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After 47 Years, SPA Legend James Thurber Says Goodbye

Distinguished Professor of Government Retires after Almost Five Decades

Distinguished Professor of Government James Thurber is retiring at the end of 2021 after almost five decades at American University’s School of Public Affairs. After a start in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Thurber arrived at AU in 1974 and immediately got to work making a lasting impact on the university. In 1979, he founded and served as the first director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS), and shortly thereafter, he founded the biannual Campaign Management Institute (CMI), the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (PAAI), and the annual European Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute (EPAAI) in Brussels, Belgium.

Dr. Thurber’s research career is equally renowned. The author of more than 90 articles on the workings of Congress, interest groups and lobbying, and campaigns and elections, he has also written or edited over 20 books, including Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations (six editions), Campaigns and Elections, American Style (five editions, with Candice J. Nelson), Congress and Diaspora Politics: The Influence of Ethnic and Foreign Lobbying (with Colton C. Campbell and David A. Dulio, 2018), and American Gridlock: The Sources, Character and Impact of Political Polarization (with Antoine Yoshinaka, 2015).

His influence in the field began on Capitol Hill, where, while working in academia, he also advised Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Generations of policy makers sought his counsel, and as his academic career came to an end, that influence was shared through the “Thurber Dialogues on Democracy,” a series of SPA-hosted events with esteemed pundits and policymakers, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), which looked at the state of American Democracy in the 21st Century. This subject was always at top of mind as Dr. Thurber sat for a closing interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

You studied at Indiana University and then began your academic career on the West Coast. What enticed you to move all the way to the East Coast to join AU?

I was born and raised in Oregon. I wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest after my time in graduate school [at Indiana University]. My first academic appointment was at Washington State University, as a professor of political science and as director of a research institute. After three years there, I applied for the American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship. Five people were selected each year, and I was fortunate to be one of them in 1973. I came to Washington, D.C., thinking I would be here for one year and then return to a tenure-line job in the Pacific Northwest. Then I worked for Senator Humphrey, and my wife Claudia and I became interested in being in Washington, D.C. A. Lee Fritschler, then dean of AU’s School of Government and Public Administration (the previous name for SPA), enticed me to apply for a faculty opening in American politics. I interviewed, and I was given and accepted an offer that I could not resist.

You mentioned working for Senator Hubert Humphrey. Can you talk about that experience?

Senator Humphrey changed my life. He gave me responsibility for energy and environmental issues during an energy crisis. I was against the war in Vietnam, and therefore supported Bobby Kennedy before he was tragically assassinated in California. When I interviewed with Humphrey, I told him that. And he said to me, “Great. We need somebody in the office that can tell me the truth about what I should be doing.” From then on, we hit it off very well.

I merged my academic expertise with applied politics. I sat in on meetings with him and Sen. [Everett] Dirksen, the minority leader at the time, and other Republicans who were respected friends of Senator Humphrey. Congress was more bipartisan and civil then. We didn't have intensely polarized and gridlocked politics. Public officials had strong core values, and they stuck to them, but they didn't destroy the institution through lack of compromise. They debated and they joined ranks when needed, which is central to our democracy. Government worked; policies were passed. It was a time of reform––the post-Watergate period. For example, the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. I was involved in that reform which led to work on other reform projects and research on the Hill.

What are some of your earliest memories of AU? What was SPA like when you arrived?

I was still working with Humphrey when I began at AU––he asked me to continue part-time with him, so I did. He knew I was teaching and encouraged that, so if I wrote a speech for him, he would invite me to the floor of the Senate when he gave it; but he'd be in the middle of it, and he would say, “Jim, you've got to get up to AU to teach. You better get out of here!”

One thing I remember about AU at that time was that our budgets were extremely tight. I had gone from a situation at Washington State University, where I was directing a research institute and where I redistricted the state. I had a large office, solid budget, and good support staff. When I arrived at AU, I had a warm welcome but had to share an office with two other colleagues. I also remember how many of the students were working in Congress, in the White House, for the federal bureaucracy, on campaigns, and for interest groups. What a rich experience in the classroom. I learned a great deal then and over the years from these young professionals. 

You are the founding director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. How did you convince administration to support it?

When I was the acting dean of SGPA (now SPA), it was a little easier to start something new. I persuaded the provost and that was it. I said, “I've got this great idea. I've been working on the Hill. We've had this constitutional crisis with the president, Watergate. No one has a research center focused on the two major governmental institutions, Congress and the president, like my proposal.”

