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Nelson Polsby, 72; UC Berkeley political science teacher was an expert on Congress

February 09, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Nelson Polsby, a UC Berkeley political scientist whose witty and astute observations on Congress, the electoral process and presidential politics influenced several generations of scholars, policymakers, journalists and other political animals, died at his Berkeley home Tuesday of complications of heart disease. He was 72.

Polsby was the Heller professor of political science at UC Berkeley, where he had taught since 1967 and directed its Institute of Governmental Studies from 1988 to 1999.

Several of his books have become classics in his field, including "Community Power and Political Theory" (1963); "Presidential Elections" (1964), written with Aaron Wildavsky; and "Congressional Behavior" (1971).

His last book, "How Congress Evolves" (2004), traces the development of Congress and offers some surprising conclusions, including how the advent of air conditioning in the South drew Northerners to live there and eventually contributed to the liberalization of its politics.

"He was a great man in political science. Anybody who studied political science knew about him," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider, who knew Polsby for three decades.

Polsby's insights arose from an approach to politics that relied less on election results, polls and demographic data and more on direct observation of its players. To learn about Congress, for example, he moved to Washington and spent long days trailing and observing its members. In so doing, he helped revolutionize the study of that political body.

"When he came into political science, there was a very traditional historical approach where you knew a lot about procedures but didn't study what members of Congress did and why they did it. Nelson was one of the first to come in and ask what was the actual behavior of members of Congress, what did they do," said David Brady, a Stanford University political scientist who knew Polsby for many years.

Polsby became an expert on Congress almost by accident. At the outset of his academic career in 1960, he was asked to teach a course on Congress at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and accepted even though he knew very little about the subject. He moved to Washington the next summer and spent time with members of the House of Representatives, "mooching around, interviewing ... learning the territory," he told an interviewer several years ago.

He called his approach "quasi-anthropological" because "I do have a good deal of regard for the people who are doing the acting. I attempt to find out, as best I can, what their perspective is on things because then it helps, quite frequently, to understand what they're going to do next."

Born Oct. 25, 1934, in Norwich, Conn., he came from a farming family that was interested in politics; a great-uncle ran for mayor of New Haven as a socialist. As a teenager, he lived in Washington, D.C., and spent much of his free time hanging out in Congress, which was more accessible to the public in the 1950s than it is today. There were "no guards, no nothing, and you could just hang out and see what they were doing, which I thought was quite a lot of fun," he told a UC Berkeley interviewer in 2002.

The McCarthy era that was in full swing in the '50s inspired him on his path to a political science career. He chose Sen. Joseph McCarthy as the subject for his honors thesis at Johns Hopkins University and found that McCarthy "was always the least popular guy on the ticket in Wisconsin ... the least popular winner. He wasn't anywhere near as powerful at the grass roots as people in Washington made him out to be."

He enjoyed debunking such common perceptions so much that, after graduating from Hopkins in 1956, he pursued a master's and a doctorate in political science at Yale University. Over the years he held teaching posts at Yale, Harvard, Wesleyan and Columbia universities.

At Berkeley, he was known as a generous mentor and supportive colleague, who for many years held afternoon teas for graduate students, visiting scholars and fellow professors. Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain, who succeeded Polsby as head of the Institute of Governmental Studies, said the teas were regarded as "odd, quirky, not very much in the spirit of modern Berkeley" but important for instilling a sense of community.

Polsby wrote opinion pieces for major newspapers and was often cited by political journalists. He could be immensely quotable.

"Here's the culture shock that you and I are suffering," he told the Boston Globe in 1999, when asked to comment on Newt Gingrich and national political trends. "We have become accustomed to plodding, purposeful Republicans and crazy, weird, self-destructive Democrats. However, the virus seems to have leapt from the chimpanzees to the baboons."

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