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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement": Constance Berry Newman

Constance Ernestine Berry Newman is an attorney and diplomat widely regarded as one of the most effective public administrators of her era. Seven of the positions she held in federal government service were presidential appointments, and five required Senate confirmation. Most notably, she served as an assistant secretary of state for African affairs from July 2004 until April 2005. In 2019, the business publication Government Executive included her in the inaugural class of administrators selected for the Government Hall of Fame. I discuss Newman in my forthcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: "A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement."

She was born in Chicago, Illinois, on July 8, 1935. Her father was a surgeon who graduated from the University of Chicago Medical School and her mother, a nurse and social worker, graduated from Northwestern University. Because he wanted to become active in the civil rights movement, her father moved the family to Tuskegee, Alabama, while Constance was still a girl. She grew up there, graduating from the Tuskegee Institute High School in 1952.

Berry attended Bates College in Maine, graduating in 1956. Bates had a strong pre-law program, and Newman had already decided on a legal career. Because her father was president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was interested in legal issues from a young age. She believed that law school was the best way to contribute to civil rights. She earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1959.

Following law school, Newman moved to France for three years. She was married to an air force lawyer, and he was stationed there. During those years, she worked for the University of Maryland, an institution that offered classes at military bases throughout Europe. The couple did not have children.

Her husband secured a job working for the U.S. Department of Justice after he was discharged from the air force. The couple moved to Washington, D.C. and Newman attempted to find a job as an attorney, but to no avail. The opportunities for female lawyers of color were limited in that era. Reflecting on her efforts, she reckoned that she “must have put in—I don’t know—20, 30 applications [in] different places and was unable to get any position.” Rebuffed at every turn, she became a clerk typist before sitting for the Federal Service Entrance Exam. Her score was high enough to earn her a professional position within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In the ensuing years, she worked her way through a variety of positions within the federal executive branch. “I went into the Personnel Department and worked my way up there until I left and started working on Commissions,” she recalled of her entry level position within the Interior Department. “I worked in the Kerner Commission on the riots and the Hatch Act Commission.” She was referring to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, generally called the "Kerner Commission" after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr. The Kerner Commission was an 11-member presidential commission created by Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1967 to investigate urban riots. The Hatch Act is a law enacted in 1939 to prohibit certain types of political activities by federal executive branch officials.

“Then I went to the War on Poverty and worked with migrant farm workers,” she continued, referring to the Johnson administration’s Great Society program within the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) designed to uplift impoverished Americans. “I did that for almost three years. Then I started moving into political positions.”

Her litany of political positions included a stint as special assistant to Elliott Richardson, secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (forerunner of the Department of Health and Human Services). In 1971, President Richard Nixon appointed her serve as director of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a domestic version of the Peace Corps. For three years beginning in 1973, she was the director of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). By 1976, she headed a unit devoted to Indian and elderly affairs when she served as the assistant director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Newman was especially fond of her time at the CPSC. “Well, it was exciting because it was new,” she said of the Commission. “We were setting up a whole new regulatory agency to regulate consumer products. Some had been regulated previously to some extent by Health, Education, and Welfare but not in the way the new law was structured.” The agency sought a middle approach, “trying to strike a balance between regulating the industries and encouraging industries to regulate themselves.”

Newman explained that of the appointments, “I found interest in all of them.” She stayed because she was interested in the cause and believed that she could contribute to the agency’s mission. “When I stop being interested, I usually leave.” She was always looking for a new issue and a new challenge. “I’m just basically a risk-taker. And I think for women who are interested in moving up, they have to be risk-takers.”

By 1977, Newman had moved into the private sector. She co-founded a consulting firm specializing in government regulatory procedures, Newman and Hermanson Company. From 1982 until 1984, she was associated with the Institute of American Business. Later in the 1980s, she worked on a World Bank project on Africa, living for a time in the South African country of Lesotho.

Newman was out of government service during the Reagan administration. She had worked on the campaign and the transition from the Carter administration, but she was heavily involved in her company as well as the World Bank project. By 1989, she was ready to return to government service. That year, President George H. W. Bush appointed her the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), an independent federal agency that oversees the United States civil service. During her three years at OPM, Newman worked to revitalize the organization by engaging with labor unions, the personnel community, and managers' associations. These stakeholders performed strategic planning exercises to improve personnel efficiency. She stayed in that post until 1992, when she served as undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institute, a position she held until 2000.

