The United States lost an engaging, brilliant, committed career public servant late in February with the death of Martin Slate, the executive director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, at the age of 51. Marty is gone, too early, but the story of his life and career will live on as a beacon to younger people who may wonder if they can make a difference by working for the government.
I met Marty Slate two years ago while he was participating in the Ford Foundation's Innovation in American Government awards program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Amazingly he recognized me as a rough contemporary at Milton Academy in Massachusetts more than 30 years earlier, and so we made, and later cultivated, that old-school connection. When judges included the PBGC among the first six federal agencies to win the award, I decided to put Marty on the cover of our November 1995 issue, personifying innovation in the federal sector.
Marty's interest in public service probably began with the liberal education he got at Milton (alumnus Bobby Kennedy spoke at graduation in 1959), and grew stronger at Harvard, whence he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. The Harvard faculty was making round trips to Washington in those days of Kennedy glamour. The tenor of the times, and the great issues of race and civil rights, captured Marty's imagination. He participated in the freedom rides in Mississippi and, he told me, decided that he wanted nothing else than to be a civil rights lawyer. That he became after graduating from Yale Law School in the same class with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
He went straight to work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As a trial lawyer there, he won nationwide litigation against the steel and electronics industries. When Clarence Thomas, another Yale classmate now on the Supreme Court, arrived to run the EEOC during the Reagan administration, he and Marty agreed to disagree, and Marty moved on to the Internal Revenue Service. As director of the IRS' Employee Retirement Income Security Act program, he won battles against companies that attempted to defer pension contributions. He earned a master's in tax law from Georgetown University and taught the subject in his spare time.
At the call of his friends in the White House, Marty stepped out of the civil service in 1993 to become a political appointee at the helm of the PBGC. He engineered a remarkable turnaround at the agency, whose $4 billion deficit had raised fears of another, S&L-style taxpayer bailout. Last year, the PBGC reported its first surplus. Marty's initiatives in the agency and in Congress helped protect the pensions of millions of workers.
Marty had hoped he might return to the IRS as commissioner. That would have capped the career of a man whom President Clinton on Feb. 24 described as "the quintessential public servant [who] spent his entire life working to make sure our laws were fair and applied justly." I am proud to have been his friend.