He saw government’s sausage being made

Alan Rosenthal *58 *61 in the early 1970s
Alan Rosenthal *58 *61 in the early 1970s
AP Images

March 18, 1932 – July 10, 2013

Over nearly five decades, Rutgers University political scientist Alan Rosenthal *58 *61 studied, advised, and prodded state legislators, but his most memorable observations may have come from a 2001 essay in State Legislatures magazine in which he tested the old saw that “there are two things you don’t want to see being made — sausage and legislation.” Rosenthal decided to tour a facility of the Ohio Packing Co. in Columbus, which turned out 40,000 pounds of sausage a day; he concluded that the old metaphor had outlived its usefulness.

“The process of making sausage ought not be minimized; it is complex,” Rosenthal wrote. “But it is also comprehensible. In an hour-and-a-half tour, I could figure it out. I have been a student of the legislative process for more than 30 years, but I still can’t figure it out. The legislature is too human, too democratic, and too messy to be totally comprehensible.”

No wonder Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist, calls Rosenthal a “political anthropologist.”

Rosenthal, who died of cancer at age 81, had worked at Rutgers since earning a Princeton Ph.D., including a long tenure as director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Rosenthal worked with state legislators across the country to institute best practices — an effort widely credited with professionalizing what had been a marginalized branch of state government. He convinced lawmakers to raise salaries of legislators, add staff, computerize the bill-tracking process, and establish nonpartisan research offices. He urged them to nurture civility, curb partisanship, and seek consensus through strong leadership.

“Alan rescued state legislatures and legislators from the garbage bin by dint of his intelligence, persistence, humor, and judgment,” says Gordon MacInnes, a former Democratic legislator in New Jersey who now runs a think tank in Trenton. “He worked his way into the confidence of suspicious politicos because he was sensible, smart, and funny.”

Rosenthal earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard, but he spurned Harvard Law to join the Army, where he worked as a spy in West Germany. Another unusual pursuit: He occasionally appeared as a clown for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Rosenthal was “absolutely one of a kind and larger than life,” says Cliff Zukin, a fellow Rutgers political scientist. “Alan was irreverent, impatient, brilliant, creative, and playful. He never realized there was a box to think out of.” Rosenthal also was opinionated and disliked journalists, whom he saw “as getting in the way,” says Zukin. Karl Kurtz, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Trust for Representative Democracy, recalls Rosenthal’s impatience with “long-windedness and scholarly malarkey.” 

Toward the end of his life, Rosenthal felt conflicted about the state of American politics, according to those who knew him.

“He was disappointed,” Zukin says. “For him, the legislative arena is where conflicts went to be resolved, which required compromise, some trust, and good will. He would despair that institutions had stopped working, at least on the national level. He felt more hopeful about the states.” 

Louis Jacobson ’92 writes a column on state politics for Governing magazine.