The Rapid Advancement of Cortelyou
LIFE STORIES OF SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE
BY ALLAN D. ALBERT IN MUNSEY’S MAGAZINE
This is the story of a man who has progressed from an unimportant clerkship to the hr ad of a government department by virtue of his genius for efficiency. His rise was rapid even in a country where promotions come thick and fast.
A BRAIN to organize and the grit to do it. These two qualifications explain a career which in the very focus of American careers is accepted as extraordinary. They have made a member of the President’s Cabinet and the administrative head of a great party out of a nine-hundred-dollar stenographer. They have created a new executive department. They have gone three-fourths of the way toward adjusting the biggest business the government conducts to the practical, dollar-and-cents, short-cut methods of modern trade. And now they have led their possessor to the control of the Treasury Department.
That brain and the energy which kept it at work are the hall-marks of George Bruce Cortelyou. They stick out of everything he has done, and give force to almost everything he has said. His progress may be compared with that of three other men—General Franklin Bell, 11 Uncle Joe” Cannon, and Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, the four men are not generally alike. Yet all four of them have risen chiefly by taking up work nobody else cared to do. General Bell studied his way to the head of the army in time which four out of five of his messmates wasted. Speaker Cannon made himself an authority on a subject inextricably woven into the legislation of every session and yet neglected by practically the whole body of Representatives; the financial operations of the government. The President espoused re-
forms which were cartooned all over the country as stumbling-blocks to success, and he went to the White House doing it. George Cortelyou took a job as one of the thirty thousand cogs in the government wheel at Washington, and the fact which best proves his capacity is this, that he was able to work his way off the rim of that wheel lo do service as one of its strongest spokes.
Making all due allowance for his development to meet the new responsibilities—and he has grown more than most men—the two chief forces of George Cortelyou’s equipment must have shown on the surface at lhe very outset of his career. He was born in New York, in July, 18(32. He was graduated from the Hempstead, Long Island, Institute in 1879. in three years he had a diploma from the State Normal School in Westfield, Massachusetts. Then, when only twenty years old, he was employed to teach older men how to teach English. The course was largely his own. He could havecontinued it, doubtless, for years. He did so only long enough to permit him to complete the studies he had outlined for himself at the Boston Conservatory of Music.
The work he wanted to do lay in the field of active, practical business. So, when the Boston Conservatory had given him a good start in the theory of music, composition, the piano and organ, and voice culture, off he set for his old home in New York.
Stenography had always appealed
to him as a valuable preliminary to bigger things, and he had learned to write accurately and with fair speed while he taught in Cambridge and studied music in Boston. That skill was the commodity he expected to sell in New York. With it, together with his pay as principal of a preparatory school, he was able to do more studying, pay his way, ana make a home, Avitli the daughter of his old principal, Dr. Hinds, as its mistress.
At about this stage of his career he entered the government service. He did so by virtue of an examination—not a civil service examination, but the best substitute for it Avhich was offered in those days—an examination by the appointing officer. The appointing officer happened to be the appraiser, and his bureau Avas in such shape that he intended to reorganize it if he could get the right kind of practical help. It was Cortelyou AVIIO supplied the help.
Some of the school-teaching already indicated intervened between that service and his next appointment, which Avas to be secretary of the inspector in charge of the postoffice inspectors’ office in New York. That division, also, required a shaking up, and the inspector hoped to get something more out of the operation than a change of personnel. He got it. Compactness, simplicity, effectiveness, were all obtained—ancl the man Avho provided the ideas Avas George Cortelyou.
The next move Avas to the office of the surveyor of the port of NeAv York. There, too, methods Avere out of date, labor Avas duplicated, time was wasted, and the chief had perception enough to recognize the situation as it Avas. Cortelyou Avas the surveyor’s stenographer and secre-
tary, and on the basis of his experience in the appraiser’s office and the inspector’s office, he was able to accomplish in detail the changes which the surveyor would indicate only in general terms.
