As readers of this blog should know FEMA was a creation of the Presidency of James Earl Carter. Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978 was approved by Carter and transmitted to the Congress on May 20, 1978. Not disapproved it became effective on April 1, 1979 by virtue of issuance of E.O. 12127 (an implementation date created by an OMB staffer James Jordan who thought the use of April 1st was a great joke on FEMA and Carter). The complete implementation of FEMA came with the issuance of E.O. 12148 on July 15th, 1979. During the first months of FEMA's existence the Senate Confirmed PAS U.S. Fire Administrator, ES LEVEL V, was the acting Director while the search for a permanent director went on.
Attention focused finally on George W. Elsey, President of the American Red Cross. Elsey had been President of ARC for over 20 years at that point. He declined the appointment on the basis that he would have to surrender his many corporate board memberships, a lucrative aspect to his Presidency of ARC. He did suggest an unemployed friend who badly needed a job. That friend was John Macy. Elsey and Macy went back as friends a long long time all the way to FDR's administration when as young interns they were mentored by Clark Clifford and maintained among other chores the WAR MAP ROOM for FDR. Both men had one thing in common, uncommonly handsome men.
Macy had been a young graduate of Wesleyan College in Connecticut before he joined the new deal largely through family connections, as was typical of most new dealers except the Communists. At any rate Macy rose eventually through the ranks to be Chairman of the US Civil Service Commission, an organization that lasted until broken into three pieces by another Carter Reorganization. When NIXON came to office Macy was fired as Chairman of the Commission. Because his career was largely as civil servant or appointee, Macy who was not a wealthy man, asked NIXON if he could stay on long enough to qualify for a federal retirement package. NIXON okayed that on the condition that Macy would help Halderman and Erlicman undermine the civil service system to place Republicans in civil service jobs. This Macy did and then about the time NIXON left office he retired. He then invested his federal pension benefits in a consulting firm in which he held a partnership interest. In 1979 that firm was heavily involved in consulting for the Government of Iran--the Shah--and it was to experience a huge loss when the Shah was overthrown. Macy had been the lead in designing a civil service system for the Shah.
At any rate, unemployed and having lost his pension and other monies to the Shah's overthrow, Macy was in DC and very eligible for appointment. In the meantime the search team for a FEMA Director had been through over a dozen candidates including Elsey. Macy was nominated and confirmed in late August of 1979. He was to serve until his departure on January 20, 1981, with the advent of the Reagan Administration. He was retained by outsiders to argue that the federal civil service retirement system was too generous and should be restructured. He had not either redeposited his money to qualify nor served long enough so he was embittered over the lack of a federal pension. Subpoenaed in a case involving five Carter FEMA regional directors who sued to keep their jobs, arguing that they were not really political appointees, he had a heart attack during the deposition and was revived by two FEMA employees performing CPR. He lived about 18 months and then died from a second heart attack.
So what of Macy's tenure as Director FEMA? Well one eight ball he was put behind was to inherit all the PAS appointees from the predecessor agencies with the except of DCPA, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agencies. This was not helpful to Macy since each had their own constituency but given that the perception was Carter might not be re-elected, which of course he was not-although he came much closer to beating Reagan than many remember--it probably was the best FEMA could expect. Macy was to be confronted by the Mariel Boatlift and Mt. St. Helens, but the biggest struggle was over the core-melt accident (unknown at the time) of Three Mile Island and the transfer of offsite saftey responsibilty to FEMA at the very end of the Carter Administration. This was done by press release in part which indicates the competence of that administration.
Macy given his knowledge of civil services rules designed a new position description for generalist EMERGENCY MANGEMENT employees. Not having a technical background himself, and in fact having a healthy disrespect for lawyers in the civil service, Macy disliked intensely those with advanced degrees in science and engineering. FEMA inherited over 300 people with advanced degrees when it was formed. When I retired in October 1999 it had under 50. Macy believed everyone could do everything and the civil service 301 series was his blueprint for the EM series.
My belief is Macy was not a well man when he became Director and FEMA did not help Macy's health. That said he looked good, was enough of a leader to have a following from those he retained from the FEMA's Reorganization Project Team, and at least allowed FEMA to become strong enough that it survived its next chapter under the Ronald Reagan Administration. His Executive Secretary Helen Hill a very competent person acted as his guard dog and almost no one ever got to see Macy or get studies or paper work to him except through her. She also departed on January 20, 1981. Both John Macy and Helen Hill's offices had absolutely no documents in them when the new FEMA leadership team (acting) of Bud Gallegher and Don Young and Jim Delaney arrived.