Citizenship and Public Service


By DR. VIRGIL M. HANCHER, President, State University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa

Delivered before the Graduating Class of the University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., June 3, 1945

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 616-619.

I AM very happy to be present at the University of Illinois on this Commencement Day. It is my pleasant duty, President Willard, to bring greetings from the University of Iowa to this great University over which you have presided so ably in these difficult and distracting It is our hope and belief that from its great achievements the past and present this University will move on to greater fields of knowledge, of service and distinction.

You, who are graduating today, may well pause during this brief hour to consider your future. One part of your life is closed. The record is written. No part of it may be altered, even by so much as half a line. Some of you have exceeded your highest hopes; some have fallen short of your goals; all have met the standards required by this University for the stamp of its approval. You have finished one stage of your journey. What will the next one be?

The next stage may be one not of your choosing. Organized resistance in Europe has ended and we can now concentrate upon the Far Eastern War. The winning of that war and the organization of peace and victory, real peace and victory everywhere, are still to be achieved. Your lives and fortunes may be fashioned by that stubborn fact for months or even years to come. But with the advent of V-E Day in Europe, our hopes have been renewed. If the clouds of war can be lifted in one part of the world, they can be lifted in another. The end of combat in one great theatre of action only stimulates our desire for peace and security everywhere—for a world reasonably immune from the devastation and destruction of oft-repeated wars. We are not a war-like people. We desire neither expansion of territory nor far-flung dominion over alien and subject peoples. Our desire is for peace and security for ourselves and for all men.

How shall we achieve this desire for peace and security? As individuals we are powerless to achieve it. However, through the agency of our government, we can make our desire articulate, we can make our desire a potent force in international affairs. But governments ido not run themselves. They are not perpetual motion machines, containing within themselves some secret source of strength. They are run by men, by men who are wise and benevolent, rapacious and ignorant, men who are old and fallible and infirm, men who are young and strong and virile. They are run by normal human beings, average men and women, working in a medium which to many of us is strange and unfamiliar. Because it is strange and unfamiliar, we sometimes unwisely and unfairly condemn what we do not understand. We thereby expose ourselves to danger, for if men and women of ability, education and character, men and women like yourselves, so lose confidence in their government and its political activities that they will take no active part in its affairs, this Republic will be in graver danger than it was at Pearl Harbor or the Ardennes Forest, at Gettysburg or Valley Forge.

We may stand in greater danger than we know. Let me illustrate what I mean. A little more than a year ago, The National Opinion Research Center conducted a public opinion poll on the public attitude toward politics and politicians and in March, 1944, it published the results in its Report No. 20. In that poll it asked the following question: If you had a son getting out of school, would you like to see him go into politics as a life-work? Of the persons interviewed, 70% definitely opposed politics as a life work, 10% had no opinion, and only 20% favored such a career. Now I shall not press these figures too far or attempt to prove too much, but from the typical comments printed in the report one disturbing and dangerous fact stands out: The great majority of the persons interviewed believed politics to be a hazardous and dishonest occupation, an occupation in which it is difficult to find security for oneself and one's family, an occupation in which it is unusually difficult to remain honest and honorable. And, whereas opposition to politics as a life-work was expressed by 70% of the whole people, the poll also shows that that view was held by 81% of the people who had gone to college. Those figures are very disturbing to me; for if they correctly represent our present state of public opinion—and I fear that they do—I do not see how we can hope to attract greater numbers of our best and ablest young men and women into politics and government.

This was not always true. In the years between the two World Wars, it was the fashion to belittle the Founding Fathers. However, when the muck-rakers and the critics had done their worst, it remained true that only rarely in human history had there been gathered together a body of men so proficient in the theory and practice of government as the men who declared our independence from Great Britain and established our form of government. In those days, politics and government attracted the best minds of the age, minds able to justify our independence before the world, minds able to create a government under which the nation could grow from a narrow strip of land along the Atlantic Seaboard containing four million people to a continental domain containing one hundred and thirty million people. It is well to remember that under this government—whatever its minor faults may be—our people have come to a level of political, economic and social well-being never enjoyed before by so many persons in so vast a territory in all the recorded history of mankind.

