummate Professional

While Elmer held strong views about the role of the federal government and how it should operate more efficiently and effectively, he was totally non-partisan.  My father, who worked daily with Elmer during the Truman Administration and remained a close friend thereafter, never knew whether Elmer was registered as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.  Elmer’s knowledge, dedication, wisdom, and total non-partisanship earned him an extraordinary respect from public officials and members of Congress across the political spectrum.

The high professional esteem in which Elmer was held is reflected by the professional organizations which he helped guide, by the many boards and commissions on which he served, and by the many awards he received.  He was, for example:

– A founding member in 1939 of the American Society for Public Administration, which he later served as National President;
– A founding member in 1967 of the National Academy of Public Administration, which established an award in his honor; and
– A member or chairman of more than a dozen government commissions
Elmer’s awards included the Rockefeller Public Service Award, the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, and honorary degrees from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and at least a half-dozen other universities.

More detail about his professional achievements can be found in his write-up as a member of the Ohio State University’s Accounting Hall of Fame: http://fisher.osu.edu/departments/accounting-and-mis/the-accounting-hall-of-fame/membership-in-hall/elmer-boyd-staats/.

Elmer and Current Budget Issues

If Elmer were still with us he would have decided opinions on the current dispute over the Federal budget—particularly with regard to the social security trust fund and the proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  

As already noted, Elmer received his doctorate degree in1938 from University of Minnesota.  The subject for his doctoral thesis: stable funding for the social security trust fund.  In 1938 he accepted a Fellowship with a Washington, DC think tank, the Brookings Institution.  The subject of his work there: stable funding for the social security trust fund.  In June 1939 he went to work for the Bureau of the Budget. Included in his portfolio there: stable funding for the social security trust fund.  Central to the current (August, 2011) debate about the national debt: stable funding for the social security trust fund.  

I don’t remember ever discussing with Elmer the social security trust fund.  But I do remember talking budget issues.  He told me 20 years ago that a then current proposal for a balanced budget amendment was a cockeyed idea.  Why?  Because he believed that, when used properly, government spending can and should be a counter-cyclical mitigation of upturns and downturns in the U.S. economy.

One last Story

Elmer was not one to let a problem fester or go unattended.  He lived in a house in Spring Valley, one of DC’s nicest residential neighborhoods.  When a pothole developed in the public street in front of his house, Elmer did not complain to DC officials.  Instead he bought the proper supplies at the local hardware store and filled the hole himself.

1. The Truman White House: The Administration of the Presidency 1945-1953, Frances Heller, Ed. at 225-226 (1980) (comments of Roger Jones).
2. Id. at 227-228 (comments of Elmer Staats).
3. Id. at 232.
4. Public Papers of the Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, as found at www.presidency.ucsb.eduhttp://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=27475&st=&st1=#ixzz1VPv5bmFl


Comments are closed.