Nelson W. Polsby: 72, Author and a Scholar of Politics, Dies

Historians in the News

Nelson W. Polsby, who marshaled intellectual rigor, lucid writing and a knack for drawing striking lessons from real-life observation in his enduring studies of Congress and the presidency, died on Tuesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 72.

The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, his daughter Emily Polsby said.

Mr. Polsby, a political scientist, wrote or edited at least 15 books and scores of articles and edited The American Political Science Review, the most prestigious political science journal. He was especially known for his studies of Congress, the presidency, political parties, policy making and the media.

In an interview with Harry Kreisler of the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2002, Mr. Polsby said it was all so much fun that he at first had trouble believing “people paid you American money to study this stuff.”

As a youth, he gobbled up newspapers, newscasts and family talk about politics. Then , as a college student he eagerly pursued his fascination with how Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the anti-Communist crusader, managed “to scare the daylights” out of Washington power brokers.

Using public opinion research and his instincts, Mr. Polsby attributed McCarthy’s success to support from the Republican Party, a novel notion to more senior social scientists.

Mr. Polsby had already fallen in love with Washington while “hanging around” the Capitol as a student and watching lawmakers, and he was beguiled by its complexity. He perceived elites competing with one another in often unexpected ways.

“There are often too many facts and not infrequently too many different versions of the facts,” he said in the Berkeley interview. “Rather than speaking for themselves, various facts have what we have come to refer to as spokespersons.”...
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