Public service has lost most of its old allure Fund-raising demands, media scrutiny creating aversion to high office

March 29, 1998|By JACOB HEILBRUNN

When Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced recently that he would not run again, it was not just the twilight of a family dynasty, but the crumbling of an ethos. While the Kennedys have provided some less-than-inspiring moments, they have also stood for the old-fashioned notion of public service. Kennedy's reluctance to campaign again suggests the extent that public service has become a thankless task.

Local and state officials are displaying a new aversion to running for higher office. Anyone who thinks congressmen spend most of their time mulling over legislation had better think again. Most of their energies are devoted to fund raising. Then there are the demands of constituents. Finally, there is the increasingly harsh media scrutiny.

The conventional wisdom is that the contempt many Americans feel for government has been around since the nation's founding. But this is not quite right. What is taking place today is something more profound - and disquieting. This attack on public service does not have its origins in the traditional suspicion of an encroaching federal power. The depths of hostility are more recent: 1968. With the student rebellions and anti-war demonstrations, idealism and moralism soared, and they led, paradoxically, to even more corrosion of the U.S. political system. The current paroxysm of vindictiveness and self-righteousness that has consumed Washington has reached its peak. The ultimate victims? The '60s couple who once proudly espoused moralism, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

At the outset of U.S. history, it could not have been more different. No doubt some public servants, such as Thomas Jefferson, were viewed with hostility and vilified. But the kind of scrutiny taken for granted today was simply not possible then. On the contrary, powerful families quietly exerted influence on the composition of government and its policies.

Despite the myth that the United States has always been an egalitarian society, the truth is, public service was initially carried out by a kind of home-grown aristocracy. The founding fathers were virtually all wealthy businessmen. Take George Washington, an American Cincinnatus, a gentleman farmer who laid down the cares of office to retreat to his plantation. Washington may have profited somewhat on land deals as president, but his devotion to establishing the new nation cannot be sullied even by revisionist historians.

Then there is the Adams family (no, not the television show). It provides possibly the best example of the dedication to public service. John Quincy Adams, son of a president, became a congressman after he himself had served as president. He was more effective in Congress than in the White House, serving as a powerful voice against the pro-slavery South. His son, Charles Francis Adams, served as U.S. ambassador to England during the Civil War; and his son, Henry Adams, wrote in his autobiography that it was simply expected that someone born on State Street would enter government and eventually become president. Yet, Henry himself never achieved that goal, ending up a weary observer of the political fray.

Consider Theodore Roosevelt. As New York City police commissioner, Roosevelt cleaned up the force and went on to become governor of the state. As president, Roosevelt may have had to back away from the progressive agenda, only to embrace it later as head of the Bull Moose wing, but the idea of progressivism had sunk deep into America. The notion that government can be an efficient, rationalizing agency to re-engineer public and social life lasted through most of the century.

It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, TR's cousin, who finally forced the political system to address the plight of poor Americans. For advisers, Roosevelt turned to fellow patricians, who become known as the wise men, everyone from Henry L. Stimson, a liberal Republican, to Cordell Hull as secretary of state. After the war, a new set of wise men emerged, including Dean Acheson, George F. Kennan and Paul H. Nitze. The wisdom of these men has been questioned, but not their dedication to public service. Their instincts were for avoiding ideology and embracing compromise that allowed government to function effectively. They preferred operating quietly in the corridors of power; the notion of testifying before committees, let alone going on television shows, would have been abhorrent.

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