The True Public Servant
ith the death of Elliot L. Richardson on Dec. 31, our country lost a man who set an example time after time of the most valuable attributes of the true public servant. His departure offers an opportunity to reflect on the needs of public service today.
Readers of Government Executive will readily agree, I think, that Richardson offers an unusual example of devotion to public sector concerns. He stands apart because virtually all of his service in the federal government was in political jobs, requiring Senate confirmation. Most people who choose government as a career do so by joining federal bureaucracies in the civil service, the foreign service or the military. Only a few spend most of their lives in the fickle world of political stewardship.
That world is fickle in part because of the high risks it entails. At the most obvious level, political jobs disappear when the White House reverts to another party. Also, political appointees are the targets for people who don't like the policies they espouse; in divided government it is impossible to please both Capitol Hill and administration overseers, not to mention feuding interest groups. Ethical traps abound, and there's no shortage of critical overseers ready to blow the whistle. Cabinet members Bruce Babbitt, Henry Cisneros and Mike Espy are examples from this administration.
To survive without blemish is difficult indeed. Richardson did so with distinction, serving as Attorney General and as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Commerce, and Secretary of Health Education and Welfare in different administrations. He also held the posts of undersecretary of State and ambassador to Great Britain, and, in Massachusetts, of lieutenant governor and attorney general. His reputation as a man who put principle ahead of politics was cemented when he resigned as U.S. Attorney General in October 1973 after refusing President Nixon's request to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
A lawyer with high earning potential when he wasn't in government, Richardson still devoted much time and energy to public causes. He served on Paul Volcker's National Commission on the Public Service in 1989, and in 1996 published a book, Reflections of a Radical Moderate (Pantheon), voicing his concerns and ideas about strengthening our democracy. When Richardson and I were among members of a screening panel for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship program last March, I could tell he was as touched as the rest of us by the interest in public service evidenced by applicants for the awards.
The list of people who have, like Richardson, devoted their lives to public management at high political levels
isn't terribly long. My roster would include Volcker, Elmer Staats, Pat Moynihan, Alice Rivlin, Larry Eagleburger, Dick Cheney, Frank Carlucci, Carla Hills, Dick Darman, Stu Eizenstat, June Gibbs Brown, Donna Shalala, Mort Downey and Alan Greenspan. This excludes, I know, many who have made elective politics the focus of their careers, including the last three Presidents, many members of Congress and the current Secretary of Defense. To be sure, we need good people in elected office, but the need is even greater, I believe, for highly capable people to step forward in leadership roles in the executive branch.