A Public Education

f resh out of the Navy in January 1961, I took a job as a cub reporter in Louisville, Ky., where I quickly learned two things: that our readers really did want to know what their public servants were up to, and that the Kentucky Derby was a very big deal. The ensuing four decades have encompassed a continuous learning process in which I have benefited from the patient tutoring of individuals at many levels of government and the people they strive to serve.

As I turn to other writing pursuits, I'd like to express my gratitude to the remarkably diverse cast of characters that has contributed to my education in settings ranging from the hills of Appalachia and the flatlands of the Mississippi Delta to the marbled halls of Congress and the richly appointed interior of the Oval Office.

In light of September's attacks, it seems fitting that my first tutors in the ways of public service were the police officers and firefighters I met while assigned to the "police beat." Observing them, I learned the meaning of hazardous duty and the grim confrontation of death-things my peacetime military service had spared me.

A session of the Kentucky state legislature that I covered in 1963 provided me with a crash course about how representative democracy actually works. In the process I learned that urban sophistication and political effectiveness are not synonymous.I saw rural lawmakers with such country bumpkin nicknames as "Jigs," "Oz" and "Double O" shrewdly outmaneuver their big-city counterparts in contests over the allocation of revenues to pave highways, pay school teachers and fuel the rapid expansion of the state's university system.

A few years later, as a reporter in Chicago covering health and environmental issues, I learned that the old-fashioned urban political machine of legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley was not the anachronistic dinosaur that many thought. In response to concerns about air and water pollution, Daley's aides used the most modern technologies to assess threats to public health. I also, however, witnessed the brute force of Daley's police force as it routed anti-war protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Shortly afterwards, while on a temporary assignment to Washington, I saw close up how Congress works. I covered a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee-hastily scheduled to generate publicity in advance of the November elections-to investigate allegations that the Chicago demonstrations had been financed by subversives. One of the targets was a prominent Chicago physician-a news source of mine-who a few years later was deemed sufficiently patriotic by Chicago's political establishment to be named medical director of the problem-plagued Cook County Hospital.

As a staff aide on Capitol Hill for a few years in the 1970s, I learned just how hard people inside government work to influence the news that gets into print. Thereafter, I was much more sensitive to the reality that there is usually much more to a story than the version offered by a single source. By the time I became a White House reporter in 1980, "spinning" the news had become such an art form that members of the press wrote frequent stories about the process, even as we were being "spun."

A number of reporting trips during the 1990s offered a refreshing change of pace from the Washington scene, where so much emphasis is placed on personal celebrity, partisan gamesmanship and, of course, political fund raising. I was privileged during this period to meet some remarkable public servants who were committed to solving problems and delivering needed services. One was a career federal manager on leave to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural highlands of Guatemala. Another was the earnest young mayor of Dresden, Germany, trying to cope with the woes of a city still scarred by World War II and decades of economic stagnation under communist rule. My interest in the impact of surging immigration took me to such urban melting pots as Chicago, Houston, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, and to agricultural hamlets in Arkansas, California, Delaware and Texas. In each place I encountered public officials of good will, some of them immigrants themselves, all of them working to resolve complex legal, cultural and economic conflicts.

I discovered a lot during my years in journalism, (although, alas, not how to pick a Kentucky Derby winner). I came to realize that government often responds best-and gets the most credit-in times of major crisis, as in its current efforts to curb terrorism. More importantly, I learned to respect the spirit and dedication of the public servants whose day-in, day-out efforts to improve our lives and our communities go mostly unnoticed or are taken for granted. But best of all was the opportunity to share in the good humor and cheer of so many individuals who so clearly enjoyed doing what they do.


Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal. Contact him at dkirschten@govexec.com.
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