The next time you say "government bureaucrat," you better say it with a smile, pardner.

Enough with the jokes about bean counters and red-tape tanglers. Even a number-cruncher can be a hero -- and one of them was among the nine federal employees honored last night at the first "Service to America" awards.

The awardees included the two FBI agents who finally closed the 40-year-old Birmingham church bombing case, an economist who blew the whistle on a billion-dollar federal government scam, a Customs agent who created new ways to prevent drugs from getting through U.S. borders, and a Coast Guard employee who evacuated thousands in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I work with a group of people who could go to private industry and double their salaries tomorrow," said honoree Alfred League, a mapping genius who provides information to soldiers around the world. "But they choose to stay in federal service because they're dedicated to making a difference -- every day."

You could hear the same thing (with small variations) from just about any of the 500 people at the Union Station dinner. The boldface names understand clearly that government begins and ends with the folks you never read about. "They love our country," said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Card was joined by "The West Wing" cast member John Spencer, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Sen. George Voinovich, Rep. Connie Morella, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James.

"We celebrate government service -- and that's bipartisan and saintly," said Spencer, who plays Chief of Staff Leo McGarry in NBC's fictional White House. "I think it's saintly to devote yourself to the good of the whole."

"Saintly" is not the first word that usually pops to mind when you think of Washington, but last night was an exception. Spencer has met White House staffers from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and the self-described "Irish working-class Democrat" says he's been equally impressed by the devotion and work ethic of both. "There are no bad guys here," he said. "This is celebrating the real workers, the grunts."

If it seemed they were all out of Central Casting . . . well, good for us all. These federal workers were humble, impressive, decent, articulate, just plain nice. Exactly the kind of people you want working for you.

The nine honorees were cited for directly improving the lives of Americans -- and you can't get much more direct than saving taxpayers more than $1 billion. But that Don Sweeney was awarded the Environment, Science and Technology medal last night is a surprise even to him, all things considered.

The 51-year-old economist has worked for the Army Corps of Engineers since 1978. "I am a number-cruncher, and have the glasses to prove it," he said with a laugh.

For five years, he was the technical manager of an economic work group that studied whether the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers lock system should be expanded. His preliminary conclusion? No major work was needed in the immediate future, if ever.

He was right, but it turned out to be the wrong answer. The Corps was in the middle of a "Grow the Program" initiative, and the billion-dollar-plus expansion project fit neatly into its plans. Sweeney, a civil servant, was taken off the project in 1998 and disciplined for insubordination. He protested up the chain of command to no avail. Meantime, Corps top brass were manipulating the data so the project could get the go-ahead -- a move some now call a "Military Enron."

In 2000, Sweeney finally blew the whistle and filed a disclosure with the Office of Special Counsel in the executive branch. The counsel quickly concluded something was fishy on the river and ordered the defense secretary to look into the matter. By the end of the year, Sweeney had a moral victory: The Pentagon concluded the Corps had cooked the books.

"It was the right thing to do," Sweeney said. "It wasn't their money."

He was lucky. Most whistle blowers do not survive the process. "My attorney says, 'You're a beacon of false hope for thousands,' " Sweeney said. As for the award, he was "honored and humbled to be included."

The other awardees had the blessings (if not the salaries) of their superiors.

FBI agents William Fleming and Ben Herren jointly received the Federal Employee of the Year medal for successfully closing the investigation of two men found guilty of the 1963 church bombing in Alabama. (Fleming postponed his retirement several times to stay on the case.) Coast Guard employee Kenneth Concepcion was given the Heroes of September 11th medal for directing the evacuation of 70,000 people from Lower Manhattan.

The Justice medal went to Customs Service investigator Robert Rutherford for reducing drug trafficking in South Florida. League received the National Security and International Affairs medal for innovations at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency that gives military personnel real-time information. The Social Service award went to Daniel Weinberg, a division chief at the Census Bureau, for developing a way to more accurately measure poverty and the needs of the poor.

Physicist Katharine Gebbie, 70, was awarded the Career Achievement medal for her work as founding director of the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and 27-year-old foreign policy specialist Rachel Billingslea received the Call to Service award for her work at the Pentagon developing security policy in the Mideast.

Gebbie and Billingslea proved to be the symbolic bookends of the night. The awards were created by the Atlantic Media Group and the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization to recruit and recognize federal civil servants. More and more older federal workers are retiring, and fewer and fewer young professionals are looking to the government for a career. Partnership president Max Stier is hoping the medals will attracted young, talented people like Billingslea to public service by annually highlighting excellence. The medal winners received $3,000 to $10,000.

The idea of last night's black-tie dinner was to toss a little glamour at the civil service. The biggest laugh of the night came when Woodruff introduced the White House chief of staff, to a standing ovation. Spencer took the stage, and the crowd did a good-natured double-take as Card gently took his rightful place at the microphone.

But the evening was far more inspirational than glitzy. Morella received a gracious and heartfelt standing ovation, Card talked about his grandmother's dedication to public service without sounding a bit corny, and Chris McNair -- father of one of the slain girls in the church bombing -- came to praise the FBI agents who finally brought justice for his family. "I'm here to talk about two wonderful people," he said.

Each awardee was more eloquent than the last; the desire for a group hug was successfully resisted -- but just barely. "I feel humility to be in the same room as some of these people tonight," said FBI agent Fleming.

Egads. Next thing you know we'll be saying nice things about IRS auditors.

Donald Sweeney, center, who blew the whistle on unnecessary Corps of Engineers work, with FBI agents and fellow award recipients William Fleming, left, and Ben Herren.Will the real chief of staff please step up? Andrew Card and actor John Spencer at the dinner honoring nine federal employees.