Working for the federal government isn’t what it used to be. But it’s not all that different. Sure, Kushner and company work with classified documents even though they don’t have security clearance, but shoot, I did that before many of them were born. Like Jared and Ivanka, I got my job through family connections, but in addition – get this – I was assigned to work with classified documents because I didn’t have security clearance. Here’s the story.
When John Kennedy was elected, I couldn’t wait to get to Washington and join the dance. I hoped to get a position with the brand new Peace Corps. I would have preferred to be a volunteer, but I was married and had an infant son. So I would make do with a stateside position being indispensable to Sergeant Shriver and Bill Moyers.
Trouble was, there was a line around the block of young people wanting to work there. I preferred to make my way on the strength of merit alone, but everybody in the line had merit, so I was forced to become a political appointee.
My mother-in-law happened to have grown up in Godley, Texas, with Robert B. Anderson, Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Treasury. (He was the best I could do; no one in my family knew any people in the Kennedy administration.) In a turn of events that is about to repeat itself several times over, Anderson served time in prison for tax evasion and operating an illegal offshore bank after leaving office. But before he became a known criminal, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me, and that was that. All I needed before I could start achieving greatness and making the world a better place, was security clearance.
I don’t remember how it came about, but while the FBI pored over the details of my twenty-two-year-old life, I was given a stop-gap position that did not require clearance. For the next few months, I spent my days in the basement mail room of the State Department Building working with classified documents. I didn’t actually read any of them, of course, but I probably could have slipped a couple of the smaller “Top Secret” or “Eyes Only” envelopes into my pocket as I pitched them into rolling bins marked “Ougadougou” or “Ulan Bator” or some such place. (After a few months, I could name the capital of just about every country in the world where there was an American Embassy, plus a number of cities where we had consular posts.)
When I emerged from my below-grade dalliance with sensitive materials to assume my appointment as Assistant Big Shot at the Peace Corps, I found that the letter that had gotten me in the door was not as powerful as I’d hoped. In the first place there were those pesky civil service regulations. Besides that, every idealistic young person in the country seemed to have gone to work there, and the competition for even a midlevel position was fierce. Kathy Schlesinger, a daughter of President Kennedy’s Special Assistant, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was as I recall, a secretary. So was the daughter of Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles. Me, I was a “go-fer.” Mostly, I fetched visas for groups of volunteers, then delivered their stamped passports to them at their departure airports.
Working in that agency-in-formation offered peripheral gratifications not common to most government work. The staff was small, so Shriver and Moyers were real presences, not out-of-sight big shots. The offices were in a building across Lafayette Park from the White House, and I have a vague recollection that now and then Sarg and Bill would join some of us there for a quick lunch. I became friends with the photographer whose job was to capture the Peace Corps story on film. In addition, he seemed to have free access to the White House. I spent a lot of time in his dark room, viewing wet pictures of a new government in its birth pangs. But I wasn’t making much of a mark in it.
When I realized that it would be too long before I might rise much above coffee-boy level at the Peace Corps, I found my way into an innovative program at the Civil Service Commission called Project Fifty. In an effort to breathe vigor into one of the federal government’s stodgiest institutions, fifty bright, variously qualified, young people were given a two-year period of training and apprenticeship and a leg up in the ranking system by which income and power were distributed.
It was a heady experience. We were treated with great respect. Commission Chairman John Macy paid special attention to us. Dean Acheson, Truman’s distinguished Secretary of State, came by one day and gave us a short speech and encouragement. But when it came to doing work, instead of just hanging around feeling worthy and superior to the career employees who were there when we showed up, things got to be less fun.
I was assigned to assist a middle-aged man in conducting inspections of this and that government agency and office. Our job was to ascertain whether Civil Service rules were being followed. To me, that didn’t require nuanced thinking. It was like being a traffic cop with a radar gun. The regulations said “do this” and “don’t do that,” and if some individual or office was in violation, then we were obliged to report it. That was, of course, a young person’s way of looking at the job. The old hands at inspection saw complexities and gradations of violations that I didn’t recognize. I gave up after a while and went back to Texas.
At the time, I saw a certain amount of corruption in government service. Older and wiser, I see inefficiency more than corruption, and I accept that as an inescapable and excusable feature of all large organizations, from the Civil Service Commission to Amazon. Like original sin, you can’t eliminate it, you can only deal with it. People, not machines, do the grunt work that keeps food safe and highways paved and emergencies managed. (President Trump and his immediate circle are, of course, corrupt beyond measure.)
I suppose the current administration must have attracted some eager young people like those at the Peace Corps headquarters in 1961, but I doubt very many have piled into Volkswagens and sped to Washington the way I did. That’s a problem. A recurring class of fresh young employees is vital to the national interest.
Today’s career civil servants are reportedly unenthusiastic about changes that are happening, and they have to put up with the Trumpista disrespect that hangs in the air like a bad smell. For many – I’d guess most – it must be challenging to keep their values intact while doing their sworn duty as President Trump creates chaos and attempts a revolution. Disgruntlement, frustration, and unhappy days of just slogging it out seem to be the mode of the day.
To conclude from this that working for the government was significantly more fulfilling in the past would be a mistake. No doubt it was somewhat more agreeable under most previous presidents, but being an American civil servant has always been challenging. Or so my brief experience suggests.
Now more than ever, we should be grateful that so many people are up to it. We would not be the great country we are without them.