If we are to retain our pre-eminence, government must be equipped to play its part. New and strange problems confront us, both in the national and in the international field. Whether we like it or not, we five in an altered world from which there is no retreat Old balances of power have been destroyed, and the new have not emerged. Russia has become a great power. India is restless, and China's millions are on the march. War itself, as we have seen in these last six years, can be a thing incredibly cruel and devastating. And, while war consumes our substance and lays waste the substance of other lands, we know that we have at hand the means for creating a fuller and more abundant life for our people, if only we can gain the peace and security in which to use them. We cannot hope to achieve that peace and security through our individual efforts alone. We can achieve it only through government that agency through which may be focused the hopes and desires of all our people for peace and security. But who will constitute that government? Who will fill its offices and perform its functions? If you do not make government your concern, whose concern shall it bet Once before when, as a struggling young nation, our problems were vast and complex, we were able to enlist the wisest citizens of that day in the service of politics and government. The wheel has come full circle. Today as we face vast and complex new problems, we need the aid of the wisest and best of our citizens for their solution. Once again we need to enlist all the political genius of our people.

How can this be done? I have no cheap and easy solution. The beliefs, or the prejudices, of our people concerning politics cannot be lightly swept aside. Neither can its undesirable features be changed by any magician's trick. All we can hope to do is to take a few halting steps in the right direction. One of these I believe to be the creation of a sound public opinion toward politics and government. This you can help to do. Find out how government works in your own precinct and ward, as well as in the city, state and nation. Study the problems of government and the efforts which politicians make to solve them. Even if ultimately you should come to scorn politics and politicians, let it be done on the basis of fact and knowledge rather than on hearsay and ignorance. Although you may never run for public office, be an active participant in the affairs of your local government. Learn that good government, like charity, begins at home. "Help keep the village clean" is a slogan that can be applied to more than wastepaper and refuse.

Learn that a sound super-structure of world order cannot be built on a foundation of local corruption and gangsterism.

Lend your earnest support to those public men and public measures whose purpose it is to make politics a less hazardous and a more satisfying career than it is at present. Let me suggest some measures worthy of consideration in attempting to achieve that purpose.

We might, for example, pay our politicians salaries commensurate with hazards of their calling. To the extent that we can create and expand our intelligent and trustworthy civil service in all our governments, state and national, we shall have solved a part of our problem. But we can never give tenure and security to our legislative representatives and our chief executive officers. It is of the very essence of our government that we be free to dismiss them and to select others when we choose. A political career should not be weighted in favor of either the idle rich or the desperate poor. In industry it is recognized that continuity of employment is a more desirable factor than mere level of pay. Let us recognize this fact in dealing with our hazardous elective offices; and, if we desire good men and women in office, let us pay them salaries commensurate with the risks of their calling.

We might, also, give recognition to the expense incident to the occupancy of certain offices. Recently the Congress has been considering an annual expense allowance of $2,500 for each Senator and Representative. Most people who know the facts would agree that some allowance should be made. Until the private and personal demands of their constituents have been moderated and restrained by an enlightened public opinion, the lot of the average Congressman or Senator can never be a happy one. It is common knowledge that men without independent fortunes find it difficult to serve in the Congress. The demands upon their salaries are excessive. They do not ask to become rich from public office, but they do expect not to be impoverished. Certainly they have a right not to be impoverished by constituents who would not hesitate to turn them out of office at the next election.

We might also recognize that reasonable pensions for long and faithful public service, even in elective offices, would neither bankrupt the treasury nor necessarily corrupt the body politic.

Lest it should appear that I am stressing financial considerations unduly, let us turn to another consideration for a moment. Do we give undue weight to population and geography in electing our presidents? Are we certain that the best qualified: candidates usually and regularly come from our populous and doubtful states? It has been suggested that a farmer governor of Minnesota might be the Republican candidate for the presidency against President Truman in 1948. If that should happen, it will be the first campaign since 1864 in which the presidential candidates from both of the principal political parties have come from states other than New York and Ohio. In the last twenty presidential campaigns, the presidential candidate of at least one of the major parties in each campaign was from New York or Ohio. In those twenty campaigns, there were 41 major candidates for the presidency. Of that number, 26 were from New York or Ohio and 15 were from other states. From 1868 to 1944, a period of 76 years, residents of New York or Ohio occupied the presidency for a total of 46 1/2 years, as compared with 29 years for the residents of states other than New York and Ohio. If a modern Horace Greeley were advising a politically ambitious young man, he would hardly say, "Go West, young man, go West." Nor, for that matter, would he say, "Go South, young man, go South." In this connection it is pertinent to ask whether the odds which favor the man from New York or Ohio are in reasonable relation to the distribution among our people of the men best qualified for the presidency.

