John H. Trattner, a career Foreign Service officer who served as a State Department spokesman during the Iranian hostage crisis and later became principal author of the Prune Book, a guide to thousands of presidentially appointed jobs in the federal bureaucracy, died Oct. 6 at a hospice center in Rockville, Md. He was 86.
The cause was cancer, said a daughter, Sydney Trattner.
As a Foreign Service officer, Mr. Trattner had been a press attache at U.S. embassies in Warsaw and Paris and an assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher in the late 1970s. As a State Department spokesman, he handled briefings during the 444-day diplomatic standoff when 52 Americans were held hostage in Tehran before their release in January 1981.
As the principal author of seven Prune Book reports between 1988 and 2004, he wrote about the qualifications and responsibilities required for 3,000 top-level appointive jobs that a president must fill to make the federal machinery function.
These are often called "plum" government jobs, patronage prizes to be dispensed by the winning party to loyal supporters in a presidential election. But Mr. Trattner and his colleagues at the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit good-government organization, concluded that "prune" is a more appropriate description.
Co-author Patricia McGinnis wrote that "a prune, in our lexicon, is a plum seasoned by wisdom and experience, with a much thicker skin," hence more equipped to survive and thrive in the unpredictable climate of the federal bureaucracy.
Regardless of political party or ideology, the success of any presidential administration will be "a function of its success in recruiting the most effective talent possible into Government and placing those individuals in appropriate positions," one of the Prune Books postulated.
Mr. Trattner and others at the Council for Excellence in Government interviewed hundreds of past federal officeholders in compiling their assessments of the best skills and experiences for a variety of high-level federal job.
He wrote about how to define success in the slippery category of management improvement; what it takes for interagency task forces to shape laws into policies and concrete practices; and how a chief financial officer can make government management more effective.
There are some vitally important jobs that may look routine. Six days a week like clockwork, the head of the CIA's intelligence directorate sends an intelligence brief to the president. Richard J. Kerr, who held that job from 1986 to 1989, described it to Mr. Trattner as "very much a grind in the sense that this product keeps coming."
In other jobs, technical competence is not enough. Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler, who holds medical, law and advanced business degrees, told Mr. Trattner that accumulated demands over a 10-year period gave him a sense that the "FDA is incapable of carrying out its statutory mission. My job is to regain the agency's credibility."
John Harry Trattner was born in Richmond on Dec. 6, 1930. He graduated from Yale University in 1952 and then served in the Navy for three years. He became a journalist, working for newspapers, a wire service and as a freelance reporter, before joining the U.S. Information Agency in 1963.
He retired in 1983 and then served two years as press secretary for Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine). He also spent 17 years with the Council for Excellence in Government, which ceased operations in 2009.
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Gillian Trattner of Chevy Chase, Md.; three daughters, Alison D. Trattner of Amman, Jordan, Sydney Trattner of New York City and Hilary B. Trattner-Steinmetz of Paris; and three grandchildren.
In its Prune Book reports, the Council for Excellence in Government acknowledged the political reality of rewarding party loyalists, but it said this could be done without sacrificing competence.
It suggested that an incoming president appoint those with the political skills that helped him get elected to jobs such as legislative liaison but avoid nominating them to posts requiring heavy-duty management skills such as chiefs of federal agencies.
"No President can base all appointments on sheer merit alone," Mr. Trattner wrote. "Political compatibility is important. There are political promises to honor and supporters to recognize."
Read more Washington Post obituaries