Reflections on Public Service

Last year at my 50th high school reunion, I renewed acquaintances with a dear friend.  His main job now is as a township trustee, and when I asked why, his answer was simple — “It’s a way to help people.”

I was reminded of that today as I watched excerpts from the funeral of President George H. W. Bush.  To this man, and this family, public service is not just a job with a paycheck, not just a chore with prestige, but a genuine chance to make a difference.  To quote his son, President George W. Bush, —

“Dad taught us that public service is noble and necessary, that one can serve with integrity and hold true to the important values like faith and family.  He strongly believed that it was important to give back to the community and country in which one lived.  He recognized that serving others enriched the giver’s soul.  To us, his was the brightest of 1000 points of light.”

Having lived through his presidency, I remember how his “1000 Points of Light” sentiment became an invitation to ridicule from his political opponents, but in retrospect I think he was onto something.  The world is so much better when everyone cooperates.

Criticism of Washington, D.C. and all it stands for has become something of a national sport.  But who elects our leaders?  It would’ve been so much easier if the Founding Fathers would’ve given us someone who could make our decisions for us.  There many titles that would’ve applied — king, emperor, sultan, czar, kaiser, supreme leader, president-for-life — the list is long on imagination, if short on substance.  But they chose the hard way for us — we have to pick our leaders by ourselves.

This chore is complicated by not having a ruling class.  In my lifetime, I’ve seen many different types of presidents, from the self-made leaders like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to the aristocratic families like the Kennedys and Bushes.  And if you don’t like the choices, you have every right to run yourself, like my high school classmate has done.  Or better yet, like all those hundreds of women who entered politics for this year’s election.

In remembering our 41st president, many of his friends voiced a sense of optimism that a higher ideal of public service, with its ability to compromise and move forward for the good of the nation, would someday return to national politics.  I certainly hope they’re right.


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