What with the far-reaching scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the indictment of Congressional Leader Tom DeLay, and the ongoing questions surrounding the legal and ethical boundaries of presidentially-mandated electronic surveillance of citizens(see Walter Pincus Corralling Domestic Intelligence in the January 13, 2006 Washington Post), these are difficult days to teach students about the ethics of public service. Equally challenging is the task of inspiring young people to consider seriously devoting some portion of their careers to government service, as elected officials or career staff, or as members of the military and intelligence agencies. Yet, this “teachable moment” also offers numerous case studies to help the next generation of citizen leaders formulate strong, clear philosophies about the ethical principles of public leadership. Examples abound of what not to do in positions of power and influence.
Today’s college students are certainly not the first generation to witness the problems of morally ambiguous characters and downright scurrilous behaviors among individuals in and surrounding public offices. As a Trinity senior during the days of Watergate, the name of the scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon, I remember being invited to participate in a forum conducted in 1973 by a group known as the Center for the Study of the Presidency. Nixon was still the president, but his problems were growing. This was a time shortly after the scandal-provoked resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and the appointment of Gerald Ford to replace Agnew as vice president of the United States.
Vice President Ford was on the agenda to speak to us at the Center’s conference, which took place at the then-new Sheraton conference center in Reston, Virginia. We students (mostly student government leaders) anticipated the dinner with great excitement — to think that we would actually meet the vice president of the United States! But our excitement was also tempered by the climate of the times — the Vietnam war was winding down, just as Watergate was heating up, and college students were notorious for protesting anything having to do with “the establishment” including (especially) the Nixon Administration. I knew that if I had the opportunity, I was going to ask Vice President Ford whether any of us should ever consider working for the government, given the scandals of the day. Such was the brashness of youth!
At the dinner, Vice President Ford spoke about the value of public service, and urged us to consider joining public agencies. He then took questions from the floor. I seized the opportunity! Gathering my courage, I raised my hand, and was stunned when he actually called on me. Trying not to sound too nervous, I stood up and said (paraphrasing here, it’s been a while!), Mr. Vice President, how can you ask young people to consider public service when there is so much scandal in your administration? What can you say to us to convince us not to be cynical about working for the government?
There was a gasp from the direction of the Center Director Gordon Hoxie, but Mr. Ford smiled, and said (again paraphrasing), Look, individuals may have behaved badly, but you cannot write-off the entire field of government service because of bad behavior. Maybe what we need is a new generation of smart, ethical young talent to come work in government and help us to fix what’s wrong.
Afterward, the Mr. Hoxie chided me for confronting Mr. Ford. But, in the headiness of the moment, I declared that I thought the vice president needed to know that the conduct of the Administration was chilling the passion of young people like me for the careers in government we once had planned. (Ironically, I ran into Mr. Hoxie many years later, after I became Trinity’s president, and reminded him of this exchange. He laughed, and said that, obviously, I turned out mostly ok anyway.)
I thought of this episode when I received a letter from a Trinity alumna last week wondering whether Trinity’s new program in Intelligence Studies, funded through a grant from the Intelligence Community, is compromising Trinity’s bedrock commitment to search for truth. I’ve received several similar letters since we announced the creation of Trinity’s Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence. Coincidentally, earlier in the week I had been speaking with some of my contacts in the Intelligence Community about the skepticism I sometimes encounter regarding the whole idea of introducing Trinity students to Intelligence careers. In a room full of distinguished generals and admirals with long experience in military intelligence, that brash Trinity senior spoke up again: how can I encourage my students to work in a field that has a public image of skirting the edges of law and ethics? What can the intelligence community do to repair this perception and the reality that may support it?
The ensuing discussion illuminated what I have already come to know about intelligence professionals: they are just as troubled as the general public about some events and activities, and they are as eager as we are to find ways to ensure that the work of Intelligence is used for ethical purposes for the sake of the nation. One way to achieve that goal is to be sure that Intelligence professionals are well educated and soundly rooted in firm principles of moral reasoning and ethical conduct — professionals such as the graduates we hope will march forth each year from Trinity.
Trinity has long encouraged our students to pursue careers in the legislature, executive branch, at the bar and in the judiciary. We celebrate our graduates who work as staff and elected officials in Congress, in the White House, in many government agencies and advocacy organizations, on local and federal benches. Clearly, a number of those public institutions have had their own share of ethical scandals — but no one has suggested that we should disavow the opportunities for careers in those places.
Trinity students today have greeted the opportunities to study Intelligence enthusiastically, and with the customary keen wit, deep integrity and belief in their power to change things that have always characterized our graduates. I have confidence in today’s students as they learn about their responsibilities as tomorrow’s leaders. Now and in the future, more than ever, the nation must have the good brains, large hearts and strong backbones of Trinity graduates in all fields of public service.
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