Declining to Serve

Is patriotism overrated?

I do not mean the sort of patriotism that leads one to join the U.S. Marine Corps, or to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Rather, I speak of the impulse of certain people to take high-ranking positions in the government out of a sense of patriotic duty, at the expense of all other considerations.

I ask because I happened upon a lengthy profile of former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner in Sunday’s New York Times.  In this feature—written by Andrew Ross Sorkin, in conjunction with Geithner’s forthcoming book, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises—there is an intriguing passage detailing the moment in 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama approached Geithner about possibly being his Treasury head.

By Geithner’s (and Sorkin’s) telling, the meeting amounted to Geithner essentially making the case against himself, explaining point-by-point why he was the wrong man for the job.

The punch line, as it were, is that in the fullness of time, Geithner’s reservations proved entirely correct.

“I’ve been up to my neck in this crisis,” Geithner says he told Obama at the time, referring to his role as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York amidst the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and the resulting government bailouts.  “You’re going to have a hard time separating me from these choices if you ask me to work with you.”

“[B]y appointing Geithner, one of the main architects of the rescue strategy,” Sorkin explains, “the president would essentially be forced to endorse the bailouts, which could have negative political consequences.”

Could they ever.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, Geithner clearly saw his nomination as fraught, and makes it clear now that he did not “want” the position in any meaningful sense.  And yet when it was formally offered, he accepted it all the same.  In the words of Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s then-chief-of-staff, “[Geithner] said he wasn’t going to lobby for the job or put a campaign on for it, but obviously, if asked, he would serve.”

If asked, he would serve.  Famous last words.  Indeed, it recalls the explanation by Jon Huntsman, the Republican former governor of Utah, about becoming America’s ambassador to China under Obama, a Democrat:  “The president asked me, the president of all the people.  And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I’m asked by my president to serve, I’ll stand up and do it.”

When he said this in the spring of 2011, Huntsman was plotting to run against Obama in 2012 and needed to neutralize the inevitable charge within the GOP of being a little too intimate with the enemy.  (As for how well that strategy worked out, the polls speak for themselves.)

On the one hand, “if asked, I will serve” is an admirable formulation—a means of “putting country first” and sacrificing such things as quality time with your family or a seven-figure gig in the private sector.

Conversely, this altruistic attitude is oftentimes utter nonsense—a bit of false modesty acting as a rhetorical shield against high ambitions and starry eyes.  After all, to be an ambassador or Cabinet official might not yield great wealth or prestige, but it’s one heck of a résumé-booster.  Then there’s the old Samuel Johnson line, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Taking Geithner at his word—that he genuinely viewed himself as ill-suited for Treasury secretary and accepted it only out of a sense of obligation—we are left to wonder whether he should have declined the offer, and, more broadly, whether “if asked, I will serve” is a lousy reason to work in government in the first place.

To wit:  If you’re unsure of your fitness for a particular post, wouldn’t it be more “patriotic” to just say no?  If your involvement in the executive branch could do more harm than good, wouldn’t it be in the country’s best interest for you to resist the call of duty?

To enter public service for its own sake is a wonderful sentiment, and it has produced innumerable good works over the centuries.  However, government and politics ultimately depend on old-fashioned competence and cold-eyed realism, and patriotism is not always sufficient in pulling those things off.

In some circumstances, putting country first means putting yourself last.

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