The young clerk Avas HOAV ready to grip tight a harder task. The larger Avork that Avas offered to him Avas the organization of a neAv bureau in the Post-Office Department at Washington—the office of the fourth assistant post-master-general. His superiors supplied the requirements. The fulfilment came from Cortelyou; and as he ordered the details of that bureau they remained until he himself changed them as the head of the entire postal service. After such work as that, no clerk could long be kept a cog, even in the departments at Washington.
The promotion came in the form of appointment as stenographer to President Cleveland in February,. 1896. Under the private secretary, he was set at reorganizing there. When Cortelyou finished with it, the force and equipment vvere precisely Avhat they are to-day. No wonder that the man AVIIO directed the cl langes advanced in four years to be executive clerk, assistant secretary, and secretary to the President.
What George Cortelyou did for President McKinley is fresh enougn in the public mind not to need recital here. HOAV the office Avas expanded to meet the broad needs of the war with Spain ; hoAV the President’s secretary took complete charge of the executive forces during those long, heavy hours in Buffalo; hoAAr the neAv President leaned upon him and trusted him—all this is, or ought to be, familiar. The ability to meet the demands of those several trying emergencies led Theodore BooseA^elt
to commission Mr. Cortelyou to organize the new Department of Commerce and Labor.
Nothing could be more natural than that a man who had supplied the office details to fulfil the plans of half a dozen public officials in series should, for the time, overestimate the importance of those details. That is a vastly less costly failing than indifference. By this time, however, he had outgrown the details, but not forgotten them, and when he proposed his scheme for the new department it was so broad and big that it made Congress gasp.
There was a great deal of condescension at the Capitol toward the new secretary and his initial estimates. He was supposed to have asked twice what he hoped to get and four times what he needed. The legislators gave to him on that calculation. Nevertheless, the work of the department to-day follows the lines and has the proportions of the original Cortelyou plan, and it is the firm belief of his old subordinates that if the allowances proposed for 1907 had been made for 1903 the new office and the country would have gained four fears in the important work now being done by the Bureau of Corporations and its associate divisions.
Mr. Cortelyou’s capacity for organization was accepted without question througtout the capital when the new department had been in existence a year. Without the least flurry he had gathered about him a cabinet of unusually capable assistants, men like Frank H. Hitchcock, Lawrence 0. Murray, and James "R. Carfield. To them he gave his ideas, and they selected for him a corps of assistants -which was soon the won-
der of the whole departmental service.
Practically the whole force consisted of stenographers, and a few scratches on a memorandum-slip were made to take the place of long and grandiloquent communications in other bureaus. An editor was desired, not to provide a new place on the rolls, as Congress seemed to think, but to prevent the duplication of statistics, to revise and shorten manuscripts, and thus to make possible a reduction of fully onethird in the cost of the department’s printing. So much was accomplished, in fact, and the results were so distinctly practical, that Mr. Cortelyou suggested to the President, and the President appointed, a commission to adjust the methods in all the other government departments to this same standard and to> extend the reform by centralizing the purchase of all supplies. The work of this commission is far from complete, but it has already saved the government several millions of dollars a year.
For nine months Mr. Cortelyou left the Cabinet to conduct the Republican campaign. When he went back, it was to be the head of the Post-Office Department, which he had entered as a clerk of the lowest grade. He had followed its course during his employment at the White House and in the new department, and he went to it with fairly clear ideas of what to do. Conditions there were commonplace, neither notably good nor extremely bad. The work of the largest business in America was being acceptably administered. Yet the office was illogically organized, divisions were gravely writing imposing letters to one another across the halls, and single
inquiries were receiving as many as forty endorsements.
Tlie platform on which Mr. Cortelyou began his latest reorganization is set forth in his annual report for the past fiscal year in this form :.
It is sometimes said that the PostOffice Department should be selfsustaining. Such a condition would be gratifying, but I am less concerned about the deficit than I am about the efficiency of administration.
