Civil Servants and Politicos

Now, it’s personal. When this immoral president makes scathing remarks about moral career government employees, he’s aiming at my home turf.

I was a state government civil servant for nearly 30 years before retiring to Florida. My BA in Urban Affairs and Masters in Public Administration qualified me to enter the ranks of the Budget Division of the State of New York, and I was appointed up the budget examiner career ladder based on my success in examinations designed to assess my analytical skills and knowledge of public administration. I was part of the “permanent government.”

New York State Capitol, where I used to work

My first boss stressed that our role was to serve with “neutral competence.” That sounds boringly dull, but let me explain why it matters.

Just as the Foreign Service reports to an appointed Secretary of State and, ultimately, to an elected president, the Civil Service reports to appointed agency heads and elected officials. In my case, it was a Budget Director and a Governor. During my tenure, handfuls of Directors came and went as four Democrats (M. Cuomo, Spitzer, Paterson, A. Cuomo) and one Republican (Pataki) directed the ship of state. The framework in which each Governor’s policies were carried out was the budget, a layered, complicated, $150+ Billion instrument developed, negotiated, and implemented by the Budget Division and employees like me. We were like the buoys in roiled waters, steadily marking the waterways. Without us, the ship of state would have run out of fuel or crashed or gone aground or never left the dock at all.

New York State Capitol’s Million Dollar Staircase through which I showed many delegations of the Department of State International Visitors Program

Neutral competence. It’s a very good thing. “… careful, meticulous, whip smartmeasured demeanor and diligence in representing both Republican and Democratic administrations.” That’s an excellent description of a professional civil servant, and it’s how the Washington Post describes Marie Yovanovich, a Foreign Service Officer under assault. (Diplomat criticized by White House known for her diligence)

FILE – In this March 6, 2019 file photo, then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, center, sits during her meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Ukraine. (Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP) (Associated Press/AP)

When a career public servant achieves the highest ranks in an appointed position, as Ms Yovanovich has in being our ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and, most recently, Ukraine, she takes her work ethic with her. The Post article continues:

Yovanovitch “is reserved. She is collected. She is not a flamboyant person,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria who said she has known Yovanovitch for about 30 years. Yovanovitch has always known that the role of diplomat “wasn’t about her” but about “serving American national interests and supporting the people around her.”

Budget Directors serve at the pleasure of the Governor. Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the President, and it’s routine for an incoming administration to manoever their picks into the ambassadorial roles around the world. Sometimes, they choose a seasoned diplomat, like the ambassador that my father, Robert C. Amerson, first worked for in 1955 in Caracas.

Ambassador Fletcher Warren had a reputation as an experienced professional Foreign Service officer, whose ability had propelled him up through the ranks. Behind his jovial smile and the personal interest seemingly concentrated on each individual lay … the analytical prowess and careful judgement of successful diplomacy. (How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

When presidents choose for an ambassador loyal party supporters and campaign donors instead of a seasoned diplomat, they risk bringing in persons who believe that the official authority of an ambassador ‘extraordinary and plenipotentiary’ should cover everything. Warren’s replacement, Dempster McIntosh, had an unpredictable temper directed at Embassy staff, and, worse yet at least to Dad, a tin ear for language:

On one occasion the Amb had agreed to cut the ribbon inaugurating our major USIS exhibit of photographs, called the ‘Family of Man.’ … exceptional and striking photos from all over the world, selected by famed photographer Edward Steichen as representative of humankind in all our moods, foibles, nobility. It was a theme that called for serious inaugural words, and I wrote something brief for the Amb to read. During the afternoon, tape recorder in hand, I helped him work on the Spanish version — pronunciation, emphasis, fluidity — to little avail. That evening, an invited group listened to our Ambassador turn a few simple words of the beautiful local language into an embarrassing, mangled mess, as if the sounds uttered had no comprehensible meaning to him.(How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

McIntosh’s replacement was Edward J. Sparks, who was, my father wrote, dignified, quiet-mannered … a career man who had come up through the ranks and served at many Latin American posts. He knew the area, he knew the language, he knew the value of embassy officers and their judgement. (How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship)

The permanent, apolitical government is loyal to a fault: policy is the pervue of the elected officials. But public servants do come across policies they disagree with, or, as we are seeing now in Washington, official actions that conflict with established norms, laws, or the Constitution. The very brave become whistleblowers. For Dad, Vietnam was such a determining issue. In a personal recollection, Dad wrote about what happened when he was USIS Area Director for Latin America during our last few years in Washington:

These were the years of heavy slogging in Vietnam, when USIS officers were being asked to serve there not only to handle information and culture in that war-distorted atmosphere, but also as public-information advisors out in the boonies where the Viet Cong often threatened danger. Frank Shakespeare, a conservative idealogue and President Nixon’s choice to run USIS, thought senior officers of the Agency ought to see USG operations in Vietnam personally, so as to provide greater authority when convincing our people to serve there willingly

So, one morning I climbed onto Pan Am flight #1, heading across the Atlantic: this flight circumnavigated the globe, stopping in Athens, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Teheran, New Delhi, Bankok, then Saigon, for two weeks of briefings, helicopter rides, observing USIS people in remote areas of Vietnam and troops carrying their rifles, hearing the thunder of big guns in the distance … Impressions of Vietnam hardly resulted in enthusiasm for the USG role there, even though I could see that USIS people were doing their jobs honorably, even while separated from their families. I suppose some of them — super-patriots, perhaps swinging bachelors at heart — enjoyed that kind of assignment. I would never do for me. That family separation factor, plus a growing personal disapproval of the war itself, made it easy a year later to turn down a possible assignment to Saigon,though it might have been a major creer boost. Ambition and “duty” are not everything.

There are about 8,000 career foreign service officers representing this country around the globe today. There are 2 million Federal government employees and hundreds of thousands more state and local government employees. These “servants” of the public sector are quietly going about doing their work every day. Resist the urge to pile on.

5 thoughts on “Civil Servants and Politicos

  1. Lovely statement, thank you!!! And thanks for your service

    On Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 7:23 AM Raised in the Foreign Service wrote:

    > raisedintheforeignservice posted: ” Now, it’s personal. When this immoral > president makes scathing remarks about moral career government employees, > he’s aiming at my home turf. I was a state government civil servant for > nearly 30 years before retiring to Florida. My BA in Urban Affair” >

  2. Thank you for clearing up a lot of questions. My father was also a civil servant for HUD and spent hours and hours at work. He was responsible for many favorable rulings that helped home owners and new home purchasers. I resent when people say “good enough for government work” when I think of my Father’s dedication.

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