On Finding The NOAA Administrator
U.S. Department of Commerce
In June, 1970: As we went about the business of organizing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Commerce Department, I became aware that a good number of people I didn’t really know were becoming very friendly. Ed Loughlin of my staff, who was far more worldly than I, explained it to me. Evidently, the normal practice in government is to appoint as head of an agency the person who headed up the organization team.
For one fleeting moment, the idea of being NOAA Administrator, an Executive Level III- equivalent to an under-secretary- glowed within me…. and died. The concept of an “Administration” was that it would be headed by a technically qualified individual. I had had a three week course in Meteorology in the Air Force, but that really didn’t qualify me. (Although, I was aware of even less qualified appointees in similar positions.) There was one positive aspect to this, for while attention focussed on me, we did not get involved in time-consuming political games.
That being the case, I still had the task of making recommendations to the Secretary for appointments to the three top NOAA positions: Administrator, Deputy Administrator and Assistant Administrator. Without my solicitation, I received recommendations of highly competent oceanographers, marine biologists and meteorologists. I felt that it was essential that this new agency have not only a compatible top team but also one that could work well within the Commerce Department and be acceptable to Congress. I interviewed a number of candidates- including individuals who were acknowledged leaders in their fields- and finally presented to the Secretary a matrix of possible leadership combinations, with my evaluation of their potential organizational effectiveness.
I recommended Dr, Robert White as Administrator, Howard Pollack as Deputy Administrator, and Dr. John Townsend as Assistant Administrator. Bob White was the current Administrator of the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) within the Commerce Department. Howard Pollack had been the Congressman from Alaska. Jack Townsend was Bob White’s Deputy Administrator in ESSA. They would work well together and had the necessary skills and acceptability to get NOAA started. The Secretary accepted my recommendations.
While this was going on, I received word that an issue had come up concerning anadromous fish and that I was wanted in Will Kriegsmann’s office immediately. Kriegsmann was one of the President’s assistants. His office was in the old Executive Office Building, located next to the White House. Since I knew nothing about anadromous fish (they spawn in fresh water and live in salt water- principally salmon), I called Dr. Robert White and asked him to accompany me. The issue undoubtedly had to do with the jurisdiction of the Interior Department over fresh water fisheries, and I felt that Bob, having been in government a number of years and having dealt with the Interior Department, might bring some knowledge that I certainly did not have. As it turned out, he really knew very little about the subject.
On the other hand, it also turned out that the meeting had nothing to do with anadromous fish.
As I said, Robert White was the head of the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). He was a meteorologist with national recognition and a very able administrator. He was also my choice to be NOAA head and I had a strong suspicion that he was also the Secretary’s choice. Just to balance things out, he was a Democrat and the brother of Theodore White, author of The Making of the President, 1968, who was no favorite of President Nixon.
As the two of us walked into his office, I saw Will wince slightly. He introduced us to his guest, Dr. M. who was the Dean of the Texas A&M College of Marine Studies. The conversation went something like this:
WILL K.: Steve, I thought that you ought to meet Dr. M. and that with his background, he might be very helpful to you in getting NOAA off the ground. He has excellent connections on the Hill.
I: That’s fine. Doctor, I’ve seen your name mentioned a number of times in documents and reports and I’d be pleased to have your help.
DR. M.: Well, I don’t know. I chaired the Interior Department’s advisory committee to the Secretary of the Interior and I feel very strongly that the President has made a grave error in placing NOAA in the Commerce Department. (He added some supporting remarks.)
I (Turning to Will): Will, I certainly don’t want to place the good Doctor in a compromising or conflict position. I’d appreciate his help, but if he feels this strongly….
WILL: I guess you’re right. Well, thanks for coming over.
Bob and I walked quietly out of the building. After we were in the Departmental car and off the White House grounds, he said, “Steve, what was that all about?” And I said, “Bob, you’ve just become the NOAA Administrator. Congratulations.” His response: “I’ll never understand you political types and your convoluted ways!”
Two months later, I attended the meeting at the White House at which Secretary Stans recommended to the President that he appoint Dr. Robert White as the head of NOAA. A Presidential aide remarked that Bob was Teddy White’s brother. Nixon turned to Stans: “When do you want it announced?”
Incidentally, in going through the search for NOAA appointees, I learned at least two things about marine scientists, oceanographers and meteorologists: that almost all of them had this belief that in the long-term, things work out* (as though politics and Mother Nature play by the same rules) and that almost all of them were Democrats.
* Concerning “things working out”, one scientist said to me, “You know, we all worry too much about the impact of various things on life. Life will survive because Nature abhors a vacuum. Of course, it may not be human life, but it will be life.” Very consoling.
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