Watching the national political conventions these past several weeks, it’s possible to detect many threads and currents carried through the political rhetoric and commentary we saw. I found myself returning over and over again to the idea of public service, of giving your own time and effort to make your community, nation and world a better place. Much of the world’s public service is quiet and goes unnoticed and must be called to our attention, such as the inspiring story of Captain Humayun Khan who died in Iraq serving in the Army and whose parents appeared before the Democratic Convention. Of course in his case, Captain Khan’s father also drew the attention of Donald Trump, who lets no critique go unanswered, and whose business career does not seem to have exposed him to the ethos of public service.
But today I do not want to only focus on Donald Trump, or the growing coarseness of America’s political dialogue, but on the notion of public service. I heard the value of public service eloquently articulated by President Obama last week. It was a moving talk and one that restated what John F. Kennedy once communicated to this then seven year old Brooklyn schoolboy when he implored us to “ask not what your country could do for you, ask what you could do for your country.” Yes, JFK wanted power, but he wanted something else. As a young man he lost his older brother Joseph to war, and he could easily have retreated into a life of pleasure and fun. But while JFK certainly had fun, in the end he answered to a higher calling.
First, he served in the Navy and looked to understand and influence world affairs. Then he entered electoral politics to achieve his sense of vision, values and ideals. Our current President, Barack Obama came into office with similar aspirations. Early in his Presidency JFK had to deal with a fiasco at the Bay of Pigs and early in his first term President Obama had to deal with an economy in free fall. Despite these challenges and a series of relentless political and constant racist attacks, after nearly eight years in office President Obama has learned a great deal about the promise of America and the challenges we face. Like JFK, his goal has been to serve. And the other night Obama once again used his own story to highlight the importance of community and service:
“You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign about what America has lost … And it’s got me thinking about … my Kansas grandparents and the things they taught me when I was growing up. See, my grandparents, they came from the heartland. Their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago. I don’t know if they have their birth certificates — but they were there… And my grandparents explained that folks in these parts, they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness, or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, what they valued were traits like honesty and hard work, kindness, courtesy, humility, responsibility, helping each other out. That’s what they believed in. True things. Things that last. The things we try to teach our kids.”
And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas. They weren’t limited to small towns. … My grandparents knew these values weren’t reserved for one race. They could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter. In fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids, living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke, a baseball cap or a hijab. America has changed over the years. But these values that my grandparents taught me — they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever, still cherished by people of every party, every race, every faith. They live on in each of us. What makes us American, what makes us patriots is what’s in here. That’s what matters.
While I agree with the President, it’s also clear that a piece of our culture seems to have absorbed the idea that showy conspicuous consumption is a sign of success and is an end in itself. From the Kardashians to the Trumps, image, glitter and gossip seem to have replaced work, generosity and public service as core values. Caring for others is for suckers, those unable to make a better deal for themselves. Where does this dollar-focused world leave those who have served as Peace Corps Volunteers, members of the armed forces, local first responders, teachers and nurses? Where does public service fit in this cash and carry culture? Where does the idea of public service fit in with the politics of “Making America Great Again”?
As President Obama observed, this idea of helping others is one response we frequently see to the tragedies that frighten us and terrify our communities. We do this as individuals, and even as a nation. Treaties such as the one that built NATO may seem one sided, because they are designed to institutionalize the practice that strong nations protect weaker nations from bullies. We didn’t bill Britain for fighting the Nazis. We joined in common cause because it was the right thing to do. The police don’t invoice the prey for protecting then from the predator. Protection is what they do. Service to others, service to humanity is a value we pursue, not a program in search of a business plan.
Business principles have a role in government, and some elements of competent management in the private sector can be brought into the public sector. But the public and private sectors are quite different. They are supposed to be different. The fundamental, irreducible function of government is to protect the population it serves. This can include protecting the nation from foreign threats but it can also include protecting the weak, the elderly, children and those unable to succeed in our economy. The function of business is to generate wealth. Government can help business by building infrastructure and creating practical rules regulating pollution, labor and capital markets. Businesses can serve the public good, but their main job is to make money. The work of business and government overlaps, and the skills of public and private management can complement each other, but public service is not designed to turn a profit. It is designed to serve something called the public interest.
Encouraging public service requires constant effort at promoting a value and sense of ethics that is essential to national well-being. As President Obama observed, it is an enduring value, but it should never be taken for granted. Government is far from perfect, and corrupt and incompetent leaders mislead many of those most dedicated to service. The broad consensus of shared values is the basis of our political stability and that stability is why the American story remains one of positive, forward moving progress. The diversity of our community, and the selflessness of our public servants continue to make America a shining city on a hill. We need to do better, but we should be grateful for what we have.