Burke Walsh is a friend of long-standing, and, as always with true friends, it doesn't really matter whether you continue seeing each other. In the nature of our busy lives, years have passed without contact. Still we find ourselves easily picking up the threads of the old friendship when thrown together again.
I say this up front to acknowledge that what I write about Burke here is colored by that personal relationship.
We first met, as members of the same platoon, falling out of the same barracks during infantry basic training at Indiantown Gap, Pa., more years ago than I care to recall. Aside from being new draftees just out of college, we had other things in common, among them an interest in history and writing. I much appreciated his wry and humorous, yet thoughtful, cast of mind. We became close. Then, in the way of the Army, we separated. Burke stayed in the infantry. While I made a bypass for further artillery training, he went directly to the front lines in Korea. Some years and many experiences later we found ourselves in Washington, both married, starting families, and in different lines of work. Occasionally our paths would cross; more often they would not.
I recite this background only because I have known him well enough to be able to persuade him to talk openly about the painful situation in which he now finds himself. He agreed to do so, at my urging, because he knows his case is far from uncommon and believes useful lessons may be drawn from it. Typically, he speaks with remarkably little bitterness and anger, considering his circumstances, and from a broad perspective.
His story deserves telling for other compelling reasons.
Aside from the personal anguish he and his family are experiencing, the example of Burke Walsh illuminates a critical public question: the working of the federal government. It underscores one of the Reagan administration's blackest marks, the mindless wholesale destruction of the career public service, one I believe will cause damage to the country for years to come.
Two weeks before Christmas, Burke was informed he would be dismissed from his federal government job, effective New Year's Eve.
He was a victim of a sweeping government reduction in force--or RIF, in Washington parlance--sharply cutting back the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration, the so-called CETA program. In particular, the information office in which he was working was being drastically reduced in size. He, and others, were out.
The dismissal meant more than the loss of his $50,000, Grade 15 government job, with all the obvious hardship for his family, the children's education, the mortgage payments and the rest. It meant the end of a government career for which he had been recruited, and in which he had performed well.
And, Burke quickly found out, it also meant a severe problem he had not anticipated. Including his Army time, he has 17 years of government service, three years shy of qualifying for a pension. Yet, under the present system, he will not be eligible for any pension payments for nine more years when he reaches the age of 62.
What's more, he has found the government is singularly unconcerned about what happens to the career people it is dismissing, for no fault of their own.
"To my knowledge," he says, "there is absolutely no real assistance that you get once you are dismissed. No official representative of the government has ever contacted me. There has never been any official prescription of jobs or availabilities afforded me from the government for placement. There is no effort by the government to help me find jobs in private industry or in government. There's no government-wide policy to help someone in my circumstance, and that is the truth.
"As far as my department is concerned, there was no review of my situation taking into consideration the length and effectiveness of my service. No one ever really reviewed to see what kind of work I had done. I fitted into a slot that was official and I was dismissed. I had no recourse as far as that dismissal was concerned. There was no consideration of the fact that I was what in the government is called a five-point veteran. My wartime service in Korea did me no service at all. There was no panel that I could go to and say, 'Look, I've been here for 17 years counting my service time. Maybe you'd like to take a look at this thing and ask whether you really intend to dismiss senior officials in their fifties. But this was not done for me, and it Haynes Johnson RIFFED was not done for anyone as far as I know."
Recently, a number of news stories have recounted the obvious personal anguish of people suddenly riffed from government service. Burke's is no less severe. Perhaps, though, he expresses the hurt more eloquently than some. He always was good at putting feelings into words.
"There's a perhaps unnecessary but pervading embarrassment that attends this situation," he says. "There's an embarrassment that you personally feel. There's an embarrassment that you feel with your peers and your family. You know they're feeling an embarrassment for you that you try to avoid as far as your dealings with them are concerned.
"You're embarrassed for yourself, and you're embarrassed for them. You can't avoid the feeling that the people around you have the feeling that there was some inadequacy on your part that led to your dismissal. You failed somehow. You failed them, and you failed yourself. All at a point in your career when you can't expect to have to come to grips with failure. You've done all the right things, made all the right moves. You've driven yourself to this point in a career--a career, not a job--and someone comes along and says you've done nothing wrong, but now you're out. And people look at you and they're embarrassed for you, and you are for yourself. It's a two-way street, and it's the damnedest two-way street you've ever been on.
"I've talked to people on the phone about this. I've talked to them face to face and, Haynes, this is the God's honest truth, I've had at least three or four people say to me, 'I could not take it.' They come just short of saying, 'Burke, I don't know how you haven't put a bullet in your head.' "
Burke is a proud man, and he remains proud of what the government has been and should be.
"I come from a family that's been in Washington for 135 years," he says. "They came here from Ireland, through Philadelphia. My great-grandfather was the maitre d' in the Willard Hotel during the Civil War. He was a Confederate, friend of Jubal Early. Used to go out in the weeds and talk to him. That's the last time that we had a subversive in the family that I know of. All of our family have been--well, we've got our military heroes. My grandfather and his group of Emmett guardsmen charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. Literally did. One of the few people that actually got to shoot a Spaniard during the Spanish-American War. He went on to the Philippines. My father was in naval intelligence, so I have all kinds of Washington credentials, and rather honorable ones, I would think.
"I have a background that gives a sense of government. I didn't work for Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter or anyone else. From the day I came in, I felt that I had an obligation to the United States government. And if you want to know the truth, I feel the United States government has let me down, because I never broke faith with them. I was encouraged to come in. They asked me. I joined the government as a career station in life, not to get rich. I must confess, I joined it for the security of government, plus the fact I was told my talents would enhance government.
"As I've said to you before, there is waste in government. There's no question about it. But the way waste has been addressed is abysmal. It's ridiculous. Two administrations in a row have run against the government worker. What they've done is contribute to what they're trying to undo. The danger is that the kind of milieu we're developing now in the goverment could be translated into a much larger hurt for this nation.
"We've got to stop picking on the government. First of all, we created the government service. This nation created it. It's like the separation of church and state. It's an abiding thing there. It's part of the United States. It's like the Army and the Defense Department which are held in such reverence. It's there. It's part of what makes this whole thing go. Yet we've attacked it like it's a bastard child. If we don't stop this we'll be killing ourselves."
I would not air Burke's story, nor would he want me to, in this space if it were seen only as one more personal account of hardship, valuable though such renderings may be. The larger point involves the damage now being done the government service.
A day will come, if it isn't already here, when the United States will need its most capable citizens to serve. How can the government possibly expect to attract such people when it, and its highest leaders, treat them so miserably?
To ask the question is to answer it.