A Conversation With Alan Boyd, Part 2

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  served as chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Secretary Boyd was in town recently 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.

Last week we published part one of a conversation between Secretary Boyd and 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 is in the process of assembling and editing his father’s memoirs, also took part in the interview. Part two follows.

Davis: One thing that struck me was that one of the goals for creating DOT was to get rid of a lot of, the “stovepiping,” and somehow, because of the Highway Trust Fund, mostly, that still really hasn’t happened. I saw that you had tried, and actually this is an interesting question, because there were a lot of big transportation legislation enactments in the early part of the Nixon Administration…the policies and draft bills substantially resembled the stuff that you left going out the door in 1968. There was a big transit bill, the creation of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund was also 1970, and dealing with the railroad bankruptcies and Penn Central meltdown…a lot of the Nixon proposals that got enacted strongly resembled the stuff that you left on the way out out the door in late 1968. [Boyd’s May 1968 aviation finance proposal is here and his December 1968 mass transit proposal is here.]

Sec. Boyd: Well, I can’t tell you too much about how important [Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Policy] Cecil Mackey was to it…

Mark Boyd: Did Cecil span, did he stay at DOT, or just set it up and set the table for it?

Sec. Boyd: He just set it up. Cecil’s people left papers on every subject…I forgot the fellow from MIT who followed Cecil at Policy, but [he said] “Cecil and his people left enough for us for the entire next Administration.”

Mark Boyd: So the folks at DOT who followed Cecil were eager, were willing to pick it up and follow? It was not an adversarial approach?

Sec. Boyd: No, there were good feeling between us. And [Nixon’s first Transportation Secretary] John Volpe brought this fellow from MIT who was a really able fellow.

Pisarski: Paul Cherington? [Ed. Note: Cherington was from Harvard, not MIT.]

Sec. Boyd: I think it was Paul.

Pisarski: There was a great group. I came in in the latter part of your administration and through the Volpe administration and there was a very strong MIT connection at that stage, a lot of really good people came down…Shef was one of them…

Mark Boyd: It was interesting, working with dad on the memoir, he was talking about John Robson [Boyd’s General Counsel and later Under Secretary] was a Republican, [Boyd’s FRA Administrator A. Scheffer Lang] was a Republican, and Dad really liked that idea, that transportation should not be a partisan thing at all. And it sounds like the next Administration kind of took that…

Davis: And in particular, no one did more to take on the highway lobby who wanted to keep the Trust Fund money for themselves than Volpe did, a lot of suggestions for opening that Trust Fund that were developed under the Boyd secretariat, Volpe just took them and ran with it. [Footnote 1]

[There follows some warm reminiscences of Charlie Baker who was Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy under Sec. Volpe, and how Baker’s son is now Governor of Massachusetts.]

Pisarski: I remember walking through the new [Nassif] building with Charlie when it was still under construction, and what happened was, [Baker’s predecessor – there was some dispute over whether there was someone between Cherington and Baker] what happened was as that they were going out the door, they got to order the furniture for the new offices, but they were never going to live with that furniture, so we walked into Charlie’s office and he had chartreuse sofas, pink rugs…


Pisarski: Just as a parting fun shot.

Sec. Boyd: Talk about furniture, there was that newspaper man, Drew Pearson, and I got a call from his office saying “I’m just letting you know I’m running this story tomorrow about how much money you spent on your…for your office

Mark Boyd: This is when he was setting up at 800 Independence…since [DOT] didn’t have their own building they got shoehorned into the FAA building.

Sec. Boyd: The newsman called me and said, just giving you notice what we are going to do tomorrow, and I said, for Christ’s sake, why don’t you take time to send somebody over there to take a look. But what had happened was, somebody who would have been ticked off, I think maybe somebody at the FAA, about us moving in there had called up and said “Boyd’s spending a quarter of a million dollars to fix up his office.” And I said, please come over. And the one thing I had done, I had a little bedroom in case there was an emergency and I had to stay there, with an iron cot…

Pisarski: Really plush, right?

Mark Boyd: And they did, and they said, yeah, okay. [The story never ran.]

Pisarski: Is that what happened? We were on the next-to-top floor, and then the top floor was still FAA?

Sec. Boyd: Oh, yeah.

Pisarski: I had forgotten that.

Mark Boyd: [FAA Administrator Bozo McKee] used to grant Dad the opportunity to meet with him occasionally.

