Notice & Comment

President George H.W. Bush on Civil Service and Civil Society

Amid this week’s many tributes to the late President Bush, readers of Notice & Comment may be particularly interested in the speech that he gave to members of the Senior Executive Service on January 26, 1989 — that is, on just the seventh day of his presidency.

It is a stirring call to government service, celebrating the commitment of federal employees to serve their country. Modern critics of the so-called “deep state” would benefit greatly from President Bush’s celebration of the spirit of public service. And modern proponents of the so-called “resistance” would benefit greatly from President Bush’s reminder that federal employees must always be public servants, answering to the lawful actions of political leadership, executing federal statutes under the Constitution.

The full text is online. Here are a few excerpts:

And our mandate comes from the people, because as Abraham Lincoln said: “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.” And so, now that the people have spoken, I’m coming to you as President and offering my hand in partnership. I’m asking you to join me as full members of our team. I promise to lead and to listen, and I promise to serve beside you as we work together to carry out the will of the American people.

Our principles are clear: that government service is a noble calling and a public trust. I learned that from my mom and dad at an early age, and I expect that that’s where many of you learned it—there or in school. There is no higher honor than to serve free men and women, no greater privilege than to labor in government beneath the Great Seal of the United States and the American flag. And that’s why this administration is dedicated to ethics in government and the need for honorable men and women to serve in positions of trust.

… I have a conservative vision of government. I ran and was elected on those terms. And I see no strain or tension between those values and the values of a professional civil service whose highest principle is one of patriotism, whose foremost commitment is to excellence, whose experience and expertise is in itself a national resource to be used and respected. I urge all my appointees to build a spirit of teamwork between the political and career officials. And each of you has a special role to play here. You’ve reached the top of your profession, and you’re skilled managers, knowledgeable in your fields, respected by your colleagues. And I’m asking you to join with our political appointees not only in setting an example of cooperation but, again, one of excellence as well.

To those who work outside Washington, I would send a special message. At times it may be frustrating when it seems that the head office is thousands of miles away and the message is not getting through. But if I may, I’m going to issue a verbal Executive order: We’re going to listen, because the heart of our government is not here in Washington, it’s in every county office, every town, every city across this land. Wherever the people of America are, that’s where the heart of our government is.

… And there’s one more thing we need to do. The Government is here to serve, but it cannot replace individual service. And shouldn’t all of us who are public servants also set an example of service as private citizens? So, I want to ask all of you, and all the appointees in this administration, to do what so many of you already do: to reach out and lend a hand. Ours should be a nation characterized by conspicuous compassion, generosity that is overflowing and abundant. And you can help make this happen outside of your workplace, in your communities and your neighborhoods, in any of the unlimited opportunities for voluntary service and charity where your help is so greatly needed.

Of course, in that 1989 speech you can hear echoes of Bush’s 1988 speech accepting the Republican nomination. It is remembered more generally as the “Thousand Points of Light” speech, a call to public service, voluntarism, and the preservation of space for non-governmental institutions of civil society to help make our country the best it can be. It is, quite frankly, one of my all-time favorite political speeches:

For we’re a nation of community; of thousands and tens of thousands of ethnic, religious, social, business, labor union, neighborhood, regional and other organizations, all of them varied, voluntary and unique.

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, “Holy Name”—a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

Does government have a place? Yes. Government is part of the nation of communities—not the whole, just a part.

And I do not hate government. A government that remembers that the people are its master is a good and needed thing.

President George H.W. Bush, rest in peace.

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