A Conversation With Alan Boyd, the First Secretary of Transportation

A Conversation With Alan Boyd, the First Secretary of Transportation

February 04, 2016  | Jeff Davis
Sec. Boyd with President Johnson. Year unknown.
Secretary Boyd with President Johnson. Year unknown.

Alan S. Boyd was the first Secretary of Transportation, sworn in on January 26, 1967 (which also makes him the most senior living former Cabinet official). But he also served as Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation from 1965 to 1967, and in that capacity, he was the Johnson Administration’s chief public advocate of the creation of a new USDOT. Prior to Commerce, he had served as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Secretary Boyd was in town this week for the kickoff celebration for the 50th anniversary of the creation of USDOT. This means it is also the 50th anniversary of the article that Boyd wrote for the July 1966 issue of Eno’s Traffic Quarterly advocating the creation of the new Department.

Secretary Boyd was gracious enough to sit down this week with Alan Pisarski, author of the Commuting in America series and founder of the Transportation Research Board’s history committee, and ETW’s Jeff Davis. Secretary Boyd’s son Mark, who has been assembling and editing his father’s memoirs, also took part in the interview. Part one follows.

Davis: When I was at the LBJ Library, I found a memo from [White House Special Counsel] Harry McPherson to President Johnson from 1968 when they were gonna elevate Abe Fortas to Chief [Justice of the Supreme Court], for a short list of people to nominate to fill the gap, and McPherson put Secretary Boyd on the list…

Sec. Boyd: I don’t believe Harry was serious about it, I think he was figuring, God, I’ve got to put a couple more lines in this thing…

Sec. Boyd: I’ll tell both of you fellows, if you want to pursue the Department of Transportation, the roots and the anchor for the approach of DOT was all in one man named Cecil Mackey. Cecil was brilliant, and he really set the tone.

Pisarski: Was Cecil at CAB at one point?

Sec. Boyd: No, Cecil was at FAA with Jeeb Halaby. When the Department was created, Jeeb said “This fellow, Alan, you gotta have him, you’ve got to have him with you.” I had put him in charge of the whole damn operation, trying to get something to hand, to give to President Johnson…

Mark Boyd: This is your Task Force?

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, and he put it together.

Pisarski: Jack Basso mentioned Alan Dean as one of the really effective…

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, Dean, I’d say Cecil and Alan Dean were the two who really created the Department of Transportation. Alan was the “inside man”…

Pisarski: Yes, made all those little boxes and charts come together.

Sec. Boyd: Alan was the really…he was the complete bureaucrat, and I say that in admiration. He knew everything.

Davis: Was he at Commerce with you, or was he Bureau of the Budget?

Pisarski: FAA, I think.

Sec. Boyd: No, he was, Alan was, I think he was FAA.

Davis: That’s interesting, because Jeeb Halaby was supportive of a new Department [of Transportation] but he was replaced by Bozo McKee by the time the Task Force came around, who was notably less enthusiastic…

[There follows some discussion about DOT’s lack of a full-time historian, the search for photos of the early days of DOT, and the idea that the Coast Guard might have some.]

Sec. Boyd: They were great. That was really a great addition.

Pisarski: The Coast Guard.

Sec. Boyd: Yeah. They would make a nickel go further than anyone else I knew, anywhere in the federal government. They came in and they immediately started, “what can we do to be helpful?” They didn’t push any at all, but “we just want you to know, we’re here to help you.”

Pisarski: Both Mort [Downey] and Jack [Basso] [both of whom had been head budget officers at DOT over the years] said at this TRB session we did that both of their wives had invited to commission a ship by the Coast Guard. [Laughter.] He said, “and it didn’t happen that it was just at the time we were reviewing their budget – they really knew how to play the game.” But they were great inside the Department. I totally agree with you, sir. The Secretary’s mess was of course one of the best in town. I remember when we had the energy crisis with Bill Coleman and he said, get me a Coast Guard guy, and we all tried to talk him out of it – what the heck is a Coast Guard guy going to do for you on energy? And he said, I want someone with command ability and command authority. And we went and got a captain who later was Commandant of the Coast Guard. And he [Coleman] was absolutely right. Great organization…

Davis: I noticed that when the, at the LBJ Library, the degree of direct, hands-on management by President Johnson, whether it’s through the hand-written notes put on memos, whatever, was quite astounding. Separately, I went to the Reagan Library last year and did a bunch of research on the ’82 gas tax increase [see here], and the degree to which Ronald Reagan let his Secretary of Transportation, Drew Lewis, run wild, advocating a gas tax increase against the White House’s wishes just seems so out of character with what I have discovered about the Johnson Administration and subsequent Administrations have done. How much rope did the White House let you have on taking public stands and getting the Department started up?