Pisarski: I remember when John Volpe came in, John would have his secretary call down to [FHWA Administrator] Frank Turner and say “the Secretary would like to meet with you” and she would say “well, let’s see, I think we can get you in a week from Tuesday…”

Mark Boyd: Bozo was very nice to condescend to see Dad occasionally and give him some advice.

Davis: There was a memo that McKee sent to the White House around Christmas ’65 with all these reasons why they shouldn’t create a Department [or at least why FAA should be excluded] but it didn’t have his name on it anywhere. [Laughter.] And then someone at the White House sent it to you, for your response, but it is not clear from the paper trail if you knew that this came from McKee or not. And you sent in January ’66 a detailed memo refuting that, but it’s not clear if the White House told you it was coming from McKee or not.

Mark Boyd: It’s actually the start of the memoir, Dad had been at the [Civil Aeronautics Board] for a while as chairman, and [aviation] was a small industry, Dad’s a pretty bright guy, and after a while he knew everybody, there was not any new challenge there, and he was kind of a restless guy, so he called up, who was your friend, John Macy [White House personnel chief] and said. “I’m giving you a heads up, I’m getting ready to leave here, and you might want to take time to find somebody to replace me. And he [Macy] said, “well, are you interested in anything else in government?” And Dad said, “well, if I’m interested in it that would be great, but I’m ready to go back and practice law.” So about six weeks later, he’s having lunch at the Metropolitan Club and gets a call from Jim Jones [LBJ’s appointments secretary] who says, “okay, Alan, you need to be over here right now, the President’s having a news conference.”

Dad said “what the hell’s this about?” And he said “I can’t tell you, it’s secret.” So he goes over to Jim Jones’ office in the executive wing there, and there are a few guys sitting in the anteroom, and Dad walks by and says “Jim, what’s up?” and he says “we gotta go right now, there’s a meeting in the East Room.” So he and these two other guys who are Wilbur Cohen and Bozo McKee all go up there, and there are three chairs on the dais, and Johnson comes in and says, I want to announce that my good friend Wilbur Cohen will be Under Secretary of HEW, blah blah blah, and I’d also like say I’m proud to appoint Bozo McKee as FAA Administrator, and Dad’s thinking, that would have been a logical spot for me, so what the hell am I doing here? And then he says Alan Boyd knows more about transportation than anybody else, I’m naming him Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation. No heads-up about this, no “let me talk to my wife,” nothing.

Sec and Mrs Boyd

Secretary Alan Boyd with his wife Flavil Boyd. Photo courtesy of the Boyd family.

And what was also fun is that Dad’s kind of going, “well, you can’t really say ‘excuse me, Mr. President, I need to go talk to my wife.’” So he gets home that evening and [his wife Flavil] says, “I had an amazing day, let me tell you about this. After you left, I got a call from Lady Bird, and she said, ‘Flavil, I’m having a bunch of good friends over for lunch today, I’d be glad if you came over with me.’” Of course, Mom said, “of course.” They’re there and they’re having this nice lunch and then Lady Bird says “Flavil, there’s something on television you might be interested in, why don’t you come into the Lincoln Bedroom and I’ll turn the TV on for you.” And there’s this news conference going on downstairs, so Flavil watched the whole thing. So LBJ and Lady Bird had a lot of fun. [A transcript of the April 27, 1965 news conference is here.]

Davis: And you were Under Secretary and John Connor was Secretary of Commerce…

Sec. Boyd: Yeah.

Davis: And you were in a weird position because you, as his Under Secretary, ran this Task Force and are advocating taking a huge swath of his responsibility away. I mean, it must have been a very strange position for Secretary Connor to be in.

Sec. Boyd: He was very gracious, and I think he was very bright. I think he realized there really was a need for a Department of Transportation because there were just so many odds and ends that were out, hanging out there.

Pisarski: Well, Commerce has always been the department of odds and ends….

Sec. Boyd: And we can’t put this place, where do we do, we put it in Commerce.

Mark Boyd: And you didn’t feel any resistance from Jack [Connor] at all?

Sec. Boyd: No. He was a wonderful man. He was a really great fellow.

Davis: There was one letter he wrote to the White House, he disagreed, I think, with one specific, moving some specific kind of research away from Commerce to DOT. But other than that…the paper trail does not seem to indicate that he fought the Task Force’s recommendations, except for that one little thing.

Sec. Boyd: He was very straightforward.

