During the past 12 years, the good people at the Gallup Poll have at eight different times asked the same question: “Who do you regard as the greatest United States president?” Each time, one of three presidents — Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan — has finished first.
While the Gipper and JFK were both Irish-American contemporaries (Reagan was 6 years older) — each with a love of language, an infectious optimism and mastery of self-effacing humor — they were poles apart in their appraisals of the federal government and of those who chose to work for it.
Contrast the following presidential statements: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Plus: “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.” — Reagan
“Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: ‘I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.’” — Kennedy
Make no mistake about the dominant rhetorical perspective today. Reagan’s “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem,” and, “When you go to bed with the federal government, you get more than a good night’s sleep,” is more widely popular and accepted than is the discomforting Kennedy challenge to view and to choose public service as a truly noble pursuit or JFK’s now-dated summons to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
You know the drill. The vaunted private sector is efficient and competitive and tough, while the disparaged public sector has become a political piñata.
So how do we explain the near-universally praised and admired courage of Navy SEAL Team 6, which went on the most dangerous of missions in the dead of night halfway around the world into an armed enemy stronghold? These men and all their comrades are exceptional professionals and proven patriots. But every Navy SEAL, every Marine squad leader, every combat medic, every helicopter pilot is also a public servant. That’s right, a public employee.
Next time you hear your local know-nothing mouthing off about how people on a public payroll just couldn’t make it in the private sector, please interrupt and ask him exactly which men and women in uniform in which God-forgotten valley of death in Afghanistan are in it for the paycheck.
Why hasn’t business lured away such exceptionally courageous and talented individuals with signing bonuses or unlimited expense accounts? Don’t tell me U.S. companies do not need individuals with the unique combinations of discipline, leadership, fortitude and intelligence. Could it be instead that these are Americans who truly do care more about what they can do for their country than for what the Fortune 500 could do for their personal net worth?
Let us understand that the effectiveness of our government and, to a considerable degree, the success of our nation depends upon the quality and the commitment of our citizens who determine to make public service — military or civilian — and the common good larger than their own self-interest. Aren’t you glad that the heroes of Navy SEAL Team 6 were “from the government” and were there “to help”?
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.