Neil Goldschmidt Secretary of trains, planes, and highways

When Neil Goldschmidt was still Mayor of Portland, Oregon, his city council declared war on him. Mr. Goldschmidt, in one of his characteristically unorthodox moves, had infuriated the council. In a massive re-evaluation of Portland government, he had taken away their jurisdiction over all city bureaus. Just before the council was to meet and open fire on him, Mr. Goldschmidt sent an aide scurrying off to a local Army-Navy store to bring back the most beat-up battle helmet he could find. Goldschmidt strapped it on and marched into the meeting.

When the laughter died down, as one person remembers, "he had reminded everyone that the issue was not a serious as they were talking it, and lowered the tension level enough" so that the re-evaluation could take place.

Mr. Goldschmidt, the sixth and newest Secretary of transportation, may need to keep his helmet handy in Washington.

He could have used it the week he sat down to a breakfast meeting with about 30 reporters and casually mentioned Mayor Jane Byrne of Chicago over scrambled eggs. Mr. Goldschmidt said she was going to see precious little of DOT's millions in "discretionary" funding because she had broken her promise to support President Carter over Sen. Kennedy. The resulting furor over whether this was administration policy or just a whim of Goldschmidt's based on a "personal problem" with Mayor Byrne made him page one news across the country.

In an interview immediately after it happened, he seemed startled by all that flak bursting around him. It ranged from Republican cries that government funds were being used as Carter carrots to a public knuckle rapping by fellow Democrat William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who extracted a promise of impartiality on DOT grants from Mr. Goldschmidt at a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

Mr. Goldschmidt shrugs that off, laughing. "There are dangerous forces in the land led by senators who no doubt need the attention they're getting." It's "a message" sent to the administration. It will "be followed by legislation only if needed . . . ."

Mark Hatfield, the Republican Senator from Mr. Goldschmidt's home state of Oregon, suggests another message -- a message that disloyalty does not pay. He believes Mr. goldschmidt's remarks on Mayor Byrne "were a calculated statement -- a message sent [from the administration] and a message received by the other mayors of the country."

But Mr. Goldschmidt says, with a rueful smile that might have been borrowed from a small boy who has just spilled this milk on the kitchen floor, that was not the case. "The taste of leather could get boring [if] you keep putting your foot in your mouth."

Back in Oregon he was known as Mayor Rat-a-tat-tat. If there's one thing that's characteristic of Neil Godschmidt, it's the almost Gatling-gun speed at which he talks, sometimes brilliantly, but always nonstop. He is not a terse man. Former Oregon Governor Tom McCall, a Republican who did a lot of verbal sparring with Mr. Goldschmidt when both were in office, likes to kid him about it. He once jokingly called him, at a farewell party roast-and-toast, "the fastest mouth and slowest brain in the West."

In a backhand way, Sen. Mark Hatfield emphasizes Mr. Golschmidt's way with words when he suggests that the secretary of trains, planes, and highways may have been chosen to do more than head DOT. Asked if Mr. goldschmidt was doing his job successfully, Sen. Hatfield says, "I'd unhesitatingly say yes, assuming he was assigned to just the job of managing the department, but no if he had an auxiliary assignment like campaigning . . . . I've noted he has been on the road rather frequently -- I assume the administration recognizes his platform abilities and communication skills, which are a plus for him in the political picture."

Sen. Hatfield calls Mr. Goldschmidt, "intelligent, hyperactive, and political ," and says they've had a good working relationship, based on mutual respect and friendship, in spite of their party differences.

The public Neil Goldschmidt, speechifying, is a media master's dream. He bounds up to the microphone looking more than a little Paul Newman playing a Cabinet member in a navy pin-striped suit. His speech is crisp, sharply focused , well organized, bristling with impressive facts and figures, full of drive and thrust and all the appropriate symbolism for a Secretary of Transportation. He defuses tough questions with an easy humor and radiates sureness.

In private, or at least in the privacy of his own office, which is roughly the size of a 747 passenger section, he is different. He is more diffuse, rambling, a little unsure, as though he's still trying to figure out how a kid from Eugene, Oregon, who once played Curley in a high school production of "Oklahoma!" ended up with the socko role of Cabinet member.

When he talks about how the press jumped all over his Byrne remarks, for instance, there is a hint that he is a man in a strange new situation, still finding himself.

"I like the press," he begins. [But] I think that it's a cruel instrument when it becomes fashionable. I think that there are lazy people in journalism, just like there are lazy people in politics. And I don't mean to say that you can rank the evil of one above the other, or the goodness of one above the other. It's just that when they're both being done poorly they do damage."

He sees Washington as "essentially an industry in which government and journalism feed on one another" and tend not to perceive how boring they get to everybody else or how cruel they become to one another "in the process of trying to keep going . . . ."