In 2001, Newman became the assistant administrator for Africa of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID administers economic and humanitarian assistance to countries and people across the globe. Three years later, Secretary of State Colin Powell swore her in as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs.

Despite the well-known challenges in working with Africa, Constance Newman was optimistic about African affairs. “You only get news on the bad part,” she observed. “You only get the news of corruption here and there and what’s happening in Chad. But you don’t hear that much about what’s going good in Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Senegal. These are all countries with growth rates around 4 percent, where the per capita income is improving, and for now, on the continent except for Darfur and northern Uganda and now and then there’s still some conflict in parts of the Congo, there’s not a major conflict.”

Once upon a time, armed conflict consumed much of the continent, but times had changed. “Now you have a mix of leaders, but there are some who are very responsible, who are not corrupt, who step down when their terms are over. But you don’t hear about that.” Reforms had occurred thanks in no small measure to various programs and partnerships. In Newman’s view, “the Africans through the African Union and through the New Partnership for African Development are owning the problems, and they are having peer review processes where they look at one another. That’s what is I think hopeful about the continent.”

During her years of government service, Newman observed many presidents and their advisers. “I am most impressed with leaders who know what it is they believe, and they can communicate that,” she remarked in a 2006 interview. “They are honest and transparent. And yet they are willing to listen to other viewpoints and are willing to change, to compromise or to change when they find that they’re position was wrong in the first instance.”

In Newman’s opinion, Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush exhibited these characteristics. President Nixon did not. “I didn’t really deal that directly with President Nixon,” she admitted. Nonetheless, she had observed his performance in office. “I think he wasn’t that transparent. He just wasn’t that transparent, and he kept his cards up close to the vest. I don’t know how flexible he really was.

By the time she granted an oral history interview in 2006, Newman was advising the African Development Foundation on the best method for establishing programs in Somalia. She also served as special counsel to the Carmen Group on African Affairs. The Group, she explained, “is a lobbying, government relations, business development group." Newman’s responsibility was to build the firm’s practice in Africa. The goal was to help “U.S. businesses interested in doing business in Africa on how to go about doing that, where to go, which countries are riskier than others, and then also other representation.”

Reflecting on her long career, Newman recognized the difficulties facing women in the ranks of government service. “I think that women of today have more opportunities than we did when we started,” she explained. “However, I think some of the tools and strategies that we used they ought to continue to use them, which basically is that you work hard every day. You do your homework every day.” Balancing the work-life balance is important, she suggested, because women remain both caregivers for their families as well as professionals in the workplace.

As for Black women, they “have additionally to be concerned about civil rights and poverty for African Americans. There has been a tension in the lives of African American women with regards to using their time and effort and resources on women’s rights and not on the rights of African Americans. And so some African American women have not been involved in women’s rights issues. I always was just because I felt you needed to do both. There wasn’t an either/or.” At the same time, “there has to be a recognition there still are some problems that African American women have because they are African American that are not problems associated with women of other races. There are still racial divides in this country. People ask me often when you were discriminated against, was it because you were a woman or African American? I said I hadn’t the foggiest idea, and I never spent a lot of time trying to figure it out because my view was if you spend a lot of time sulking and trying to figure all that out, they’d won because you’re using up all your energy responding to somebody who is discriminating.”

Newman received numerous awards during her tenure in government service. She received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service in 1985. To be eligible, a person must demonstrate “outstanding service of significance to the Department of Defense involving personal sacrifice and inconvenience in the performance or assistance of such service; and motivation by patriotism, good citizenship, and a sense of public responsibility.” In 1998, she received the “Washingtonian of the Year” award. The Smithsonian Institute awarded her the Joseph Henry Medal for exceptional service in 2000. Bates College (1972), Amherst College (1980), and Central State University, a public, historically black land-grant university in Wilberforce, Ohio (1991), awarded her honorary degrees. After she retired from public service, she taught courses on leadership at Georgetown University.

Given her extensive experience as a practitioner as well as her academic focus on leadership, it is little wonder that Constance Berry Newman was an effective leader throughout her career. She truly was a public service exemplar.

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