A Salute to Public Service
Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 2, 2018
Interestingly, perhaps, the strongest images being drawn from the life of George H.W. Bush were about a commitment to public service. You know: honor, duty and serving others outside of making a living.
Indeed, along with John McCain, Aretha Franklin and others whose lives have been celebrated in their passing, that idea of public service is an important component of what made them leaders in public life.
Perhaps, then, when we look back on the Trump era, those two words are missing altogether. In their place are self-promotion, gut-thinking, America First and the insistence on being right as this president rides roughshod over anything that looks to be a traditional value or protocol. Indeed, the prime directive of this administration is policy that helps the president and his family in their own businesses and the luxurious life styles to which they claim fealty.
Over the years before his presidency, Donald Trump built his successful financial empire on the work of others. I don’t believe I have ever heard someone salute his philanthropy or charity work, his speaking out on behalf of those out of the limelight, or his personal time given to pro bono work like tutoring. Indeed the Donald Trump biography is about a man who climbs over others’ backs to take advantage at every turn, even at the price of putting down people and institutions that get in his way. That is why is political life is marked by public insulting of foes and the litter of court challenges to every business venture he undertook.
There seems to me to be something lasting in all this beyond the Trump era examples.
It is as if public service is among those few things that we all agree we want in our leaders, that special ability to put the interests of others ahead of their own, fight for fairness and forgo profit or get-aheadness for sake of a principle.
Personally, I find this strange. Since leaving my career job six years ago, I have welcomed the chance to spend my time pursuing public service in the public schools, with immigrants, on behalf of the arts in community and in playing music. For me, these are activities that speak for themselves, that pay dividends just by doing them. Seeing a second grader advance quickly from beginner levels just because he was born in a non-English speaking country is extremely rewarding, for example. Hearing speakers of other languages cope confidently with our English idioms tells me that they are preparing themselves for work here.
But not with our president.
“Never before has our country elected a president without a history of public service,” read an Orlando Sentinel editorialjust before the election. “Most of our previous leaders worked their way up the political ladder. Others were generals who served the public on the battle field. Trump, despite years in the spotlight, is dangerously unknown. His first debate appearance was widely panned for its lack of substance. . . his tirades and tweets have raised even more questions about his temperament.”
A Washington Post columnist noted that “Most presidents come into office saying their administration will adhere to the highest ethical standards, and those who work for them will either be committed solely to the interests of the public or they’ll be shown the door. Donald Trump didn’t bother to say that, perhaps because the thought didn’t occur to him. In any organization Trump leads, there will always be two guiding principles: Show absolute loyalty to the boss, and then get yours. Which means that public service, in the form of a commitment to setting aside one’s own material interests at least for a time and focusing only on working for the good of the American people is for suckers.”
“The loss of faith in Washington that has carried Donald Trumpto the White House dims the future of public service,” read a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial.
Trump has made a big deal about paying homage to U.S. military troops, then failed on Veterans’ Day to visit military graves in Europe or at Arlington National Cemetery because it was rainy on those days.
The president has saluted the public service activities of people like Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, but never has spent an afternoon trying to help a youngster learn go read.
The Trump administration has made it difficult for people to want to serve in a White House that is as erratic and idiosyncratic as Trump’s said U.S. Newslast March. “There’s no question that it not only demeans the value of public service, but undermines the trust the public has in public institutions,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group dedicated to making government more efficient and effective. “Those are all bad for democracy.”
Trump might think I’m a sucker. George H.W. Bush might have recognized it as something else.