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Hult, Walcott book named best on presidency

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 18 - January 30, 1997

Putting together a book about the White House staffs of several U.S. presidents was like finding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that might or might not go to that particular puzzle and not knowing what the puzzle was supposed to look like when completed, Charles Walcott said.

Governing the White House: From Hoover through LBJ is the distillation of volumes of research by Karen Hult and Charles Walcott of Virginia Tech's political-science department. The book has received two honors: the 1996 Neustadt Award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on the U.S. Presidency published in 1995 and designation by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book for 1996. Choice is the official publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association.

Governing the White House, which a Journal of Politics reviewer called "a path breaking work," focuses on the evolution of the staff structures in the White House. In it, Hult and Walcott "account for both structural continuity over time and adaptations to environmental pressures, organization alfactors, and presidential choices," according to members of the Neustadt Award committee. Walcott and Hult "maintain that the organization of the White House influences presidential performance much more than commonly thought and that organization theory is an essential tool for understanding that influence," according to the University Press of Kansas, which published the book. "Their book offers the first systematic application of organizational governance theory to the structures and operations of the White House office."

Governing the White House: From Hoover through LBJ talks about the way "what used to be a one-person office has become an institution, a bureaucracy, how the president has put together the staff, and how the staff then affects what the president can do, can't do, and is likely to do," Walcott said.

When President Herbert Hoover built a staff of four, he received complaints about his excesses, Hult said. The staffs experienced a steady growth up to the term of President Lyndon B. Johnson, then took off when Nixon more than doubled the staff, she said.

"He started doing more things with the staff, such as public relations," she said.

People think President Franklin D. Roosevelt invented the modern presidency, Walcott said, but it was actually invented in pieces during different presidencies. For example, the first presidential press secretary was under Hoover, not Roosevelt as is commonly thought.

People also thought the Eisenhower presidency was the embodiment of military hierarchy and rigidity, Walcott said, but it was not. "It really worked in such a way as to involve as many people in any decision as was appropriate to that decision," he said.

Another misconception that the book debunks is that each presidency re-invented the White House staff. There was more continuity than that, Walcott said, even when Kennedy tried to dismantle the Eisenhower structure. When Johnson came along, he gradually developed a staff system almost as complex as Eisenhower's, Walcott said.

Hult and Walcott did their research from original sources such as presidential archives, memoirs, interviews, and presidential scholarship. They visited the libraries of Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson in places as diverse as Abilene, Kan., Boston, and Austin.

Many of the libraries had oral histories of the people in some of the administrations, but for their next book, which will cover the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, and Carter, they will attempt to interview the participants personally.

James P. Pfiffner of George Mason University wrote in Political Science Quarterly that Governing the White House "is impressive in its sweep of analysis through seven presidencies." The Neustadt Award committee said "thebook is a major contribution to the study of White House staff, but its actual and potential reach is much greater because of the theoretical model that is developed from organization theory."

Hult is an associate professor of political science and adjunct associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy. She and Walcott have published one other book together, Governing Public Organizations: Politics, Structures, and Institutional Design, from which they took the organization theory used in Governing the White House. In addition, Hult is the author of the book Agency Merger and Bureaucratic Redesign. She has published extensively in scholarly journals.

Walcott is an associate professor of political science. He is the author of two other books in addition to those published with Hult and has published extensively in scholarly journals.