If we desire to attract able men and women to a congressional career, means should be found to improve the machinery of the Senate and the House so that their members can perform more adequately the duties contemplated by the Constitution. The Congress is now considering the reorganization of its own procedures to that end. Under the various proposals which have been made, the number of committees and committee assignments would be reduced, committees would be set up in each House with similar and coordinate Jurisdiction, joint meetings of such committees would be held for the taking of testimony and the presentation of matters of general interest pertaining to pending bills, committee meetings would be scheduled to avoid conflicts, and the committee would be adequately staffed with legislative and technical assistants competent to advise members on questions of broad public policy. It has also been proposed to Congress that all private bills and legislation not of a general character be handled by a special committee of each House or by a special agency of the Congress. The purpose of all this is to free each House and each member of each House, as far as possible, from local and trivial matters, and to restore to the Congress authority over the great national and international issues to which it should give its time and attention.

In this latter connection, some means should be found, by the force of public opinion or otherwise, to restrain constituents from preempting the time of Senators and Representatives for matters of a personal, local or trivial character. Not long ago a Senator—a Senator from a state far distant from Illinois and Iowa!—told me of a rumor in his state that a new veterans' hospital was to be located there. Promptly six different delegations from as many different communities in the state traveled to Washington. Each spent from two to three days conferring with government officials in an effort to get the proposed hospital located in its community; and each delegation insisted that the Senator accompany the delegation on all its calls upon government departments and officials. Had he refused, he would have angered enough people in this one matter to have started himself well toward defeat in the next election. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether these same worthy citizens would excuse the Senator if he failed to study and understand complicated pending legislation affecting the national welfare or their personal interests and which he was prevented from studying by their unwarranted demand on his time.

I have mentioned many things today that affect your government, and, through it, affect your lives and fortunes. They are not controversial. They do not involve deep political issues. I have attempted no solutions.

What I have tried to say and the only thing that I wish you to remember is this: The functioning of our government is a matter oi vital importance to you. And to those of you who are citizens I would add: This is your government. What do you propose to make of it? Will you be a part of the 70% of our people who regard politics as a poor business at the best and a dirty business at the worst? Will you, like Pilate, attempt to wash your hands of the whole matter? If you do, do not complain if others less dean than yourself decide that the government is theirs for the taking. Or will you play your part as a good citizen and perhaps as a good public officer, vigilant and competent in the performance of every duty entrusted to you?

A people gets the kind of government it deserves. If itwants honest government, it will get it. If it wants efficient government, it will get it. If it wants statesmanlike government, it will get it. But if it would rather have a dam on Possum Creek than revenue measures that will service the public debt, maintain the functions of government, and stimulate trade and industry, it will get that, too. Whatever is wrong with government was first wrong with the people.

In the midst of international war and crisis, I have chosen to speak to you about the internal working of our government. I have done that because I believe that the proper functioning of our government is vital to the peace and security of this nation and of the world. That functioning can only be assured if we attract to politics and to government a fair proportion of our ablest men and women. It is our proud boast that we live under a government of laws and not of men. But bad men can make bad laws, and can administer them badly. Nazi Germany will bear witness to that truth. For the solution of the problems that face us, our government will need all the knowledge and skill and character that it can enlist, and it will need to function fearlessly and efficiently, free from anachronisms andignorance.

I have undertaken to speak to you about these problems because they are problems of common concern. Whatever your name or race, whatever your interests or profession, whether you live in this country or in some far distant land, you cannot be unconcerned about the government of the United States. And you who constitute the great majority of this class, you who are citizens of this great RepubliC., I challenge to defend and protect and improve the government of the United States to the end that it may be held in esteem in every part of the world and may be worthy of that esteem. In that common task you may add credit to yourselves and honor and glory to your country.