When my father died in 2013, it fell to me to write his obituary.
I knew the broad outline of his life, but there were certain key details that even my mother and uncles couldn’t sort out with certainty, so I turned to the internet to see if I could find some traces of him: Resumes, articles, that sort of thing.
To my considerable surprise, I ran across a detailed 1992 document prepared by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, a private association devoted to collecting and preserving the stories of America’s diplomats. My father had been a consular officer abroad for several years, but by the time the interview was conducted, he was probably the foremost expert in the State Department, perhaps in the whole country, on immigration and visa law. While most of the interview was fairly technical, it started with a brief biography, which was helpful to me, and also some introductory remarks about himself.
“I grew up in a very, very political household, all very strong New Dealers,” he told the interviewer. “As a strong New Dealer, my father had come to Washington at the beginning of the Second World War and worked for the government. So I grew up in Washington and I grew up in this very political environment.”
“I also grew up in an environment where government service was seen to be a good thing, a useful thing, even a noble thing,” he added. “My father used to say to me that as far as he was concerned, there were only two really useful careers: one of them was teaching and the other was government service.”
I could hear my father’s voice saying these words. He was immensely proud of his service to the government, starting in the U.S. Navy and extending to nearly 40 years with the State Department (with a brief spell as a public school teacher in between). It caused him intense irritation when Ronald Reagan campaigned for limited government by saying things like “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
Whatever you may think about the scope and role of government, he said, rhetoric like that undercut and devalued the very serious and dedicated work of the people who undertake a life of public service.
My father came from a long line of public servants. His father had worked for the Office of Price Administration during World War II, part of the wartime management of the economy; his grandfather had been a city council member and later two-term mayor of Pittsburgh. His mother was a public school teacher and came from the Tucker and Washington families, whose connections to Virginia and national government went well back into the colonial era (including the rather well-known career of Great Uncle George).
When my turn came, I did flirt with a diplomatic or military career, but the vagaries of life led me to journalism. Even though it is not a public-sector job, however, I still view that very much as a career of public service.
And I retain the reverence for people willing to enter formal public service, whether as a staffer or elected official, a reverence handed down through generations of my family.
This has been heavy on my mind in recent weeks as I have followed the coverage of the ongoing federal government shutdown.
I’ll leave aside the politics and posturing that led to the shutdown itself. What’s bothering me is hearing the stories of the workers themselves, who feel abandoned and fear for their financial and professional futures.
These are not people who went into government service for glory or riches. You don’t get rich being a TSA screener, a Park Service ranger, a USDA meat inspector, or an immigration law expert at the State Department.
There is no doubt that plenty of government workers were drawn to their careers by the relative job security and the prospect of a secure pension, which is no sure bet in the modern private labor market. But I know from first-hand experience that government workers are aware of the enormous public trust placed in them. They are inspired by the idea that they are carrying out an important public service, however bureaucratic or obscure their specific job may be. They are carrying out the people’s business, and they know it.
My heart breaks for those workers, who as I write this on Wednesday, have no idea if they will get paid on Friday. By and large, these are not wealthy people. Just like any private sector worker, their comfortable working- or middle-class existence can be upended by a lost—or even delayed—paycheck.
It angers me that we have come to a place where the political system and the public places so little value on their service that we can leave federal workers be used as pawns in an ideological game.
They deserve better. And if that is really how little we as a society value our public servants, then we will eventually get the government we deserve.