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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 7:35 am | Fair 44º


Mark Shields: Heroes Without a Dollar Sign

Once again, public employees race to the rescue.

The crew of the Jan. 15 US Airways Flight 1549Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, first officer Jeffrey Skiles, and flight attendants Sheila Dail, Donna Dent and Doreen Walsh — deserve all the public praise they have received, and more, for their incredibly cool and heroically courageous leadership and actions in saving all 155 lives on board while “landing” their Airbus 320 on New York’s Hudson River.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
But as Sullenberger nobly and accurately emphasizes: There were countless other heroes that cold January day in addition to the admirable US Airways quintet. To listen to the three-and-a-half minutes of tapes released by the Federal Aviation Administration is to hear, for the first time, the composed know-how of Patrick Harten, a 10-year veteran air traffic controller. Under unimaginable pressure, Sullenberger, Harten and a number of other air traffic controllers (whose names I do not know) comprise the very definition of professionalism.

Even before the aircraft touched the arctic waters of the Hudson, the “first responders” were racing to the rescue. The crews of the New York Waterway and Circle Line ferries rushed to help. Once again, the men and women of the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York more than answered the call and met the challenge. Fire and rescue workers from New Jersey’s Hudson County Sheriff’s Department and fire and rescue teams provided valuable help.

This is a great American story with a New York City dateline. New York has been too much in the news of late with sordid stories about the rampant, almost criminal greed among the elites of the city’s financial district. New York, to read the headlines, must be a place where the smartest know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They are full of guile and know all the angles.

But the people who came to save strangers — strangers facing death by drowning in the Hudson — were also New Yorkers. These New Yorkers were not motivated by the almighty buck, however. Profit was not their feverish pursuit. Most of them were public servants — that’s right, public employees.

Do you remember the 343 New York firefighters who marched into the fires of Hell on 9/11? Just like the 114 firefighters who died in the line of duty last year and the 132 police officers who gave their lives, they too were public employees.

Public employees — that subspecies commentators and candidates love to belittle and attack. If they are not incompetent and surly, the caricature goes, they are zealous meddlers bent on crippling the initiative and ingenuity of the captains of capitalism. You’ve heard about them: the faceless bureaucrats who’ve never met a payroll.

It’s been too long since an American leader spoke publicly the way President John F. Kennedy did in his first State of the Union: “Let the public service be a proud and lively career.”

Yes, there are incompetent and surly public employees. But surliness and incompetence are not entirely alien to our vaunted private sector, either.

The next time you hear about a teacher giving up her free time to help a struggling child, or a social worker comforting a family in distress, or a young Marine risking his own life to save three buddies, please remember that they — like the firefighter and the cop and those “first responders” on the Hudson that fateful January afternoon — in addition to being American heroes, are all public employees.

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.

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