Sunday, April 13, 2014

In Praise of Public Service: Bill Clinton in Philadelphia

We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more. – Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia last week in an event Andrea and I had the privilege of attending. He provided the keynote address at a benefit for the Temple Law Foundation, which helps repay the student loans of recent law graduates committed to careers in public service. He was, as always, an engaging speaker. Funny, warm and passionate, he is a master story teller and educator, an inspiring motivator and thoughtful commentator. In listening to his talk, and the question-and-answer session with Governor Ed Rendell afterwards, I was reminded of his intellectual depth and mental sharpness, of how easily he speaks with authority and historical perspective on almost any topic. Personal failings notwithstanding, he easily ranks among the best and brightest of 20th century presidents.

Looking trim and fit, if slightly older and greyer than when I met him briefly in 1998, President Clinton conversed freely and easily about a wide range of topics. He spoke about his days as a young law student at Yale, when he worked six jobs over a three-year span to pay his way through school; of his early years as a law professor at the University of Arkansas, where he taught everything from Admiralty and Federal Jurisdiction to Constitutional Law before seeking a career in politics. He joked about the day his law professor caught him in class reading a novel by Garcia Gabriel Marquez, which he insisted was far more interesting than the law of taxation. The former president had the crowd of several thousand in attendance at the Liacouras Center in the palm of his hands.

A pair of reading glasses resting on his nose, President Clinton discussed the importance of the rule of law to the economic and social progress of developing nations; and to equality of opportunity, inclusive government, and the advance of democracy. He praised individuals willing to dedicate their lives to public service and work for the common good. He explained that “public service” need not be limited to a life in government and emphasized the benefits of non-governmental organizations to finding solutions to the world’s problems. He noted the work of the Clinton Global Initiative in helping reduce the price of life-saving drugs in the world’s poorest countries, an effort that has saved millions of lives in Africa and Asia.

Clinton noted that we live in the most globally interdependent age in history, a fact fraught with opportunities and challenges. It is why a commitment to public service is so important. “Service liberates you,” he explained, “because you cannot serve without understanding the importance of our common humanity.” Individually and collectively, we must continue to “develop habits of mind and practice that bring us together rather than tear us apart.” It is a refreshing message in this era of ideological rigidity.

I had just begun my fifth year as an Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia when Clinton was first elected President in 1992. Although the role of a federal prosecutor varies little from one presidential administration to the next, I was exalted and relieved when Clinton took the oath of office the following January. Twelve years earlier, the Reagan Revolution had swept into Washington on an anti-government, anti-public servant platform that defined the times and altered the nation’s course. Since arriving in Washington as a young law student in 1982, I heard almost every day that government was the problem, not the solution. Although I had never worked harder or with more passion than when I was a front-line prosecutor trying criminal cases in the District of Columbia, the Gospel according to Reagan taught that government service was not something of which to be proud, that as a government employee I was simply the source of the country’s economic and fiscal woes. That I worked long hours under intense pressure representing the people of the city and the United States, contending with defense attorneys, judges, and hostile witnesses while defending the actions of law enforcement officers and crime victims in an often futile effort to make the streets a little safer, was little appreciated by the anti-government crowd. 

For me, it was as if the sun rose the morning Clinton took office. “I challenge a new generation of young Americans to a season of service,” he said in his inaugural address on that bright January day. “There is so much to be done.” A pro-business Democrat, he understood that government could not solve all of the nation’s ills, but he recognized what Presidents Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Bush, did not – that the vast majority of public servants are committed to good government and good citizenship. I knew and worked with hundreds of truly dedicated people who took seriously their work and who felt a sense of duty and mission to their country – prosecutors and public defenders, social workers and researchers, scientists and engineers, doctors and health care workers, diplomats and security experts. Finally, we had a president who believed in what we did and recognized our efforts to make the world a better place.

Clinton was smart and energetic and wanted to instill the spirit of service that the nation’s leaders had abandoned and ridiculed for so long. The world truly seemed brighter when Clinton took over as President. “We must do what America does best,” he declared, “offer more opportunity to all and demand more responsibility from all.” As Maya Angelou elegantly stated during the inaugural poem:
Here on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out; and into your sister’s eyes; and into your brother’s face, your country; and say simply, very simply, with hope: Good morning.
Clinton understands instinctually the complex nature of government and politics. As president, he combined fiscal discipline with investments in education, health care, and technology. In his first year in office, he established the AmeriCorps program and signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act. Over the objections of some in his own party, he opened foreign markets and expanded the avenues of global trade. Despite strong Republican opposition, he passed budgets that combined needed tax increases with appropriate cuts in government spending, achieving by the end of his presidency the largest budget surpluses and debt reduction in American history. And he did it all without sacrificing major advances in environmental protection, scientific research, job training, and military preparedness. Throughout his two terms, U.S. poverty levels fell, over 22.5 million jobs were created, home ownership reached its highest levels ever, and unemployment reached its lowest levels since the 1960’s.