Sec. Boyd: Quite a bit. But I had a relationship with Johnson that predated any of that, actually. I first met him in 1958 when I was then chairman of the [Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission]. Being in the South, everybody was an elected officer, so I had to run statewide [in 1954]. I also was very involved in the campaign of George Smathers, who was a Congressman who decided to become Senator, and George for some reason thought that I had done a hell of a job and Johnson in ’58, I think it was, was wandering around in Florida with George Smathers looking at what his chances were. George introduced me to LBJ and told him “he can carry Florida for you.” Anyway, I got to know him really well because when I came to the Civil Aeronautics Board, in ’59 I guess it was, his plane crashed and the only people aboard were two pilots, and under the CAB rules, we went on rotation [for accident investigations – this function is now carried out by the NTSB] and I wound up with LBJ’s plane accident. God, he was on the telephone at 8 every morning, “what the hell do you know, what are you finding, what’d you find yesterday?” And it ultimately came down to one thing, nothing happens [to jeopardize the] insurance for their families. Every morning.

Pisarski: In the history of the regulatory agencies, you were at CAB which I think I would argue was the best of the regulatory agencies, contrasted, say, to ICC which was kind of a fuzzy thing. The fact that it changed and shifted into the Department eventually or through reorganization to me has always been a miracle. I never quite understood how that built-in system like the ICC had somehow, everybody was able to sweep the table clear and walk away from it.

Sec. Boyd: I would agree with you, CAB was the best. It was really fascinating because when I joined there, in ’59, they had a classy group of lawyers, young lawyers during WWII who became enamored of aviation, a lot of fellows who were really able, incredibly able.

Pisarski: And, I think, a succession of great directors, chairmen, all of them.

Mark Boyd: You may know that dad was a pilot in WWII.

Pisarski: Yes, excuse me, I have to ask, when I talked with Rolf Schmitt, who I’ve worked with for 40 years, he told me that when you chatted at the DOT Library [in 2014], that you were going over to fly over Normandy again, did you actually get to do that?

Sec. Boyd: Oh, yeah…

Mark Boyd: What we did on the 70th anniversary [of D-Day] was we went to the airfield that Dad was stationed at where he took off on D-Day, and I can show you a picture of Dad, on the runway, with his wings out…

Pisarski: I would love to see that picture…

Boyd arms out
Sec. Alan Boyd in 2014 at the former RAF Membury, where Boyd flew a C-47 on June 6, 1944 to drop paratroopers over Sainte-Mère-Église. Photo courtesy of the Boyd family.

Mark Boyd: So when he came back [from WWII], he went to UVA law school and ended up in aviation law study when he was there, so he thought, well, the place to work would be CAB. So he applied, and those other smart lawyers decided not to hire him. That was like, ’47, ’48. So he came back [as a CAB member and later chairman] and made their lives difficult…

Pisarski: Wasn’t it part of the story that the aviation industry grew up with the [Civil Aeronautics] Board, that they kind of grew together, as opposed to the [Interstate Commerce Commission], which kind of came in to beat up on this industry to make sure they behaved themselves? I think that was the essence of it, and when ICC died, when it was deconstructed, the statistical programs, what I was involved in, everybody ran away and said “we don’t have to do that anymore, it’s been deregulated.” Civil Aeronautics Board, they said the statistical program of the Board is critical to the functioning of the industry, and Wall Street testified that it needed that data, so those data moved into the Department, FAA and now the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. So I think it’s a difference in the culture.

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, the railroad industry was really backward. There were two of us in the railroad industry – and that was after DOT, I went to be president of the Illinois Central railroad – and me and Jack Fishwick, who was president of the Norfolk and Western, and Jack and I were the two nuts, as far as other of these people on the board of AAR, saying “we ought to be operating with trucks.” And [the others would say] “They’re the sons of bitches who took our business away from us.” They never understood that if we want to take it back, we’d better work with them. Oh, well.

Davis: One of the things I hadn’t realized was that the great wave of deregulation that happened under Carter, with aviation in 1978 and then trucking and rail in 1980, how much of that actually started under John Kennedy, at least the move…Kennedy tried and couldn’t get it done in 1963-4, and it was part of your Task Force recommendations in 1965 that LBJ dropped at the last minute from the transportation message, and continued under Nixon and Ford and finally got to fruition under Carter, how long that took.

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, it took a long time.

Pisarski: It was always, to me, a miracle. I think a lot of people in the Senate who voted for it really didn’t know what it was they were voting for. I think had they really known…

Davis: They trusted Alfred Kahn.

Pisarski: I think they trusted Kahn, they trusted some of the really…it was a period where extraordinary things were happening, the growth of computers, the energy crises, and all of those things, it just exploded the description of the stupidity of what was going on – a truck would go from Chicago to St. Louis and then couldn’t bring anything back, et cetera et cetera. It was an amazing, amazing period.

Sec. Boyd: The ICC was a good bat for the farmers to use to hit the railroads. “We’ll tell those bastards.” Congressmen didn’t understand what was going on, and a lot of railroad people didn’t know what was going on, either.

Pisarski: I think they were just very comfortable in their world…I think it was a great case of regulatory capture, where you create this cops-and-robbers thing where they both think alike and both act alike, and people flow back and forth.

Davis: When I was in college, the political science department would teach “iron triangle” theory, the industry stakeholders and the agency and their Congressional oversight committees all uniting to keep power for themselves, and the way it’s practiced today, nothing does that like the Corps of Engineers, which was one of the two great struggles with getting the Department of Transportation bill through Congress in ’66 was the Corps of Engineers trying to make sure that no one else, DOT or anyone, could have a say in the cost-benefit analysis and planning of water navigation projects.

