By T.B. Lefever:
As the final week of the Obama era draws to a close, both positive and negative reflections on his time as President are peppering social media and traditional news outlets alike. While the more negative articles highlight a feckless foreign policy, disingenuous jobs statistics, and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on family and personal vacations, the more romantic pieces are love letters of thanks and gratitude for the president’s selfless devotion and public service done for us all.
Spin in politics is a 24/7/365 affair, but it seems to get particularly heavy during campaign season or when it’s time to revise history and sculpt a favorable legacy for one of its own as they ride off into the sunset. For me, the most gag-inducing aspect of this process is the self-aggrandizement politicians get away with when they declare their time in office as “public service.”
How many times have we all had to sit through campaign speeches where career politicians convey the message that we ought to be thanking them for being a lifelong “public servant”? For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this bone to pick with our elected officials, and I wonder how many other actual public servants feel the same way. Shouldn’t Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson—a man who is uneducated enough to believe that the island of Guam can capsize if too many people inhabit it—be thankful just to have a job in the first place? No, Johnson and company award each other with public service awards of their own creation, and we stand by and parrot that sentiment of thanks for a man who occupies a chair in the House but cannot occupy his skull with a brain.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “public servant” is defined as simply “a government official.” There is no language in the definition that ties public service with prestige, honor, sacrifice, or selflessness. By itself, it’s not a distinguished title, but merely a classification for someone who is permanently employed by the government. In essence, two people could do the same exact job, but the one working in the public sector is a public servant while the private sector employee is not.
But neither the classification itself nor the definition are what I take issue with. I take issue with the way in which the term is hijacked and then used by the suits behind the podiums to invoke thanks from the very people who allow them to be in the position they are in. I don’t think it was public safety workers or teachers who morphed the public service label into a virtue-signaling reminder of how selfless and special they are. No, that is the work of our politicians.
With that being said, contrary to the definition, most people apply a degree of reverence to the term “public service.” When I think of a public servant, I think of a volunteer firefighter in a small town having to leave their kid’s birthday party at the sound of a handheld radio attached to their belt directing them to drop everything and save some poor family’s house from burning down.
When I think of a public servant, I think of a teacher working on a fixed salary spending their own time after hours to get the lightbulb in a kid’s head to finally light up.
And yes, when I think of a public servant, I think of a police officer spotting a car wreck on the side of the highway and pulling over after a long eight, ten, or twelve-hour watch to assist their fellow citizen who might be injured.
How do EMTs feel about Hillary Clinton’s “lifetime achievement awards” for “public service” while they anxiously await blood tests to see if they may have contracted a life-altering blood-borne disease from a patient they helped save? The public servants I recognize don’t get rich by doing what they do, nor do they lie about bullets whizzing over their heads when they deplane in a foreign country. For true public servants, there are no life-changing perks of fame and notoriety that they can derive from their position. They sacrifice for the greater good rather than as a means to a lucrative end.
While some public servants do have stories of bullets whizzing over their heads, such stories are almost never the ones they actually want to talk about. If you speak with police officers and try to thank them or put them on a pedestal for doing what they do, most will shrug it off and say something along the lines of, “Thanks, but I’m just doing my job.” When I speak with my children’s teachers, I get the same impression from them. Yet when I turn on the television, I see our elected officials patting each other on the back as they live lives of luxury that most of us could only dream about.
The Founding Fathers didn’t have a nation run by permanent elites in mind when they wrote the US Constitution, yet lawmakers have transformed the very existence of their position in government from a temporary public service into a lifetime gravy train. The question is this: how subservient have we become to those we should be holding accountable with our hard-earned money and votes? As they use the offices we place them in to benefit themselves first and foremost, why do we continue to allow them to manipulate us into feeling so grateful for their “public service”? It is no secret that the media plays a part, but I think it’s also good old-fashioned voter apathy that keeps the leeches in office. And while there are some good ones out there, the leeches appear to be running the show for now.
To send this one home, being a public servant is a frame of mind and a calling. In a perfect world, public service can’t just be a career or the whole idea of it is soiled. Sometimes the call for service can no longer be heard by cops, firefighters, teachers, nurses, etc., yet they continue to do the job. We have all had our run-ins with those who don’t fit the bill, but those of us who get into it for the paycheck usually don’t last very long before showing ourselves to the nearest exit.
If you’re a cop who looks the other way and drives on down the road when you see someone in need of help, you’re not behaving like a public servant. If you’re a teacher who doesn’t really care about the kids you are tasked with helping to raise up in society, you’re not serving anyone. Yet how many times have we seen our politicians only do something for the public that would translate into votes? How many times have we witnessed the empty media stunts that wound up helping no one but the person who broke the promise as soon as the cameras went away?
I’ve noticed that there is a pattern of retired cops getting into teaching, teachers becoming firefighters, firefighters becoming EMTs, etc. To me, this pattern shows that a true public servant will always look to be living a life of service in one way or another. I would bet dollars to donuts that real public servants would like these spotlight-performing politicians to stop reminding us all what amazing public servants they are.
And if I’m betting donuts, I might as well be betting the house.
T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.