Nelson W. Polsby, 72; Explained Change in Political Institutions

Nelson Polsby was part of a group trying
Nelson Polsby was part of a group trying "to get a feel for the human nature" of Congress. (University Of California At Berkeley)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

Nelson W. Polsby, 72, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley whose books and commentaries illuminated how political institutions evolve, died Feb. 6 at his home in Berkeley. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Polsby, the author or editor of more than 20 books, was an authority on presidential elections, the relationship between Congress and the presidency, and how federal policies, programs and reforms develop.

Norman J. Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who studies Congress, said Dr. Polsby was part of an influential group of political scientists who transformed their field in the 1960s by "trying to get a feel for the human nature" of Congress as an institution. He did that through extensive field work instead of a reliance on statistics.

Ornstein said Dr. Polsby was skilled at conveying the historical implications of periodic calls for drastic change to such long-standing practices as the congressional seniority system.

"Naturally, job security does not always lead to competence, but job insecurity might well guarantee the opposite," Dr. Polsby once wrote.

Dr. Polsby was frequently cited by political reporters and wrote opinion pieces in the mainstream media that used humor to make politics accessible. In condensing the four-decade transformation of the South from a Democratic to Republican political stronghold, he argued that it all came down to residential air conditioning making the heat bearable to Northerners year-round.

He also had an interest in comparative British and American politics, leading to the book "British Government and Its Discontents" (1981), written with Times of London columnist Geoffrey Smith.

His other works included "Presidential Elections" (1964), written with Berkeley colleague Aaron Wildavsky; "Political Innovation in America" (1984); and "How Congress Evolves" (2004).

In 1997, the Twentieth Century Fund, a nonpartisan public policy organization now called the Century Foundation, commissioned Dr. Polsby's book "The New Federalist Papers: Essays in Defense of the Constitution," written with Alan Brinkley of Columbia University and Kathleen M. Sullivan of Stanford University.

The project was meant to remind conservatives and liberals that the Constitution, for all its perceived limitations, worked.

Nelson Woolf Polsby was born Oct. 25, 1934, in Norwich, Conn., and graduated from the private Pomfret School in Pomfret, Conn. He spent school vacations in Chevy Chase, where his widowed mother settled after remarrying.

He said being in Washington during the rise of anti-Communist agitator Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) played a crucial role in his future political studies. Wanting to know what people outside Washington thought of McCarthy, he started looking at public opinion and electoral materials.

"For example, it happened to be the case that Joe McCarthy was always the least popular guy on the ticket in Wisconsin -- the least popular winner, I should say," he told an interviewer in 2002. "He wasn't anywhere near as powerful at the grass roots as people in Washington made him out to be."

He added that he liked that there was "actually a profession out there in which people paid you American money to study this stuff."

A 1956 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, he went on to receive a master's degree and a doctorate in political science from Yale University. Early in his career, he taught political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

He joined the Berkeley faculty in 1967 and directed Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies from 1988 to 1999. He expanded the institute's focus beyond Sacramento politics by inviting political figures from Washington and London to lecture.

At times, Dr. Polsby was a visiting faculty member at Harvard, Columbia, Yale and Stanford and edited scholarly publications.

Beyond politics, he considered himself an expert on novelist Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe, a 286-pound sleuth who solves crimes without leaving his apartment. Dr. Polsby's admirers called him an occasionally caustic man -- he liked piquing journalists by asking whether they had ever read a book. He also enjoyed defying social conventions, such as by not wearing shoes when entertaining.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Linda Offenbach Polsby of Berkeley; three children, Lisa Polsby of Naperville, Ill., Emily Polsby of Berkeley and Daniel R. Polsby of Mountain View, Calif.; his mother, Edythe Salzberger of Chevy Chase; two brothers, Allen Polsby of Bethesda and Daniel D. Polsby, the dean of George Mason University's law school, of Fairfax County; and two grandsons.

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