Pisarski: It’s interesting that the world of tourism, recreational travel, tourist travel, stayed in Commerce, or grew up in Commerce, I guess, and now in the recent legislation [section 1431 of the FAST Act and other provisions of that law relating to planning] there is a requirement for transportation people to recognize the needs of tourism in the current legislation. I worked between those two worlds over the years and it’s amazing how distinct and separate they have kept over the years.

Sec. Boyd: One of the things that happened before I was at Commerce, I was at CAB, and the U.S. flag carriers all had antitrust immunity. And we had been given, American, Pan American, Northwest, immunity. Jets had come out. IATA was meeting and we had told U.S. carriers, you do not support this new proposal, because you’re going to save a hell of a lot of money [with jets] and you should pass along some of it [to passengers in the form of lower fares]. So they come back and they continued after their meeting with the same carriers….

Mark Boyd: Foreign carriers wanted to keep or raise the same airfares rather than lower them.

Sec. Boyd: So I raised hell with the carriers, and they said, we didn’t have any choice, we were being hammered, and everybody had said, “we’ll get you if you don’t go along.” So it went in, and I raised hell with the British.

Mark Boyd: The CAB refused to approve it, so basically it went into a rate free-for-all because there was no international agreement. And, you know, Pan Am was flying flights to Sweden, and you may remember this, the Swedish actually wouldn’t let passengers off the plane unless they paid the difference between what Pan Am charged [versus what the Swedish national carrier charged].

Pisarski: Is that right?

Mark Boyd: And the British Minister of Transportation threatened to confiscate American planes, and so they were making plans to fly to Amsterdam instead of London. So then, basically, the Brits said let’s have a negotiation, so Dad went over to London the French and British…

Sec. Boyd: And Canadian.

Mark Boyd: And started being a media person over there with the British press, talking about how the British government obviously was not concerned about the welfare of the British public or even wanting to encourage Americans to come and spend their tourist dollars because they were keeping these artificially high airfares, which didn’t play very well the British government.

Pisarski: I’m sure.

Mark Boyd: This was of Dad’s encounters with Jack Kennedy. He got a phone call saying “get your ass back over here right now.”

Sec. Boyd: It was a short conversation. I come back and he says, “Boyd,” and I’ve forgotten who else was in there

Mark Boyd: [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk was in there…

Sec. Boyd: Yeah, Dean and Kennedy were in the Cabinet Room going through papers, I was ushered in, coming back from London, and he said, “Boyd, the English are the best friends in the world. You have really upset the Prime Minister with these statements, and you have really embarrassed him.” Kennedy said “Cut it right now and just agree with whatever they want us to…you get your ass back over to England and straighten this out….” So I went back and I did it. I did tell the British that I wanted to have a commitment from them to the aviation people that we would have another meeting of IATA in six months to review this, and they agreed to that, but I felt kind off foolish, because I’d gotten a lot of press and I had to come out and [reverse myself].

Mark Boyd: Dad was sitting there saying, I had been sending memos every day about what the negotiations were, and to suddenly be called back and have Dean Rusk and Kennedy have no…the first thing they ever heard was from the British Prime Minister…[Dad said] I didn’t think this was the time to talk to them about the breakdown of communication within their own organization.

Sec. Boyd: Six months later, enough people apparently were raising hell in other countries that we got the cuts [in fares] because of the benefits of jet aviation. But so many of those nations owned their airlines and God only knows how much money British Air was subsidizing…it was a very expensive thing.

Continued (and concluded) in part 3 here.

Please feel free to check out our extensive (and growing) collection of documents from the LBJ Library and the National Archives about the creation of USDOT here.

Footnote 1: It seems appropriate here to quote from a 1996 article in Presidential Studies Quarterly by Alan Dean and James M. Beggs: “In summary, no other executive department was as successful as DOT during President Nixon’s first term in developing and securing the enactment of major statutes relating to its mission and programs. Unfortunately, Secretary Volpe and his principal policy adviser, Paul Cherington, found that the Nixon White House gave the department little credit for these accomplishments. Volpe and Cherington resisted White House efforts to revise DOT’s legislative proposals in ways they regarded as harmful. White House aides increasingly viewed Volpe as aggressive and bothersome and not sufficiently responsive to their efforts to modify the department’s recommendations. These frictions eventually culminated in President Nixon’s 1971 recommendation to Congress that the Department of Transportation be abolished as a part of a general reorganization of the domestic executive departments.”

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