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The Decline of Public Service: From Adams to Kennedy to ?

March 22, 1998|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the New Republic

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) announced recently 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 more than a few less-than-inspiring moments in their personal lives, 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. If even a Kennedy can't hack the spotlight, where does that leave the rest of us?

Across the country, local and state officials are displaying a new aversion to running for higher office. Lawyers or businessmen who enter elected office aren't just sacrificing personal income, they also confront an entire political system that has gone haywire. Anyone who thinks congressman spend most of their time mulling over legislation had better think again. Most of their energies are devoted to fund-raising from lobbyists and attending dinners with corporate sponsors. Then there are the demands of constituents, who expect their representatives to deliver on everything. Finally, there is the increasingly harsh media scrutiny. Not surprisingly, would-be politicians are starting to tune out from the system and tune in to their personal lives.

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 antiwar 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 TV 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.

The new era of technological progress left Adams exhausted. The Civil War had created a more brutal North that would chase empire abroad and industry at home. The older aristocratic families went by the boards. The new men on the scene were the leaders of the industrial powerhouses.

But the rise of the robber barons did not lead to the end of public service. They triggered a new wave of reform. As Tammany Hall and the industrialists ran amok, muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair began to expose their misdeeds. Soon the Progressive era began, and other patrician families came on the scene.

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.

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