Opinion: It Shouldn’t Be This Hard to Serve Your Country

Acting with integrity no longer a requirement for public service — and may be impossible

After Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was forced out, he described the culture in D.C. in a New York Times op-ed as “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive.” (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images file photo)
After Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was forced out, he described the culture in D.C. in a New York Times op-ed as “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive.” (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images file photo)
Posted April 3, 2018 at 5:00am

Do you remember the days when people in Washington used to say they were leaving their power jobs to “spend more time with their families?”

It was almost always a cover story for something less pleasant or more nefarious. But with a wink and a gentleman’s or lady’s agreement not to say more than necessary, the Cabinet secretary or member of Congress was gone like that.

But over the last several months, instead of going gentle into that good night of family dinners and movies with the kids, a series of high-profile power players have skipped the cover story and chosen to share the sad, depressing and mostly unvarnished truth instead, which is that Washington has become a city where acting with integrity is not only no longer a requirement for public service, it may not even be possible.

A day after Dr. David Shulkin was forced out of his job as secretary of Veterans Affairs last week, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that suggested this happened because he opposes privatizing VA hospitals.

He described the D.C. culture as “toxic, chaotic, disrespectful and subversive.” But it was his last line that I can’t stop thinking about. “It should not be this hard to serve your country.”

That echoed Rex Tillerson’s final words as secretary of State in the days after he, like Shulkin, was fired by President Donald Trump over Twitter without ever getting the news directly from the president.

To add insult to injury, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made it known that he had given Tillerson, who left his job as CEO of Exxon Mobil to take the Cabinet position, a heads-up about Trump’s coming tweet while the secretary was stuck in the restroom with a stomach bug. The headlines the next day told the unfortunate story of Tillerson’s “Call of Doody.”

It was no way to treat a person.

“This can be a very mean-spirited town,” Tillerson told State Department staffers on his last day. “But you don’t have to choose to participate in that. Each of us get to choose the person we want to be, and the way we want to be treated, and the way we will treat others.”

Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed with Tillerson on Iran Deal

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Disposable patriots

Why would anyone choose to be treated like this — disposable like yesterday’s garbage? That’s how President Trump seems to treat the men and women who have chosen to work for him in jobs that probably pay less and require far more of them and their families than nearly anything else they could be doing instead.

In most cases, you’ll find people who wanted to serve their country, but are learning it’s harder than they expected. Much harder.

But White House jobs aren’t the only ones otherwise good people are leaving in favor of something else — anything else — that sits better with their souls.

In the days after South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy announced he would retire from Congress at the end of this term, he told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota this:

“I like jobs where facts matter. I like jobs where fairness matters. I like jobs where, frankly, where the process matters. It’s not just about winning and it’s not just about reaching a result.”

That is a damning critique from a man who could almost write his ticket for a lifetime in Congress, but is saying it’s not a life worth pursuing after all.

Or Sen. Jeff Flake, after he also said he’ll leave at the end of this year instead of run for re-election.

The Arizona Republican, who is about as nice a guy as anyone on Capitol Hill will ever meet, gave a scorching takedown of what Washington has become in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor last October after he announced his retirement: “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

It’s both a sad state of affairs and an alarming predictor of where we’re headed if the rewards for adhering to facts, acting with integrity and simply trying to do your job are not enough to keep otherwise good people in the game. It really shouldn’t be so hard to serve your country.

We didn’t get here overnight, of course, and it’s too easy to just blame Trump alone for poisoning the culture in Washington. That happened years ago when the lines between campaigning and governing blurred to nothing and trust between the two parties corroded and rusted like an old useless pipe.

How can two members of a committee strike a deal on legislation or agree on a compromise in good faith when one is trying to get the other defeated? They can’t. That’s not how people work.

For me, it was time to leave Capitol Hill after my boss was defeated in a race that was defined by character assassination and distortions. Telling the truth was less important than the number of lies a campaign could absorb and deflect. A bad system did terrible things to a good man. After nine years as a Senate staffer, I left the Hill. Public service, serving our country, had become too hard. And it’s only gotten worse since.

We owe a great deal to the people who have told us the real reasons they’re leaving their jobs recently, and not just for the work that they’ve done for the country for as long as they have.

They are warning us of what’s to come if we don’t find a way to change course — that eventually the only people willing to run for office, volunteer for public service or accept a position in this White House will be egomaniacs and people with no shame or conscience. In other words, precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in the mix at all.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.