Hubert Work was a central, albeit inconspicuous, figure in the administrations of presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, whom he served as postmaster-general and secretary of the interior between the years 1922 and 1928. Still, his activities remain largely unheralded.
Born on a farm in rural Pennsylvania on July 3, 1860, he studied medicine and went out west, settling first in Greeley, Colorado, then in Pueblo. Active in Republican party politics from early on, he was chairman of the Colorado state Republican convention in the contentious year of 1908, and he also was a regular Republican delegate to the national convention that nominated William Howard Taft. During the campaign of 1920, Republican chairman Will Hays named him to organize farmers in support of the Harding-Coolidge ticket, and after that ticket’s resounding victory, he became assistant to Hays’ postmaster-general. When Hays left that post to head the National Association of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors in 1922, Harding picked Work to succeed him, surely in part because he remembered and appreciated his efforts on behalf of the ticket.
Serving for little more than a year as postmaster-general, Work focused on businesslike efficiency in the department’s operations. After the resignation of secretary of the interior Albert B. Fall in March, 1923, the appointment of Work by Harding, over a number of other names, was a calculated move. Fall, even before being enmeshed in the Teapot Dome scandal, had been the target of conservationists, and his policies had been largely unpopular. Harding wanted a man who was in touch and sympathy with the “great West which is so intimately and deeply concerned,” and he wanted a man he could trust.
Work thus inherited a department under siege, internally beset by infighting and under assault from the outside because it was perceived as corrupt and inefficient and hostile to conservation. Work believed that much of this reputation was undeserved. He emphasized a spirit of public service for all department employees, noting in a memorandum that “underlying every government activity is the idea of service to the people. it is the only excuse for the existence of your job and my job, and if we acquire the habit of considering the public as a necessary evil incident to our employment, we fail to justify our continuance in office.” He also believed the federal government to be inefficient, and reorganized the department using business principles. He brought in employees (today we would call them consultants) from the business world, abolished duplicate structures, cut expenditures, and made wide use of competitive bidding for department contracts.
Work was not shy about publicizing his successes with the audience that counted most – the president. He submitted annual reports to the White House, trumpeting results such as reductions in the staffing and overall budget. Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, surely found Work’s approach congenial and his activities impressive.
On teh all-important subject of conservation, Work strove to apply the principles of efficiency to natural ressources, condemning the “reckless use of our people’s inheritance from nature.” Coming out as a conservationist, his policy was to make conservation the law of the land, and he particularly championed the cause of reclamation. Coolidge backed some of this, unless the expense of the programs ran counter to his desire for reduced government expenditures. Still, large reclamation projects such as the Colorado River project, were greenlighted during his term.
Work was unsuccessful in curtailing unauthorized grazing on public lands, but he did lay the groundwork for the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. He also was involved in the establishment of the Federal Oil Conservation Board. The number and acreage of national parks and monuments also increased during his term. As for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Work felt that the department had to redress wrongs done to the Indians. Overall, he brought the Department of the Interior back into public favor.
Work was political enough to cultivate good ties with the presidents he served and with the Republican establishment, frequently campaigning in the Mountain West for the Republican cause. When he resigned in mid-1928 to return to medical practice, Coolidge wrote him a (relatively) long and warm letter, indicating that Work’s conduct in office had always been “exceedingly satisfactory.” He added: “I also wish to add my appreciation of your constant and unfailing consideration toward me personally and your loyal cooperation in carrying out the policies of the adminstration.”
Work was active in the movement to secure the 1928 Republican nomination for his cabinet colleague Herbert Hoover. He returned to Colorado after the election, where he died on Dec. 14, 1942.
(note: the article "Hubert Work and the Department of the Interior, 1923 - 28" by Eugene P. Trani, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Jan. 1970, pp. 31 - 40, served as the central source for this post)