In Defense of Public Service: Roosevelt Honors Commitment to Common Good

Jul 14, 2014Tim Price

Honorees at the 2014 FDR Distinguished Public Service Awards felt vindicated -- but why does public service need vindicating?

Outside of election night victory speeches, it’s rare to see America’s elected officials express much happiness in public. In a political culture dominated by partisan rancor, personal attacks, and donor-friendly positioning, governing seems a joyless affair. Nor are the American people pleased with their leaders’ performance; polls reflect widespread dissatisfaction with all levels of government. So it was inspiring, refreshing, and a little surprising to see the sense of pride and achievement on display last Thursday evening in Washington as the Roosevelt Institute honored Vice President Joe Biden, Congressman George Miller, Senator Tom Harkin, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro at the 2014 FDR Distinguished Public Service Awards.

Presented annually, the Distinguished Public Service Awards recognize and celebrate individuals who carry forward the spirit of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by devoting their lives to the public good. During this year’s ceremony, the audience heard from the four honorees as well as presenters including Dr. Jill Biden, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senator Al Franken, and former Senator Christopher Dodd. The speakers reflected on the honorees’ long list of policy achievements, from fighting for higher wages and paid family leave to passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. There was a smattering of amusing anecdotes (Senator Harkin’s ’70s-era polyester suits were evidently considered both an electoral liability and a fire hazard). And everyone who stood at the podium found a way to talk about their distinct but deeply felt personal connections to the Roosevelt legacy. Above all, they seemed genuinely moved to be celebrated rather than insulted for their work.

The most striking speech of the night was delivered by Vice President Biden. He received the Roosevelt Institute’s highest honor, the Freedom Medal, for promoting the vision of worldwide democracy and human rights that FDR famously expressed in his 1941 Four Freedoms Address. The Vice President spoke of his award as a “vindication” of a career spent in public service; and about his long-held belief that, setting aside their individual political views and policy preferences, all elected leaders got to be where they are because their constituents “saw something good in them,” and because they in turn wanted to do some good for their constituents.

It’s a nice thought. In practice, there is plenty of cause for cynicism, especially in light of the flawed or absent policy response to the Great Recession and the ongoing crisis of inequality in the U.S. And when politicians do fail to uphold the public good, they should be held accountable. But there is also no doubt that a great deal of America’s anti-government culture, and of the political dysfunction that keeps government from working effectively, has been created and nurtured by right-wing ideologues who view government as a problem in and of itself. If public servants as a category are in need of vindication, it is largely because of this conservative effort to denigrate the very idea of working through government to achieve common goals.

Thursday’s awards were a welcome reminder that not everyone has given in to this cynicism – that the term “career politician” can be an affirmation and not just an epithet. It was obvious from listening to these men and women speak that they have felt a powerful call to serve, and have made a leap of faith that progress is possible through long years of hard work and dedication. That was what Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt believed as well, and they proved it with bold and ambitious New Deal programs that built the American middle class from the ground up, reshaping the U.S. forever. By honoring those who continue their work today, maybe we can encourage all Americans to make that leap once again.

Tim Price is the Communications Manager for the Roosevelt Institute.

Photos: (Top) Congressman Miller, Congresswoman DeLauro, and Senator Harkin with Roosevelt Institute Board Chair Anna E. Roosevelt. (Bottom) Vice President Biden accepting his award accompanied by wife Jill. Credit: Crystal Vander Weit.

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