Was there a cruel aspect in his brush with the press over the Byrne incident?

"Uh uh," he says shaking his head no. "If I put my foot in my mouth, nobody helped me put it there particularly."

He sits in his walnut-paneled office with the covers from Portland magazine on the wall and talks with nostalgia about his job there as mayor: Portland, he says, is a compelling community, where "the sense of the possible is very high and the willingness to get the . . . possible done is high." He found his work there, compared to what he does in Washington "frankly a little more like having clay in your hands." In Portland it was a job where "you really see and feel the product. When there are [fewer] kids in the pool halls, you can tell you've done something about youth employment."

It is all a little less clear-cut in the vast transportation kingdom where he now rules over 108,000 people and a $17 billion budget. Its a domain that covers the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, Federal Highway Administration, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as Research and Special Programs Administration, Transportation Systems Center.

When asked what his three most pressing problems as transportation czar are, he talks at length -- first, about how the job of Cabinet officers is misperceived as simply management, when even more important is an "overview" of the country they must help give the President.

He speaks of "the importance of attacking what is in front of us in the country in a more integrative way and with some foresight in order to help the President . . . ." The most important issue of the '80s is "our ability to support an economy that puts people to work after it has wrung inflation out and moved off an energy diet it cannot afford."

There are opportunities to do that, he says, with more exports and with more efficient transportation that will reduce the cost of American products to American consumers. "But it can't be done in isolation from what the President is doing in his steel program strategy or in isolation from the tax program, which is really the drive in the economy. It can't be done in isolation from the strategies we pursue in the Carter round of trade negotiations. We are just part of the strategy . . . .

"He is a president who has emphasized in his dealings with me . . . what I would call linkages . . . . People say: 'What are you doing about transit? What are you doing about highways? What are you doing about railroads?' And my answer is: If [considering them in isolation] is what a secretary does, what you'll have in the end is a better than average highway program, a better than average railroad program. Whereas, in fact, if the two of them are thought out together, you'll probably have a really good highway program and really good railroad programs, and it might not cost an extra nickel. . . ."

When people who know Neil Goldschmidt talk about him, they fling around descriptions like dynamic, energetic, restless, high-energy level. He apparently does operate on the job with express-train speed. But if you ask him to describe himself he gives a long, slow grin, that wrinkles up his beige-green "cat's eyes" (he calls them that) and says, "Lazy. I am a lazy man. . . . I really am a sloth. I am lazy and slothful. I would rather watch old movies than do just about anything. Turns out other people share my habits. None of us are likely ever to go anywhere in American life for that reason."

When it's suggested that he hasn't done badly in American life, he laughs. "Oh, it's just an accident. These things will happen. But people will catch on. It just takes a little time." Mimicking an offstage bureaucrat, he grumbles , "Where is he?" Then a secretary: "He's in front of the TV set watching a movie." Bureaucrat: "When is he going to give me the memo?" Secretary: "when 'Horatio Hornblower' is over."

There is a spirit of play, an orneriness about Neil Goldschmidt, a break-away quality at odds with the aura of protocol in Washington. No reporter likes to mention it too early in a story, because it colors a reader's first impressions so vividly, but there wasm the Bozo the Clown incident. It has sometimes been reported that, as mayor, he showed up to conduct a city council meeting in a clown outfit.

"I'm guilty," he admits. "That was probably the most fun I had the whole time I was mayor. I loved it. It was not during a city council meeting, however. It was National Clown Week, I would hope. What other reason could there be for doing such a thing?"

Later he talks much less facetiously, though, of his time as Mayor (a period in which gov. McCall suggests the pressures turned Goldschmidt's hair from jet black to gray mixed with white): "I don't think people realize how hard it was to do what we were doing when we were doing it. But I did. I was tired all the time. I was working very hard. It was a gut fight."

He is sprawled comfortably on a couch in his office, his arms flung over the back of the couch, his legs crossed cowboy style, ankle on knee. No clowning around. He wears a tan plaid suit, a tan and white striped shirt, tan knit vest bound in tan velour, red, brown, and tan paisley tie, brown socks, brown wing tip shoes.

He says, "Probably the best job I ever had" was as a choker-setter in the woods during his senior year as a political science student at Oregon State. Choker-setters, he explains, are the people who take cables and wrap them around logs and haul them away. That was a couple of years after he dropped out of college to hitchhike halfway around the world, taking a tramp steamer to Israel, living there in a Roman Catholic hospice, and teaching basketball at the YMCA before backpacking through Greece, Turkey, and most of the rest of Europe.

The visit to Israel was "not just a trip across ground" to him but a look at his roots. He says he's not a Zionist, "and I don't come from a family that is, but most Jewish people come up with pretty strong feelings about the survival of Israel, and I wanted to go." Neil Goldschmidt grew up, of course, far from Israel, in Eugene, Oregon, where his father was a comptroller in a furniture store and his mother a housewife.