The provost, other faculty, students, and others in the administration bought it immediately. I set up a small budget and printed some stationery, and that was it. That's how it got started. I started fundraising and developing programs, including public forums, an academic journal, the Campaign Management Institute (CMI), and the Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute. It used to be called the Lobbying Institute, but we had a dean several deans ago that didn't like the term "lobbying,” so we changed the name. But I think lobbying is necessary in our pluralist representative democracy.

We changed the name and developed the center with the idea that it would help direct applied and academic programs. I'm very proud of those two institutes and the team that has built them, especially Professor Candy Nelson, who has been an outstanding leader of CMI for many years. Professor David Barker, the current director of CCPS, is doing a terrific job expanding and improving the research and outreach of the center. That's very important to me.

In the intervening years since you founded CCPS, the nature and relationship between Congress and the Presidency has changed. What is your assessment of the current situation?

I have two books that deal with this [Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations and American Gridlock: The Sources, Character and Impact of Political Polarization], and right now I’m writing the seventh edition of Rivals for Power, which is an assessment of Biden's relationship with Congress.

Clearly, the relationship has changed. When I first worked on the Hill, and then for many years after, Congress was more civil and productive. There were moderate Democrats and Republicans in the middle, the “sweet spot” of policy making. Now, we are highly polarized and gridlocked. Partisan political polarization among voters and public officials makes it very difficult to get anything done, as you can see right now. There are people who break all kinds of norms of civility. Compromise seems to be a dirty word.

We have a crisis in our democracy right now, symbolized by the invasion of the Capitol and attacks on the outcome of the 2020 election by former President of the United States Donald Trump. These attacks on the foundations of our democracy––free and fair elections and abiding by their outcomes––are a fundamental challenge to our constitutional government.

This attack on the Capitol and our democracy is a shock to me. When I arrived in 1973, Senator Humphrey's best friends––plural––were Republicans. He had lots of Republican allies, like Dirksen, and he'd bring them in to his office to figure out (with a little Scotch) where they agreed and disagreed. They would go to the floor of the Senate and debate. They'd get the stuff done that they agreed on. And then they would have civil discussion about their differences. They'd have some compromises, and they'd move ahead. They would try to solve public problems rather than focus on the permanent campaign and the next election. It’s deeply discouraging to me how much Congress has become so polarized. I'm very worried about our democracy right now.

It does sound discouraging. Do you envision a way out of this polarization and gridlock?

There's not one way, and I've spent my career pushing for a variety of reforms to improve Congress. One change is to have non-partisan redistricting commissions that try to maximize more competitive districts rather than have parties drawing lines for more non-competitive districts. Rather than making the primary the real election, candidates [are forced] to moderate in competitive general elections. When elected public officials moderate in campaigns, they move to the middle when governing thus reducing polarization and resultant gridlock. I support campaign finance reform, lobbying and ethics reform, and more transparency in our governmental system.

You say you are a “political scientist who gets involved in reform,” and while working in academia, you have concurrently served government in various roles. How did one role influence the other (and vice versa)?

Often political scientists are criticized for getting involved in politics and government. I have never taken that criticism seriously. I love both politics and political science.

When I worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey, I got involved in all kinds of policy issues, including the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. My involvement in drafting that historic reform was minor, but it launched my scholarly research and publication about the impact of congressional budget process reform, reconciliation, and the politics of debt and deficit.

My service on a special Senate committee to reform the committee system (the so-called “committee on committees”), which focused on reducing the number of committees and committee assignments and realigning jurisdictions, led to further research and publication. Later, I got involved with assessing how to improve working conditions, committees, and the administration of the House of Representatives. My involvement with congressional ethics reform, campaign finance reform, and lobbying reform also led to research grants, research, publication, and getting students involved in those research areas.

It seems like your research was fueled by your service.

Yes, and SPA's a wonderfully supportive place that way. AU and SPA support faculty who are engaged in the public sector. That's the community norm, to become engaged with politics and government when it is related to one’s expertise and teaching. I often think about one person—a nationally distinguished congressional scholar—who said, “Jim, you’re getting too close to the variables,” meaning too close to the things that political scientists study. And I laughed. I said, “Well, OK, that’s fine, but that’s my career path.” And it has worked with solid support from SPA.

In your 47 years at AU and SPA, is there anything else that you look back on that was also satisfying?

I have been thinking wonderful thoughts about all the students that I have taught since 1974. Many have gone on to distinguished careers in public service and academia. I have learned much from them in 47 years. Thousands of students (undergraduates, master's degree students who have thrived in politics and government, and PhD students who have excelled) have kept in touch over the years. I watch them with pride. I know their families and their children. A few years ago, their kids were coming back to enroll in AU. It has been a privilege and joy to teach and do research at AU with such a distinguished faculty, supportive staff, and high-quality students.