Public servants and public good

Right-wing Republicans, especially on the radio, are promoting the argument that Colin Powell’s endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is a matter of race, since both are black. This very misguided move could transform current Republican political difficulties into Republican political disaster. Republican presidential nominee John McCain quite rightly, and wisely, disavows the ploy.

The remarkably high-sustained regard for Powell by the American public is directly related to his career of public service. He rose in the U.S. Army from Vietnam tactical unit combat leader to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving along the way as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. Most recently, he spent four unhappy years as Secretary of State during President Bush’s first term.

After retiring from the military, Powell earned substantial sums from his memoirs, supplemented by lecture fees, but generally avoided corporate directorships and Washington lobbyists. Instead, he devoted great effort to founding America’s Promise, a youth service organization.

As a personal and professional role model he is unsurpassed, especially for black youth but also the population at large.

In other words, Colin Powell is what we used to refer to as a dedicated public servant, comparable to an earlier greatly esteemed leader, Gen. George C. Marshall. As chief of staff of the U.S. Army, Marshall did grueling essential work to get a dangerously unprepared America at least partially ready for the desperate struggle of the Second World War. He then led the mammoth organizational effort required for victory over the Axis, and served President Harry Truman as secretary of state and secretary of defense during years when the Cold War and Korean War both began.

Marshall wanted very much to lead the Normandy invasion, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered him indispensable in Washington. Ever the good soldier, Marshall never pressed the matter. Ever the shrewd judge of character, FDR let Marshall decide, knowing full well his man would put duty over desire.

Along with remarkable administrative ability, Marshall demonstrated great diplomatic and political skill.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army surrounded American forces in the Philippines commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a man widely disliked and mistrusted among fellow officers and more generally in Washington. Roosevelt privately described MacArthur as the most dangerous man in America, but did not want him to become a Japanese prisoner, and ordered him to Australia.

Marshall followed up thoroughly to ensure that media and public knew FDR had ordered this move, and that the government of Australia provided a positive and supportive welcome. The ultimate professional, he never let his personal dislike of MacArthur interfere. The ultimate staffer, he always devoted the time necessary for operational success.

George C. Marshall is not much discussed today, reflecting notable modesty. He put little personal information in the public record and never wrote memoirs, in part because he feared inadvertently revealing details best kept private, and in part because he felt strongly — incredibly, by today’s standards — that citizens should not benefit financially from government service. Forrest Pogue has given us a superb biography.

After the war, demagogue Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin attempted to smear Marshall as a traitor, and went on to attack the entire U.S. Army and many others for alleged communist sympathies. McCarthy instead destroyed himself, and was formally censured by the Senate. Marshall was rightly recognized as a great hero until the end of his life.

Contemporary Republicans should follow McCain’s lead by demonstrating respect for public service. Political denigration of the likes of Marshall and Powell is guaranteed to boomerang.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. E-mail him at acyr(at)