It’s been 13 years now since my dad passed away peacefully in his sleep. He’d been a government worker virtually all his life, ever since leaving his Brooklyn home at 16 for a job in Washington, D.C. He hadn’t even finished high school, but it was then the depths of the Depression, and you didn’t turn down a job offer.
He eventually managed to finish high school and get a night-school bachelor’s degree in Economics, working steadily for the federal government the entire time. He stayed there for the rest of his career until finally, long past retirement age, they got him to retire.
Dad always considered that his mission was helping other people. What I remember best were his years in the Labor Department, where he tried to broaden opportunities for everyone else in the nation to find meaning through what he called “The World of Work,” just as he had done.
You could call me a government brat. It might not be as prestigious as being an Army or Navy brat, but still my dad took very seriously that he was in public service.
At his funeral, I learned just how seriously when my brother told us a story.
Dad usually worked at an office in downtown Washington, D.C. — an hour’s drive each way during rush hour from our home in the suburbs. But one time, he was sent to a meeting somewhere not too far from our house, and it finished early. He was faced with a choice — head all the way back downtown to put in a final 15 minutes at the office? Or take the opportunity to knock off a little early and head home?
For Dad, it was an easy decision. He went back to his office, of course. When he arrived, his startled boss asked, “What are you doing here?”
Dad explained he was being conscientious.
“Joe, there’s being conscientious, and then there’s being meshuggeneh!” (For the non-Yiddish-speaking, that means crazy.) “Go home!”
So I took it personally when people made jokes at government workers’ expense. “Good enough for government work!” people said and laughed.
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist took things even further. “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government,” he quipped. “I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
But here’s the thing about government work. Sure, it’s easy to make fun of. But government workers are the people who make sure your medicines contain what they’re supposed to in the amount they’re supposed to with no adulterants or, worse, anything toxic.
It is government workers who are doing their best to keep our air and water clean, and our workplaces (back when we had them) safe.
It is our government that we look to when airplanes tragically crash to collect the black boxes and figure out what happened… and then announce it. And it’s not only us — the whole world looks to our government workers for those answers.
It is government workers who rescue you when your boat goes under, who warn us when we’re in the path of a hurricane or tornado, who fight our wars for us and keep the peace, too. It is government workers who landed on the Moon, and government workers who got them there … and brought them safely home.
It is government workers who are trying their hardest to keep us safe in this terrible pandemic.
Back in 1986, a lot of people thought it was funny when President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”
But nowadays, there are seven words that terrify me even more. They are from President Trump, when he was asked about some problems in the fight against COVID. “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he said.
Meshuggeneh or not, my father understood something that Donald Trump never will: his government work wasn’t about himself. It was in service to all of us.
Grover Norquist wanted to drag the government into a bathtub and drown it. Well, he and his cronies have pretty much succeeded at doing exactly that. So do you feel safer now?
This election is about one question: Do you want the government in the hands of someone who believes in it and believes that the job of the government is to help us? Or someone who takes no responsibility for helping us, at all?