Return to Camelot

Can public service become thrilling again?

Chuck McIntyre is a Sacramento writer and economist.

As a young man in my 20s, I was thrilled by the call from President John F. Kennedy to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” When interviewing for jobs after college graduation, I was turned off by offers from insurance companies, banks and retail, but truly excited by an offer to work in California state government. The array of topics was dazzling; the promise of public service meant assistance to communities and fruitful work.

And so it was for two decades, until 1979, when I found myself meeting with others in the (then) young Jerry Brown-era state government to decide and testify about how to accommodate a 15 percent budget reduction in the wake of Proposition 13, a measure that cut the legs off local government and rendered cities and counties in the state unable to serve their communities as they formerly had.

This was shortly followed by the beginning of the “Reagan Revolution”—the national perception that government was the problem rather than the solution. And there was active work by “conservatives” on Grover Norquist’s bizarre goal “to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” What happened then was a downward spiral in the perception of public service that, sadly, led me to advise my own sons upon their college graduations to “avoid the public sector.”

This trend was taken to its ludicrous extreme in the last decade by the Bush administration. Suddenly, “public service” was used to profit a revolving-door group of corporate special interests who could get public appointments, then reverse back into the private sector again. This happened in energy, finance, health and national security.

Recently, I had coffee with a young man, Steven Buhrman, who worked on the Obama presidential campaign. He described the excitement and spirit of young, new voters working to elect a former community organizer, a servant of the public. This very energetic young man is now in Sacramento working as a coordinator for the political campaign of Dr. Ami Bera, another public servant who worked for more than two decades to improve the availability, quality and affordability of health care in the greater Sacramento region, often for the less fortunate in the community. Bera is a first-generation American whose duties as a local physician have ranged from volunteer to professional to teacher to board member. He is now running to serve in Congress as the representative for District 3.

Listening to Buhrman’s description of Bera’s political hopes, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities to the Kennedy “Camelot” days of a half-century ago and that same nearly forgotten thrill of service. Can it be that we’re on the leading edge of a return to the notion that public service is meaningful, that government is meant to be a partner that helps solve many of our problems?

Perhaps this turn of events will be known one day as the “Obama Revolution”? One can not only hope so, but also work to make it so.