FS and political appointees

When I went off to my first FS job in 1985, I was told that my job was to represent the American nation, not only the current occupant of the WH. Of course we advocated administration policies, but we also brought in speakers and programs of legitimate American opinion that disagreed. America does not speak with one voice and neither did we. When I managed the speaker program in 2007, I specifically directed that our speakers represent the diversity of American opinion, again not only the point of view of the current occupant of the WH. It is a tribute to wise political leadership that I not only got away with that but also prospered.

It is a difficult balance. Of course, we work for the President, but we expect that a wise president will recognize his limitations and know that the American government is greater than the American president and that the American nation is greater than both.

In an always uncertain world, we can never know which of our efforts will be most successful and useful. That is why we need to have lots of things working, some of them contradictory. It is the strength of diversity not that any particular option is best but that among the many some will be the right ones.

I have worked with political appointees who were excellent. They bring an important perspective that we professionals usually lack. But the effectiveness comes more from the tension between professionals and political than from the harmony among them. If the balance tips too far in the political direction, we will be missing out on having different paths forward when conditions warrant or political leadership changes, as it always does.

Whether we welcome or dread it, all professionals must look forward to working for a different political leadership and serving a new president with equal vigor as we serve the current one, just as we served the predecessor as eagerly as we do the current leader.

In my experience, political appointees often do not understand this. They think that their man in the WH is the culmination of some sort of historical process, that we are happy to be rid of the old guy and embracing the new. This is true for some of us sometimes, but we must curb our enthusiasm or distaste because that is what professionals do.