Like all presidents before and since, President Clinton was far from perfect and made his share of mistakes. He miscalculated the entrenched culture of politics and partisanship that had enveloped the nation’s capital since the days of Watergate. And his personal failings in the Lewinsky mess will forever taint his legacy. But his presidency is rightly remembered as one of the most successful of the 20th century. It brought us eight years of peace and prosperity and created a stronger, more vibrant nation at the turn of the century.

We live in an increasingly cynical age, when everything presidents do is viewed through a political lens. Ex-presidents have the luxury of speaking more freely and candidly than when in office. But what impressed me about President Clinton in listening to him speak the other night was what has always impressed me about the man – his openness to ideas regardless of ideological origin; and his comprehensive understanding of the complex entanglements of history, politics, ideology, and practical reality. As he wrote in Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy (Knopf, 2011), “our constitution was designed by people who were idealistic but not ideological. There’s a big difference.” One can be liberal or conservative and remain open to opposing viewpoints, practical experience, and compromise. But when you start believing that you possess the absolute truth, only then does evidence and experience become irrelevant, and compromise impossible.  

Perhaps these are lessons learned from many years of leading and governing a nation during a time of intense division and hostility. But they are lessons we still need to learn. “Criticism is part of the lifeblood of democracy,” Clinton said during a speech in 2010. “No one is right all the time. But we should remember that there is a big difference between criticizing a policy or a politician and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who enforce our laws.”

I will remain forever grateful to President Clinton for restoring my faith in government at a time when America most needed it. For all of his political battles and hardened opposition, the former president has not lost his sense of idealism and hope. As he said on that bright January day in 1993: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”


  1. Mark,

    I know better not to challenge your consistent admiration for those with irredeemable moral flaws but I must ask (rhetorically of course), what could a person who shares your ideology possibly do to make you stop admiring them? And a follow-up question: Why aren’t you so forgiving of those you disagree with, who are much better people to boot?

    Now I understand and accept your inability to view with a critical eye those who share your beliefs, but what I don’t understand is your insistence on misrepresenting people you disagree with. Like the Tea Party, you have painted Ronald Reagan as being “anti-government” when nothing could be further from the truth. Ronald Reagan, like the average Tea Partier, loved the American form of government. His criticisms were directed toward a federal government that no longer respected the boundaries of the United States Constitution.

    I challenge you to present evidence that supports your charges. Specifically, that Reagan was “anti-government” and “anti-public servant”; that Reagan “taught that government service was not something of which to be proud, that as a government employee (you were) simply the source of the country’s economic and fiscal woes; that you were “little appreciated by the anti-government crowd”; that Reagan did not recognize “that the vast majority of public servants are committed to good government and good citizenship”; and that Reagan demeaned the work of “prosecutors and public defenders, social workers and researchers, scientists and engineers, doctors and health care workers, diplomats and security experts.”

    Where does that come from? Not from Reagan’s words or deeds for sure. 

    You make reference to Reagan’s great line that “government is the problem,” but you didn’t bother to read his inaugural speech from whence that line comes. His very first words were in praise of the “miracle” of our Constitution and form of government.

    Reagan then talked about the economic crap sandwich he had inherited without ever using the word “inherited” and without placing blame where it rightly belonged (a lesson in class the last two Democrat presidents could learn from). He then criticized the tax system that punished and prohibited success and summarized the insanity of a nation that spends more than it takes in and it was at this point that he observed, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

    Then a bit of prescience: “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.”


  2. Reagan then talked of the one “special interest group” that concerned him: “It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, ‘We the people,’ this breed called Americans.”

    Reagan then returned to his love of the American form of government and his fear that the government had “grown beyond the consent of the governed.” He then said something that would strike any big government liberal as heresy: “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.”