Nevertheless he and his aides (he had brought Mr. Hitchcock with him from the Department of Commerce and Labor) set about economizing both time and money. Messengers and under clerks were dispensed with until about fifteen thousand dollars had been saved. The purpose to make existing accommodations businesslike led to a curtailment of the extension of the rural free delivery service by one million three hundred, and forty thousand dollars. The special payments to railways were cut by one hundred and sixtyseven thousand seven hundred and twenty-eight dollars a year; the incidental expenses of the carrier delivery by one hundred and thirtyfive thousand dollars a year; ;the incidental expenses of rural free delivery by twenty-five thousand dollars a year; the advertising schedules of foreign mails by twenty-five thousand dollars a year; and the cost of supplies, without diminishing the quantity save to stop waste and without affecting the quality save to improve it, by two hundred and eighteen thousand dollars a year.
As soon as experience had confirmed his judgment, he reassigned the divisions of the department so that bureaus which were closely related should be closely connected.
Formidable letter-writing gave way to stenographic memoranda. The messenger who carried a query from one bureau to another brought back the answer. The head of a division directed his inquiries across lots to the clerk who could answer them. The system was tightened everywhere. Not less than a dozen commissions of subordinates were engaged, under the direction of the Postmaster-General, in solving specific problems. The new control imposed upon the one thousand one hundred and sixty-nine employees of the department in Washington was extended to include the two hundred and eighty thousand employees outside Washington. The reform which removed a plum-crop of seventy thousand fourth-class post-offices from the reach of the politicians and made appointments to those offices dependent upon merit was worked nearer and nearer to the largest offices in the country. An earnest and practical inquiry was made to discover which has the better end of the railway mail bargain —the government or the railroads.
In Mr. Cortelyou’s advancement there has lately been another surprising leap forward—surprising to those who are unacquainted with his cumulative record of efficiency. His selection to be Secretary of the Treasury after the retirement of Leslie M. Shaw is high promotion, but the men. who best know him are most confident that he will administer his new department well. Hitherto, the public has seen in him a man with great talent for organization and detail—the talent of the bureaucrat. The larger problems of finance he will have to meet in a larger way; and the traits and Qualities which have enabled him to satisfy the de-
mancls he thus far has faced should serve him well in his new work. He now enters upon the final test oi* his abilities.
Though Mr. Cortelyou continues to be chairman of the Republican national committee, his office is not thronged with politicians. They have found his 'earnest purpose to improve the service rather than reward party workers, and his evident confidence in the caller’s desire to help, not a little disconcerting. At first they protested violently to him and away from him against the change in requirements for fourth-class postmasters. Now they have learned that unless the tiling they would ask of him is honestly conducive to an improved service they may as well save their time.
Such of them as do go find him at his desk throughout a long day—• rather a tall man, gray beyond his years, with searching eyes, a low voice, and a terse vocabulary. Until the last caller is dismissed there is no break in the calm courtesy with which he treats them all. He has been called a human machine. It is true he is wonderfully self controlled. He has never vet jumped overboard with an idea. Demands upon him have never piled up so high that the stress seemed to disturb him.
He has a fine capacity for indignation. The visitor who thinks it does not exist because the * voice is even and the manner quiet should have heard Mr. Cortelyou 'discuss, onp day. the assumption that the administration of a great party’s affairs is necessarily venal.
“We began in 1904,” he observ-
ed in his normal tone, 11 by saying that we would spend only half what was spent in 1900. We got through the campaign without — a — single — pledge — to — a — single — human — being.” There the words began to come out like shots from a rifle. “The only contributor who asked for a place after the election, as far as my knowledge goes, got this endorsement from me”—his voice had now grown hard as steel: “ 'He — hasn’t — a — single —' qualification — for — the — place.’ ” Then his tone returned to its usual quality, and his hands fell to his sides as he added laconically, “And you may be sure he didn’t get it.” As a brain to organize and the grit to do it are the chief factors in Mr. Cortelyou’s strength, love of his home and earnest Americanism are tlie chief factors of his character. He works at night—at a desk within reach of his family. Not all the demands of the Post-Office Department, frequent calls from the White House, unnumbered duties as president of a university club and officer of half a dozen other such institutions, and his work as Republican national chairman, have been allowed to interfere with his being a companion to his two boys. He would tell you, if you asked him, that home interests are the American’s first responsibility; and if you consider his family life, together with the splendid work he has done and is doing for the government, you will understand why the President has widened his circle of “most useful American citizens” to include his present Postmaster-General.