Theodore Roosevelt Would Have Made a Great Manager. (Commentary).(Brief Article)

Public Management, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Theodore Roosevelt Would Have Made a Great Manager. (Commentary).(Brief Article)


A few wonderful books are available that highlight the life and times of our 26th president. These volumes typically show Roosevelt as a determined young man struggling to overcome physical frailty, or as a social reformer and activist president. I'd like to offer a new picture of Roosevelt for your consideration: Theodore Roosevelt as a great local government manager.

Those working in local government resonate to the famous diction of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill. "All politics is local." City and county managers operate in this realm each day, and I believe that Theodore Roosevelt incorporated this philosophy in facing every public challenge. This is not to short-change mayors, of course. Good examples of engaged and efficient mayors, past and present, abound: Rudolph Guiliani, Glenda Hood, Anthony Williams, and Ed Rendell, to name a few. There have been many other examples of effective mayors, but my point is that managers by definition have to function differently from chief elected officials. They focus less on political consequences and image and more on delivering substance.

Local government management found its identity just after the turn of the 20th century. It was conceived as a way to move beyond politics in order to focus on the nuts and bolts of municipal operations in a nonpartisan and independent way. In cities across the United States, this was a welcome relief from the patronage and corruption that had plagued local governments for decades.

The best local politicians understand that cities require leadership and vision, together with a collaborative, involved, and responsive approach to problem solving. Some people might argue that managers are not held to the same standard as mayors because they are not elected but appointed by the council. Though not subject to the electorate, city and county managers daily sift the views of individual councilmembers, searching for a common theme by which to direct the organization. They often are the first ones to respond to citizen concerns and are on the front lines in times of crisis.

Roosevelt, the Public Servant

I think Theodore Roosevelt had a command of this dynamic as only a local government manager could. Roosevelt and, recently, former Mayor Guiliani understood that the little things mean a Lot because they set the tone for a community. People littering sidewalks, running red lights, and ignoring laws when convenient often are accepted as the price paid as local governments grow and as their problems become more complex. Guilliani did not accept this premise; nor did his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who was arguably the embodiment of progressive New York City and New York State politics as police commissioner, assemblyman, and governor.

While New York does still have its share of problems and crime, it has turned a corner and stands as an example of what is possible despite a large population, aging infrastructure, and economic challenges. …

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