    Let the pant-wetting begin! But still, no words that can be interpreted, even in the most socialist of brains, as anti-public service. Maybe this you find hurtful: “…it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work—work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

    And again he spoke, not of distain for the government, but of the “excessive growth of government.” And just as quick, he returned to his favorite Americans: “You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.”

    His tribute to America and her heroes continued and it was a terrific speech. You should read it.

    I accept that you have “different” standards for judging people but honesty is important, whether it is in describing your favorite heroes or your favorite villains. It is not appropriate to describe sexual assault, perjury and suborning perjury as “mistakes” and “personal failings,” any more than it is appropriate to describe the actions of a man who let a woman die as “incredibly reckless.” Likewise, it is not fair to ascribe to those you don’t like, what they did not say.

    If the former federal prosecutor in you can back up the charges you have filed against a great president, I would love to consider them, but right now it seems heavy on emotion (I just don’t like him!) and light on substance.

    Rich R.

  3. Rich,

    Having personally experienced the Reagan years while living in Washington and, for part of that time, as a government employee and servant of the United States, I can assure you that the torrent of anti-government rhetoric was quite routine. Actually, I would have thought you would have taken it as a badge of honor, for you are far more anti-government than even your esteemed hero. It is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals (and moderates) – conservatives like Reagan believe that the government more often than not gets in the way of progress and advancement, while liberals and moderates tend to believe that government, when properly applied, helps societies advance and prosper in partnership with the private sector, and to do so with fairness and equity (not to mention cleaner air and water and safer workplaces).

    But rather than engage in a philosophical discussion that neither of us will ever concede, let me simply note a few reasons why I contend that Reagan was anti-government and is the inspirational source of an extremely hostile and bitter anti-government movement led in part by the current Tea Party, among others. Reagan, of course, famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” He also said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” His speeches contained numerous warnings about the chilling effects of government regulation. He said that those in the government think, “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” Of course, I understand that this is merely rhetoric. But such notions were repeated virtually every day by those in his administration and his supporters (and are taken to even more extremes today). So, as a then public servant, it was a very refreshing change when someone became president who openly believed that the government can indeed be a solution to some (not all) problems and that, in effective partnership with the private sector, can help the country achieve many great things together.

    Reagan’s outlook dismissed the notion that government regulation can serve the nation’s economic interests. Indeed, many of the regulatory programs started during the New Deal, which Reagan explicitly wished to dismantle, aimed to promote fairness in economic competition, from creation of the SEC, which allowed for greater transparency in securities trading, to establishment of the FDIC, which brought stability to a financial industry that had been on the brink of collapse.

    It is no secret that Reagan was openly hostile to environmental regulations. His administration tried to gut the Clean Air Act with proposals to weaken pollution standards on everything from cars to furniture manufacturers. Similar efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act required Congress to pass reauthorization legislation in 1987 and to over-ride Reagan’s veto. He proposed 25% cuts to EPA’s budget in his first term; enforcement cases declined nearly 80%. His Secretary of Interior (James Watt) was utterly disdainful of government and felt that public lands did not need to be protected, but opened to coal and oil interests. His Secretary of Education wanted to dismantle the agency.

    Reagan kicked off his campaign for president by emphasizing “states’ rights” (which had once been the code word for southern segregationists) in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered only sixteen years earlier. Once in office, Reagan made major cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, AFDC, and school lunch programs. Like any good conservative, he believed that private charity, not the government, should assist the poor. Granted, these are philosophical differences, but it made him at times disdainful of government and helped create a legacy of anti-government zealotry that is found in today’s Tea Party movement.

  4. I hate to sound like a broken record and I know you disagree, but words mean things. Let’s start with “anti-government.” To use this phrase to describe any politician, left or right, is manifestly ridiculous. What was Reagan trying to get elected to, King of Anarchyville? To describe me as “anti-government” is equally absurd for obvious reasons. Your logic—and I’m being generous here—seems to be that if Reagan was against “big” government, then he was “anti” government; because Reagan thought there were too many government regulations, he was obviously “anti” government regulation; because Reagan thought free Americans and capitalism could solve problems better than wasteful government programs, he was “anti-government.” But was Reagan against all “big” government? He grew the “defense” part of the government or doesn’t that count because libs don’t like the military? And that’s the key, isn’t it? There can’t be a disagreement between liberals and conservatives as to the proper role of government; there can only be the liberal way and the wrong way. And the wrong way must be demonized. Name me one conservative politician that has called for the abolition of the American government, because that is what you are claiming when you say “anti-government.” Words mean things!

