Giving public service a better name
A while back, after the Gallup poll had reported that public confidence in Congress had fallen to a then-record low of 9 percent, Arizona Sen.
John McCain observed that for Congress, “9 percent” meant we were down to “paid staffers and blood relatives.” When a more recent Gallup poll found public confidence in Congress had dropped even further to only 7 percent, McCain amended his analysis.
Reporting that he had just received a blunt call from his mother Roberta, still remarkable at 102 years old, he said, “I can report that we are now down to just paid staffers.”
The fact is that public confidence, undermined, certainly, by the government’s failures following Hurricane Katrina, in preventing the financial crisis of 2008, in its botched rollout of healthcare, and the tragedy of not providing solemnly promised medical care to military veterans, in the U.S. government (including the Supreme Court and the presidency) has continued to fall. Americans are less confident and more cynical today than they were when so many rallied to Teddy Roosevelt’s optimistic summons: “The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” Please let me tell you about my friend John Koskinen, whom I’ve known for 35 years. John went to public high school in Kentucky and with the help of a scholarship following his father’s death, graduated from college.
He finished law school, and, by all worldly criteria, he was enormously successful at the demanding challenge of taking charge of failing enterprises, turning them around and shepherding their recovery. Former President George W. Bush picked John to lead Freddie Mac, the housing finance giant that had become a ward of the U.S. government, as the nation’s financial system trembled on the brink of collapse. Because of improbable crises, John, at one time, served simultaneously – and successfully – as Freddie Mac’s CEO, chief operating officer and chief financial officer.
This was following John’s earlier service as administrator for the District of Columbia in the middle of the financial crisis, caused by the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax threat and the panic of the beltway sniper. This is a man, you can see, who goes out of his way to not avoid trouble.
Before that, former President Bill Clinton had named John chairman of the council to prevent the widely feared catastrophes accompanying the Y2K conversion. National concern that computers controlling the nation’s utilities, banks, air traffic and street lights would fail was real.
John, as is his pattern, listened closely, asked directly and acted rationally, even appointing 12 global coordinators to prevent problems internationally. Clinton had been impressed by John’s earlier success at evading disaster when, at the time of the shutting down of the government in 1995, he was in charge. John may be a glutton for punishment.
He now has the most thankless job in the Western world. He is the commissioner of the IRS, never a popular institution but now reeling from admissions that it had applied excessive scrutiny to applicants seeking tax-exempt status with “tea party” in its name, and from thousands of lost emails and 2,000 employees’ hard drives crashing in 2014 alone. In the face of the partisan bullying by showboating House Republicans – always in front of the cameras – the unflappable John Koskinen continues to do what he has spent a lifetime doing – his duty. He listens.
He learns. He lifts the morale of those with whom he works. He serves his country. He honors public service. That’s more than anyone can say for his congressional inquisitors.