Steven Hellem, Annapolis Maryland, and James Strock wrote this piece for Mike Causey’s respected Federal Report of the Federal News Service.
Perhaps no leader from American history has more relevance to our current circumstances than Theodore Roosevelt. Just as Roosevelt and his generation grappled with the transformational changes of the turn of the twentieth century, we’re encountering corresponding challenges early in the twenty-first.
Amid the challenges of the moment, federal employees would do well to turn their attention to his enduring example.
Roosevelt Experienced in Personnel Management
More than any other president, Roosevelt possessed direct experience in state and federal personnel management. Just as he saw citizens as the foundation of the American nation, he saw public employees as the foundation of the federal government. TR respected them both as civil servants and individuals who deserved his respect and his ear, prior to making decisions that could impact the country or the world.
Through Roosevelt’s career—from his early appointment to the US Civil Service Commission through the presidency—civil service reform was a major, contentious public issue.
TR lamented that “the public service had by degrees been turned into a vast political engine; and thus even good public servants had become in many cases formidable instruments for thwarting the will of the people, and for debauching political life.”
Roosevelt tirelessly fought for a non-political civil service built on merit selection and retention. During his presidency, as reported by the Office of Personnel Management, the number of employees in merit system surpassed those of the partisan spoils system for the first time.
Character and Citizenship
The expectations of employees under the merit system are high. “Character” in Roosevelt’s view would be a lodestar. This would include personal probity, integrity, and a strict adherence to the letter and the spirit of the law.
What about hard cases? What if a career employee believes the policies or directions issued from a presidential administration are illegal or against the national interest?
TR was unequivocal about the duties of citizens in such circumstances:
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
Surely Roosevelt would urge that federal employees have at least as great an obligation as ordinary citizens.
Roosevelt’s robust declarations of the duties of citizenship can ring alternatively self-righteous or naive in our cynical time. Nonetheless, his words retain power, because he so manifestly sought to hold himself to the same ideals. If federal employees understandably feel unappreciated and uncertain in recent decades, they might look to Roosevelt’s example and ideals for encouragement.
Sometimes—in Roosevelt’s time as in as our own—we must look to history for the enduring standards that would guide us. Today’s civil servants at all levels of government might well ask, as they seek to do their duty amid kaleidoscopic chaos: What Would Roosevelt Do?”
What Would Roosevelt Do?