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Ask Not

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jason Bowns
February 2, 2018

Fifty-seven years ago, on January 20, President John F. Kennedy delivered his vision for a country committee to liberty for all: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

He enumerated specific areas of influence, bold missions to pursue, “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.” Kennedy noted four “common enemies of man” represented by “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

He remained realistic, acknowledging, “All of this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in the lifetime of our planet. But let us begin.”

Questions persist today about what motivates public servants. One columnist dismisses President Kennedy’s appeal as a “cloak” and asserts those who take his words at face value are “ignoring that JFK was as power mad as the rest of them.” Are people in government there for the public interest, or is it self-interest?

The Press

While journalism is a public service in and of itself, certainly there are others who wonder whether the press is always fully committed to the truth. A growing trend conflates commercialism and journalism.

Sensationalism can promote a news outlet’s economic prosperity. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst reportedly wired an illustrator in 1897 the message, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

When the U.S.S. Maine sank in Cuba’s Havana Harbor, news outlets quickly blamed Spain for over 260 sailors’ deaths. If you’ve walked through New York City’s Columbus Circle, you’ve seen the U.S.S. Maine National Monument.

Photo Credit: Wayne Ferrebee

The subsequent Spanish-American War led to new land acquisitions including Guam and Puerto Rico which remain American territories today. Yet we’ve gone beyond the rampant so-called yellow journalism into an era where claims of “fake news” are commonplace on all sides. So, who determines what’s real?

Despite the pressures of commercialism, journalists should follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics which declares, “[P]ublic enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Simply stated, “The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” Readers must still recognize the difference between news and opinion reports.

The Elected

People who remain in government for too long are often labelled as career politicians living on the public dole.  The related term limits debate continues, arguing that some remain in government for far too long and demand restraints.

James Madison considered that question in Federalist Number 53, “A few of the members, as happens in all such assemblies, will possess superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business… The greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.” In other words, experience can well serve the public interest as well as those lacking it. Madison would go on to help draft the American Constitution and serve as our fourth American President.

The Civil Service

After a disgruntled Charles Guiteau shot President James Garfield, Congress enacted the Pendleton Act of 1883, creating a federal civil service system. That assassin didn’t get a patronage job he’d wanted, which illuminated the problem.

Later that same year, New York State Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt worked with Governor Grover Cleveland to bring civil service reform to New York State as well. He later served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission from 1889-1895.

Roosevelt wrote that progress had rebuked patronage, “The civil service law does good service in raising the character of our government work; but the best service it renders is to our public life, for it wars against the foul system which treats government offices as forming a vast bribery chest with which to corrupt voters.”

So, while some may dismiss government workers today for lacking accountability, their roles are designed to foster loyalty with government itself more than politics.

Image credit: Time, Inc.

These three arenas convey an ideal of what public service means. Journalists foster a more enlightened and informed polity. Elected officials bring a participatory voice. Untethered from the old spoils system, others fulfill their civil service roles and execute the complex machinery of American government.

Why would anyone choose to pursue public service? We simply can’t know for sure what drives anyone else. At least take time to know what motivates you.

Are you mainly in it for the money, or is there something else larger than yourself? What about those who count on you to do the right thing? Even if they may never know if that’s what you’re really doing, they still hope that someone always will.

As President Kennedy said, “But let us begin.”


Author: Reared in rural Connecticut, Jason Bowns earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, majoring in Classical Civilization and Hellenic Studies while minoring in Politics and Social Studies Education. He earned his Master of Public Administration degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, honing essential skills to detect organizational fraud, waste, and abuse. He’s reachable at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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