It was one of those news stories that makes you sigh. Young Americans just coming out of college are no longer keen on government service, the first paragraph said. Recent graduates are seeking civil service careers only half as often as their counterparts did 25 years ago.
One reason the graduates gave was money. Almost universally, the class of 1990 believes that the dough is greener in private industry.
A second reason was sexiness. Who turns heads at a barbecue by announcing that he works for the Agriculture Department?
A third reason was bureaucracy. College grads like independence. What could be less independent than green walls, a million forms and bosses who say it has to be done a certain way because it always has been?
A fourth reason was pointlessness. Grads said they didn't see solutions or bold initiatives emerging from government. Instead, they see political game-playing and paper-pushing by burnout victims who think first and foremost about covering their hindquarters.
I only wish these grads had been around in 1965. I was a federal employee that summer. It was the only government job I've ever had. But it was an experience that made me respect "gummint work" forever.
Lyndon Johnson was president then. He dominated Washington like few presidents before and none since. Was there poverty? Johnson vowed to eliminate it. Was there voting inequity? Johnson demanded, and got, equal rights legislation. Did the country need better schools? Johnson pumped buckets of bucks into Head Start and college loans.
A sense of possibility was all over town. To a 20-year-old college student, there was no reason to spend the summer filing legal briefs or parking cars. The country was moving. For a summer at least, the student might be able to help.
Somehow, my Form 171 ended up at the Office of Economic Opportunity. Someone actually read to the second page and discovered that young Mr. Levey was the editor of his college newspaper. The call came: Would I be interested in a summer job writing feature stories about VISTA volunteers?
Volunteers in Service to America was modeled on the Peace Corps. The difference was that VISTA volunteers served in the United States. My assignment was to describe what and how they were doing for the in-house magazine.
The salary was $80 a week. Don't choke. It kept me in movies and food, easily. The hours were supposedly 9 to 5. Very supposedly. I often worked until 8 at night, without overtime, because the job needed finishing. So did everyone else.
If a decision had to be made, it wasn't shuffled under a stack of papers. The appropriate people would meet, discuss and decide. I never heard a soul say he had to check the budget, or had to make sure everything was signed in triplicate.
As for sexiness, it was hard to beat a late-night hop to Charleston, W.Va., on an old Eastern Airlines prop plane, a three-hour rent-a-car ride into the "hollers" and a day with a VISTA volunteer who was teaching adult illiterates to read.
But the best memory of all is my fellow workers. My overall boss, Padraic Kennedy, was imaginative, energetic and determined. Mary Grace Concannon, who worked in recruiting, pored over volunteer applications by the hour, looking for just right, not for barely acceptable. My editor, Marjorie Sonnenfeldt, had a deft touch and a wry sense of humor.
And I'll never come close to forgetting Elinor Constable, the whirlwind.
Her job was to travel to VISTA job sites to check on how the program was working. She was responsible for putting out fires in something like 250 different places. My mental snapshot of Elinor is from behind, waving as she dashed for the airport, an Official Airline Guide in one hand and an overstuffed briefcase in the other. She worked harder than anyone I've ever seen.
I realize that my 1965 experience may have been luck. I realize that what I've written may sound smarmy, or too good to be true. But I'm not glossing anything. Federal service really was that good. So were my co-workers. And so are the government workers of today.
Not all of them, of course. I've seen GS-14s doing the crossword puzzle at their desks. I've seen "budget analysts" who can't analyze a thing, and who take six coffee breaks an hour. I've met lots of federal workers who admit they care first about their pensions and second about everything else.
But right this minute, all over town, there are federal employees who are just as dedicated and talented as the Kennedys and Concannons and Sonnenfeldts and Constables of yesteryear.
No, these federal employees don't make $200,000 a year. But they make enough to keep themselves in movies and food. And even if the bureaucracy is sometimes clunky, federal employees make a difference and always will, because they always work on the big issues.
So give it another look, Class of 1990. You might turn heads at a barbecue after all.