Sec. Boyd: One thing that was also dead on arrival in the draft of our legislation, my friend Cecil Mackey put in a little provision that every proposal [for a project] that went through the Congress that was in addition to the highway programs, that individuals wanted…

Pisarski: Earmarks?

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, the Senator from Arkansas

Davis: McClellan? [John McClellan (D-AR)]

Sec. Boyd: Yeah.

Mark Boyd: Basically, I think the draft legislation was that anything that was an earmark would be reviewed by DOT and could only be done if there was a cost-benefit analysis.

Davis: McClellan was chairman of the Government Operations Committee that controlled the [DOT] bill, but he was also a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, because in the Senate they can sit both ways, and I’ve got some memo traffic of the Appropriations Committee, the staffer who did the Corps of Engineers at the Appropriations Committee, kept writing to McClellan all throughout 1966 about these specific projects in Arkansas and how they would be horribly affected under different cost-benefit analyses…

Pisarski: Absolutely, absolutely

Davis: So they had McClellan from the get-go, before you even got there.

Sec. Boyd: When I went to see Senator McClellan with this proposal, he was riffling through it, and he looked at, and he said “Alan, that dog ain’t gonna hunt.” And that was the end of that.

Pisarski: In that same part of that, the thing that always fascinated me was the strength of the water industry, MARAD was able to kind of defend itself and be able to hold itself outside of the creation of the Department, and then, what, 15 years later it kind of slid…

Davis: ’83, ’84, something like that.

Mark Boyd: When Dad was Under Secretary of Commerce, he was looking at the obscene subsidies to both shipbuilding and staffing and went to Johnson and said “this is crap, this is a total waste of taxpayers money.” And Johnson said, it’s actually in the memoir, Johnson says “this is the fourth arm of defense, we can’t touch it” and Dad says “you’re crazy as hell, you don’t know what you’re talking about” so Johnson said, “I’ll give you a year, but you’re gonna get us killed politically.” So Dad tried, and he went and talked to Paul Hall at the Seamans International Union, and Paul basically said, very politely, “Alan, nothing personal, but I’m just going to slit your throat.” And Congressman Rooney from Brooklyn [Rep. John Rooney (D-NY)] was just going to take that apart bone by bone.

Davis: The LBJ Library has some recordings of President Johnson’s phone calls from August 1966, several of which deal with people trying to negotiate with Paul Hall on this issue in August of ’66 as the bill was going through, and he was not having any of it.

Mark Boyd: So basically, after a year, Dad gave up…

Sec. Boyd: Couldn’t get anybody to put a bill in.

Mark Boyd: They would all say, you’re right, but we’re not touching it. So the maritime industry basically said, if there’s any possible [way] that Alan Boyd will be Secretary of DOT, we’re not going to be in it. So the reason they totally excluded themselves is this sonofabitch [points at his father].

Pisarski: Isn’t it fascinating that the power, the strength of that industry just slowly evaporated over that 15 years.

Sec. Boyd: While it was operating, it was all the subsidy money, every damn bit of it, it was the most gross thing I can imagine.

Davis: [If you look at] total spending on the transportation function, across agencies, during WWII and the few years after, 90 percent of all transportation spending was maritime subsidies, and watching it sort of trail off through the 50’s and 60’s after that incredible WWII merchant shipping peak, I think that had something to do with it.

Pisarski: It’s a fascinating study in the shifting strengths of different parts.

Davis: It wasn’t just the shippers, the unions really drove the train on that. I worked for a landlocked Tennessee Congressman [Jimmy Quillen (R-TN)] and the maritime unions always came around every year for the fundraiser like clockwork, because they knew that once every few years there would be a Jones Act vote or something like that, that would never affect these members electorally, but they would remember, every few years we’ll need you on one vote, they would be there. So the maritime unions were very shrewd that way, still are.

Sec. Boyd: Paul Hall was very able. Paul was from Florida like me, and we were good friends, but he said “I’m gonna slit your throat,” but he said it nice…

Pisarski: When you look at the Department over the years, do you see successes there? Do you see weaknesses where things could have been better? You think of FAA, and Bureau of Public Roads (FHWA now), those are still the big boys, as they were the day the agency started.

Sec. Boyd: Well, FAA, the professional people there had a lock on the jobs and the FAA followed the rest of the world for improvements. Because these people in Atlantic City, if it wasn’t built by us or designed by us, we would have nothing to do with it. The outsiders from France, Germany or England, forget about them.

Mark Boyd: What I got from Dad was that he really viewed the FAA as very difficult to integrate into DOT, they did not want to do it, they wanted to stay separate.

Sec. Boyd: They didn’t want any part of it.

Mark Boyd: They also really didn’t want to learn what anybody else had come up with. So I think he has an opinion that they were fighting it…

Pisarski: Mort Downey says that they still have their flag, they’re the only administration has a flag…

To be continued next week. Also, check our Eno’s collection of original source documents on the creation of DOT from the LBJ Library and the National Archives here

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