When asked if he's thought about being President, he answers with a dry smile , "Being Jewish leaves you with a sense of perspective on that. There just isn't likely to be a Jewish president for a long time. It doesn't keep me awake at nights or worry me in the slightest."

Does he feel then that there are still remnants of anti-semitism in this country?

"More than remnants. . . . I'm not convinced that a person who was JEwish couldn't be elected or couldn't run or whatever. But there are tremendous forces at work to make that really difficult. And it's not something I've ever really thought was a good idea for me personally. . . . At this point in my life it doesn't seem like something that the country needs from me."

Gov. McCall suggests that Mr. Goldschmidt's next step will be to run for senator or governor in Oregon, but if you ask Mr. Godlschmidt he shrugs that off and says he'd really like to try a couple of things at once, not necessarily public service. Maybe a mix of teaching (urban politics, life and problems) or practising law again.

After his graduation from the University of California's Boalt Law School in 1967 he wasn't interested in becoming a "fat cat" lawyer. Three years before, in Mississippi, he had worked with civil rights leader Charles Evers on voter registration, and when he passed the Oregon bar he turned again to public interest law with the Legal Aid Society.

Freddye Petett, now executive director of the Portland Urban League, worked with Mr. Goldschmidt when he was mayor and believes his social concern has its roots in his minority experience as a Jew. "It's very evident his faith is very important to him. Many of the things he talked about and did came out of that -- how he related to blacks and the family and how he dealt with his staff," she says.

Working with the Legal Aid Society, Mr. Goldschmidt remembers, "I spent almost my first year handling nothing but divorce cases and family conflict stuff . . . . I worked on a case that challenged the constitutionality of an Oregon state law that said in order to get a divorce you had to put a $40 filing fee down. And in order to pay the $40 and get the filing fee you had to have money.

"Now if you didn't have the money, you couldn't get a restraining order against your husband for beating you up or . . . for beating up the children. And you couldn't get a custody order; you couldn't get a property order; you couldn't get anything. As a person, I thought that was wrong. As a lawyer, I could do something about it.

"We won that case in Oregon. . . . You cannot keep people out of the justice system. If you can't get intom the justice system, you don't get any justice. When I came out of law school I realized there are a lot of people who can't get in . . . . We ought to measure everything in our society against whether or not it will produce more or less choice. . . . The issue in this country is whether in every generation, a year at a time, like sand on a beach -- small increments -- whether the people believe that there's more choice this year than last."

Mr. Goldschmidt's longtime friend, Jerry Bidwell, who was chairman of Portland's City Housing Development, Inc., when Mr. Goldschmidt was mayor, calls him "tenacious and persevering" in pursuing that kind of progress towards choice.

"He used to inspire confidence in the kind of decisions made -- an ability to say, 'I will lead, and hopefully you will follow.' The word charismatic is overworked, but there is that element of leadership in him," says Mr. Bidwell, vice president of Black, Inc., a Portland brokerage firm. Mr. Bidwell also describes Neil Goldschmidt as the kind of guy whose supercharged life as an executive leads to what Goldschmidt calls his "laziness." He says it's exhausting to be around Mr. Goldschmidt when he's working at full tilt, and that when he relaxes he does so completely "as a safety valve." Last summer, for instance, they floated down the John Day River in what's known in Oregon as a "drift boat," with no motor or sails, only oars.

Mr. Goldschmidt also relaxes by listening to Sinatra records or Broadway show music, jogging, swimming, reading thrillers by Alistair MacLean and Helen MacInness. Occasionally he dashes off a poem and stuffs it in a bureau drawer. He avoids blue cheese at all costs, and avidly collects T-shirts.

One thing, though: At home the Secretary of Transportation is not enthusiastic about petty details, doesn't like fixing light switches or broken record players.

Neil Goldschmidt started dating his wife, the former Margaret Wood, also from Eugene, when they were both students at the University of Oregon. She taught English and social studies in junior high school for five years. They have two children, Rebecca, 7, and Joshua, 10.

"Margie and I enjoyed the Christmas ball at the White House," says Neil Goldschmidt, backing into a question -- a question about the tangible results of this job at DOT. "We're just as big tourists, and probably just as excited about going over there as probably anybody in the country would be. But it didn't solve the railroad problem in the United States to be recognized by congressmen and treated nicely by senators and people from industry. It's intriguing and educational, but it didn't fixm anything. . . . I think that there are a lot of trappings and symbols and things that go with the office. And as long as the people who have the offices don't get confused that isn't the real job, everything will be fine."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Neil Goldschmidt Secretary of trains, planes, and highways
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today