    Equally ridiculous is the idea that a president can’t kick off his campaign in a city where civil rights activists where murdered “only SIXTEEN YEARS earlier.” Would 17 years have made it okay? Using that logic I ask you to give me the city where every Democratic President has kicked off his campaign in the last 50 years and I bet I can find a hate crime that was committed there within the previous 16 years. Hell, if I’m not mistaken, didn’t our current president kick off his political career in a terrorist’s living room? Wait, you might have me there, because I believe the “meet and greet” was more than 16 years after the unrepentant terrorist was trying to blow up cops and soldiers. Equally ridiculous is the left’s love of “code words.” It’s always a sure sign they’re losing the argument when they claim words conservatives use have “secret meanings.” When Reagan emphasized “states’ rights” he was secretly telling all the rednecks to get their white hoods back out! This makes so much more sense than what Reagan actually said—you know because you just read it—about the historical fact that “the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.”

    But just for fun let’s go with your thinking, that wanting to reduce the size of government is being “anti-government,” and allow me to introduce you to the 42nd president of the United States who famously announced, “The era of big Government is over.” Damn if he didn’t sound almost Reaganesque with, “We know big Government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. We know, and we have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic Government in Washington.”

    You’re a writer, Mark, so you should respect words. I have blathered on and on about my reverence for the Constitution and the American form of government and in part I learned that love from President Reagan who talked passionately about this country’s greatness and the miracle of its founding. You and I and Reagan took an oath to defend our form of government and it is a baseless insult to describe those of us who want our government to obey the Constitution as “anti-government.” Words mean things.


  5. And by the way, Republicans are traditionally the party of “law and order” and Reagan was no exception. You have provided no evidence for your claim that Reagan demeaned your contribution to public service as a federal prosecutor; zero evidence that “Reagan taught that government service was not something of which to be proud”; not one substantiation for your charge that Reagan made you feel that “as a government employee” you were “simply the source of the country’s economic and fiscal woes”; and not one example of this conservative president showing a lack of appreciation for a prosecutor who made the streets a little safer.

    Say it with me and Rush: Words mean things!

    Rich R.

  6. Rich,

    Yes, words matter. But they also have context and meaning. So, your suggestion that, by calling Reagan and other conservatives “anti-government” I am accusing them of having “called for the abolition of the American government,” is utterly absurd. I said no such thing. But it is undisputed that Reagan articulated a philosophy of government that was very hostile to, and wished to greatly limit and restrict the role of the federal government in American society in ways that were a radical departure from every administration since Teddy Roosevelt. So it is hardly a stretch to call Reagan, you, and other conservatives “anti-government,” which we all know means one who espouses a belief in limited government – and opposes the assertion of federal power.

    Political discourse requires a certain degree of generalization. You call yourself “pro-life,” yet you support the death penalty and virtually every American war and bombing campaign ever implemented. But that is OK, because we all know what is meant by the term. You would call me “pro-government” because I believe in a more expansive role for government in various aspects of American society than do you. That I am a believer in free-market capitalism balanced by fair and appropriate regulations and government programs that attempt to close the gaps and shortcomings of our capitalist system seems to matter little to your choice of words when attacking my views. Nevertheless, compared to you and most conservatives, I am pro-government.

    But you do make a valid point about all of these labels – they are imprecise. Clearly, my view that Reagan was anti-government is influenced by my view of the appropriate role of the federal government in American society, to which Reagan and his ilk were very much opposed.

    I am glad to see that you have finally recognized what I have said all along about President Clinton, that he is a pro-business Democrat who very much believes in government when it works, but does not blindly or simplistically fancy any and every government program. Neither do I. Never did, but listening to your critiques of my writing all these years, you would never know it. But maybe words only matter when I write them.

    By the way, what message was President Reagan sending when he announced his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi? Is that town known for anything other than the location of the murder of three civil rights workers, a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, and a bastion of aggressively hostile opposition to federal power in the area of civil and human rights? Reagan was a huge proponent of “states’ rights” – which was the calling card of the Southern opposition to civil rights, integration, and voting rights that many southerners and segregationists believed was shoved down their throats by the federal government. Such sentiment was unmatched in places like Philadelphia, Mississippi. Was there really no other town or city in the entire United States that he could have picked than a town with a population of 7,200 and a history racial hostility? Did it really have nothing to do with Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy”?