Morality of Public Servants


By GEORGE E. STRINGFELLOW, Vice President, Thomas A. Edison, Inc, WestOrange, N. J., and President of the Kiwanis Club, New York City

Delivered before the Rotary Club of New York City, October 19, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 156-158.

BECAUSE a large body of our citizens seems to fee that the moral and ethical laws which apply to business and professional men and women, do not apply to politicians, the character of our public servants is lower than it otherwise would be.

Webster defines politics in the positive sense, as "the science and art of government; the science of dealing with the organization, regulation and administration of the business of a state, in both its internal and external affairs." In the negative sense, Webster defines politics as a "dishonest management, to secure the success of political candidates or parties." It is in the latter category that the public places a large percentage of our public officials.

When our public servants deliberately mis-state a case,it is often justified by calling it "politics." When they "run out" on their promises—public or private—they are apparently forgiven when it is identified with "politics." When the politician accepts bribes, this too is countenanced when identified with "politics."

A judge, who was recently elevated to the office of attorney general, in recommending that the Governor appoint his law partner to succeed him on the bench, brazenly said, "I admit he's pretty dumb," (meaning his law partner) "but we've got to find a job for him." The Governor nominated his attorney general's law partner for the high judge-ship. There was so much political patronage behind it, the Senate confirmed the Governor's nominee as quickly as greased lightning.

This word "politics" has come to denote an excuse—or justification—by our public servants, for almost every conceivable impropriety.

Negative politicians are often so brilliant—yet so corrupt—that like rotten mackerels in the moonlight, they both shine and stink. The negative politician thinks only of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation. The negative politician works and schemes for the success of his party; the statesman for that of his country.

As election day approaches, these negative politicians proclaim their virtues, make promises which they never intend to keep, and which they hope the public will soon forget. They invent high-sounding catch-phrases, designed to mislead and deceive the voters.

Members of Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs do not have to be reminded that business or professional men who conduct their affairs like the negative politicians, soon find themselves:

1. Without friends

2. Without associates

3. Without customers, clients or patients

4. Without credit

and finally

5. Without hope.

They are rightly shunned by society.

We should demand of our public servants a moral and ethical standard as high as that which we exact of our business and professional men and women.

What is so important to us is that politics affect every phase of our lives, every minute of our lives.

Our standards of living,

Our taxes,

Our wages and salaries,

The condition of our cities

—every condition of life is affected by politics. Yet we often accept—without protest—moral and ethical standards in public officials, which we reject in others.

In this country—where men and women are still free to choose for themselves the kind of officials who make and enforce the rules by which we live, there can be no excuse for our selecting a single second-rater. The only explanation I can think of for this laxity, is that we have lost our sense of values and direction—that we have grown unmindful of our civic responsibilities. When a nation accepts a low moral and ethical standard for its public servants, its people soon become soft and degenerate.

I have presented a very ugly picture, but it is a true one—wholly unexaggerated. It is true in every part of the country—in all political parties. It is true, only because the people permit it to exist. The fault is not primarily in the cheap and conniving politicians who gain control of our civic machinery. The fault—and the responsibility—lie with the great body of our citizens—like those who comprise the membership of service clubs—who, knowing what they face, do nothing to correct it.

We should regard a person who takes no part in public affairs, not as harmless—but as a useless character.

I speak to you in this Kiwanian and Rotary fellowship in utter frankness, because I am convinced that we can admirably serve the whole American people if we—of our far-flung and highly respected organizations—reject the double standard in our public servants as we have in our personal, family and business life.

We can make of ourselves a nucleus for its elimination by entire communities throughout the land, if we refuse to be dominated by political bosses, and recognize that we can never elect better candidates than we nominate.

Good government begins in the primaries, where candidates are nominated. If we nominate the right kind of candidates, without regard to party label—and elect them in the subsequent election—positive, capable public servants will invariably be the result.Our organizations can aid in setting up a standard for public servants and the youth of America, which will be acceptable to all who are desirous of decent and efficient government.

In recent years we have been too willing to accept expedients for principles. Expedients are for the hour, and principles for the ages. Always vote for a principle.

"Wise is the man in public life," said that good friend of our clubs, Senator Albert W. Hawkes of New Jersey, "who realizes that by discharging his duty thoroughly and well, subordinating his personal desires to principles, and personal ambitions to exalted love of country—he will not only receive the endorsement of the people but—what is more important—he will deserve it."

If all of our public servants were as unselfish and as far-seeing as Senator Hawkes, and placed the welfare of their constituents above their own, there would be no such thing in this country today as:

1. Machine politics

2. Political bosses, and

3. Pressure groups.

It must be clear to every thinking person that our government will never be any better than you—and millions of others like you—help to make it. It will be as bad, as inefficient and as corrupt, as you—and millions of others like you—permit it to be.

Those who have the welfare of the nation at heart cannot afford to be apathetic or cynical. They must come out of their cellars of silent submission into the open space of free political discussion. This is where they belong, and where they can best serve—and save—the greatest system of government ever conceived by man.

"Our government," said Calvin Coolidge, "is a government of political parties under the guiding influence of public opinion."

What can our organizations do to create public opinion?

Let us consider these figures: Only 15% of the registered voters, on the average, take part in primary elections.

Approximately 10% of the registered voters are controlled by political machines; and what is more important is that these machine voters always vote. In addition, they see that their relatives and friends vote for the machine candidates. What is still more important is that the voters who follow the dictates of their own consciences, outnumber

the machine-controlled vote by ten to one, if they take part in the primary elections, register, and vote on election day.

Mr, William Feather, writing in "The Atlantic Monthly," said: "Believe it or not, there are only 250,000 in the whole United States whose opinions are important in matters of grave concern. As these people go, so go the others. The thinking of these people starts the ball rolling—it never rolls until they start it."

As you know, there are over 300,000 Rotarians and Kiwanians in the United States of America—all men of influence in their respective communities. By arithmetic, the solution seems simple.

Members of Rotary and Kiwanis, I believe this is a great challenge to our organizations today. Let us use this power to influence public opinion in the nomination and election of honest and efficient statesmen, regardless of party label. Then—and only then—will we have, and will we be entitled to have, honest and efficient government.