Remaking American Public Service – Lessons from US Senator Frank Church

United States Senator and future Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE), US Senator and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Frank Church (D-ID) and President of Egypt Anwar Sadat following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Photo by United States Senate. 


“Sometimes it is necessary to take unpopular positions. I have to live with my conscience longer than I have to live with my job.” – Senator Frank Church (D)-ID

It is no hyperbole that the 2016 American Presidential election significantly tested the patience of the American public. Reflecting on the campaign season, there was little substantive discussion of issues that affect Americans – rather it was an eighteen-month slog of controversial statements punctuated with ad hominem attacks. Many argue that the American left has significant problems politically, yet their inability to elect perhaps the Democrats’ most qualified candidate in recent memory to the Presidency is a symptom of a much larger and endemic problem with tenor of public service in America.

We now have a new President with historically low approval ratings who has rolled out two weeks’ worth of morally abhorrent policies, and jumped from one political crisis to another. It is time for American public servants, Republican and Democrat alike, to disarm themselves of the overly-exaggerated and highly-personal politics that inappropriately drive so many to put their names on the ballot today.

American politics are at a watershed moment. Many observers used to believe that the United States was engaged in a hyper-partisan, albeit irreversible progression towards greater inclusivity, progressive protection of social welfare, and careful maintenance of our role as a global superpower. Now, our public lives in a “post-truth” reality of information of questionable authenticity self-reflected in closed opinion loops relative to one’s own political views. With the way in which President Donald Trump ascended to the office, and how he intends to govern, these disturbing trends in American politics seem only to be compounding. It is therefore time for aspirant public servants to reach into the annals of history and remake leadership in the visage of one of the most underrated political figures of the 20th Century – Senator Frank Church

If Senator Church were in office today, he would bring some much-needed perspective to a political arena in which fewer Americans place their trust every year. Senator Church walked a fine line between liberal national elites and conservative Idaho locals. His policies were often unpopular, albeit prescient and represented one of the most forward-thinking of his generation. He dissented from U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, even when it caused many foreign policy hawks and others to label him unpatriotic. His early commitment to conservation made possible much of the nation’s wilderness areas. Additionally, as Chairmen of several Senate Investigative Committees, he sought to reign in the excesses of international corporations and U.S. intelligence agencies.

No doubt many Idahoans, like the nation, voted for Donald Trump because he connected with their perceived views and interests. My staunch Republican grandparents, however. supported Senator Church because they believed he represented them well even though they may have disagreed with some of his views. “He was respectful, but not afraid to debate…he knew how to talk to people,” they told me when I said I was writing this piece. More elected officials need the courage Senator Church had to step outside their own safe feedback loops and speak candidly and directly to their ideological opponents. Both Republicans and Democrats have something to learn about reaching out to those who disagree with them.

In order to ensure this return to a time of more responsible politics, future political leaders need to learn from history. Learning to talk to Americans of all backgrounds is a skill shared by our greatest politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt. This “human speak” is learned in the minutia of time spent outside our comfort zone. For example, Senator Church’s experiences as an Army intelligence officer in South-East Asia during World War II, colored his views toward the war in Vietnam. Today’s public servants need more life experience with not only the military, but programs such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or Doctors Without Borders. It’s not enough just to have graduated from an Ivy League College, as have many Members of Congress and the entire Supreme Court.

Furthermore, political talent needs to be recognized and allowed to mature over time. Our older public servants should do what former President Obama has promised and coach their younger counterparts. Senator Church did this particularly well. In 1971, Senator Church met with an aspiring 29-year-old politician from Delaware. The story of the encounter can be found in the Senator’s biography Fighting the Odds. During the meeting, the young man said that Church “had a healthy disrespect for power” and talked more about the responsibilities of the office’s power than he did about winning and holding office. That young man was Vice President Joseph Biden, who had one of the most respected political careers of the twentieth century. Vice president Biden himself has chided his contemporaries for losing what he calls “the gut connection” with common American voters.

In closing, Senator Church offers aspirant politicians an incredible model for entering public service. Although he was a contender for the Presidency in 1976, the Senator was far more concerned with the responsible application of American power, both at home and abroad. He walked the line of the increasing partisan fray in Idaho, and did so while expertly representing its interests in the increasingly hostile environment that is Washington DC. Today that environment would be unrecognizable to Frank Church. It is time for the country to learn from Idaho’s own best public servant.

Charles Johnson is a Senior Contributor for Ramen IR focusing on Eurasia. He previously was a research fellow and development coordinator at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as an Education and Youth Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @Chase_Johnson

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