Nelson Polsby Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Institutional Change in the U.S. Congress: Conversation with Nelson 
    W. Polsby, Heller Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley; 9/4/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 5


Before we talk about the book on the House, which we'll do in a minute, in the course of your career you assumed two very important roles. One, as Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies, where you took the lead in putting together intellectual communities on issues of domestic politics and so on. Tell us a little about that. In other words, what is different from the theoretical notion of academic communities versus the leadership role in forging communities?

Well, in the first place, it isn't being the quarterback, it's being the blocking-back.


Meaning, if you're lucky enough to be part of a very resourceful, interesting, intellectual community, that is to say, a lot of smart people around, what you do is, simply, find out who wants to do what and help them.

I see. So whom are you blocking then?

Well, blocking for.

Oh, I see, blocking for, okay.

Blocking for, that's the idea. You make a way for people who are carrying the ball. And that was what I did and what I liked to do. It's really quite a lot of fun to see people succeed because you've helped them out. I'll give you a rather large handful of examples. A dreadful fire devastated a part of our town [Berkeley]. One of our senior colleagues was about halfway through his magnum opus and it was destroyed in the fire. Two days later, or a week later, I called him up and I said -- and I will not use his name, but I did use that, I said, "-----------, I have a rather substantial sum of money" (which I named) "for you, for your purposes in going after that book again, and I want it firmly on record that you did not ask for it."

Well, that's very nice. So he was able to finish his work?

Yes, he did. And it's a brilliant, wonderful piece of work. And, obviously, he needed more help than that. But I was in a position to do that. That, in my opinion, is leadership.

Here's another example. We established a bunch of seminars. I discovered just by chance, in a very odd way -- I was visiting at Harvard and the man who is currently the Executive Editor of The New York Times was just being sent to London to be a foreign correspondent. He'd never been in London before. A pal of mine sent him up to me at Harvard and said, "Brief him." book coverSo I convened a dinner of a bunch of Harvards who were various ex-Rhodes Scholars, ex-patriates. They had a glorious time. They'd never actually met in the same room. And when I got back to Berkeley, I said, "Well, hell, we can do this here." So we established the U.K. Seminar, which has been going on, a howling success, because people love to talk about this kind of thing.

The third example. On a daily basis, this is a big, ugly, impersonal university, as you know. And visiting scholars tend to get lost, as you know.

Yes, that's right.

At IGS, in my time and since, we do tea at 3 o'clock every afternoon. So that's leadership, i.e. making things possible, facilitating.

There's another element in one of your works. When you worked on innovation, you made the argument that innovation often came from experts. But, also, it was part of an intellectual process of comparing, and so you brought a European dimension to that effort.

Well, we've always had visiting scholars, in my time, from Europe, from Asia, from around the country. Sure.

Now, this other leadership role that you've held was as Editor of the America Political Science Review. And that is a major responsibility of defining or helping to shape the discourse in the field.

Yeah, I claim not.

Okay, you claim not. You deny that.

That's right. My job was to receive proffered articles ...

I see.

... and to give them an honest reading. That is to say, get other people to read them.

I see, and come to the conclusion about them.

And come to the conclusion about them, and then accept and print the ones that were acceptable to the referees we sent them to.

Now as part of that task, I know that you used to run a seminar at your home.

That's right. You were ...

In fact, I was a member, yes.

You were a member of the seminar.

So we're telling all these trade secrets -- you ran a seminar at which I was one of the students. But your idea was to facilitate the training of the future generation, is that right?

Sure, sure. But look, this was easy. The American Political Science Review gave me some resources to receive, evaluate, and publish articles from the profession of political science at large. It was based here. So I interpreted that as a kind of an educational opportunity. We had graduate students around. They're reading this journal. They were going to have to publish in this journal. Why not get a bunch of graduate students to come in? We had a monthly meeting, and each graduate student would take responsibility for a single article and go check the footnotes.

Yes, but also meet with the author.

Yes. And sometimes we had authors or [other] speakers coming through. The idea would be to give [students] some feel for the profession they were entering. That seemed easy to do, and so we did it.

Next page: Congress

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California