As he considered a run for the presidency in 1976 former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter asked himself two questions: “Can our government be honest, decent, open, fair and compassionate? Can our government be competent?”
A personal early career highlight for me came from my years serving in Governor Carter’s administration as Secretary to the Board and Assistant Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources. We who worked in the administration were constantly reminded that it was our responsibility to govern honestly, decently, openly, fairly, compassionately and competently.
After Georgia, at age 33, I spent a year in Washington, D.C. with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare before returning to Arizona to work with Bruce Babbitt, the state’s new governor.
While working in Washington my office was in the newly-named Hubert Humphrey Building, and I was there on November 1, 1977 when the Humphrey spoke at the building’s dedication. His words meshed with Carter’s to form a philosophy of governance that guided the rest of my career. Humphrey told the crowd that a primary duty of government is to serve the weakest in our society: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the disabled.”
During my career in politics, I never quit striving for a “yes” answer to Carter’s questions, and never stopped applying Humphrey’s moral test to my daily work. I didn’t always succeed, but I never quit trying.
There have been pivot points in which governance in America has not lived up to the Carter-Humphrey measurements, times when elected leaders put personal and party gain ahead of competence, and times when they violated the principles of honesty, decency, openness, and fairness. There have been times when the weakest in our society were used as scapegoats for the nation’s problems, and a government commitment to them was labeled wasteful and socialist, and they were sacrificed in the name of fiscal integrity.
But, those times were often followed by an equal and opposite reaction, a return to a government focused on serving the needs of the people rather than boosting the egos and power bases of their leaders. I sense that today we might be on the cusp of such a return, led by Democratic Republican Senators who are actually working together, trying to iron out differences in a critically-needed infrastructure bill.
Our Decaying Infrastructure: It is Fixable
America’s neglect of our infrastructure––both physical and human–– has been a national disgrace and a danger for decades. A generation of leaders has failed to seriously sustain an effort to address that and other critical problems. Instead, each political party blamed the other, and neither wanted to do anything that might politically benefit the other. But, as bad as it seems today, it is fixable. It is time for us — for my generation — to begin the correcting.
To begin, we should borrow a question arising from Woody Guthrie’s song This Land is Your Land: “Is this the land made for you and me?” Is this the land we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren? Guthrie answered that question in his song’s last verse: “Nobody living can ever stop me, as I go walking that freedom highway. Nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land was made for you and me.”
But let us remember—the land isn’t ours to own, but ours to care for. It belongs to our progeny and it is up to us to repair it and to clean it up before turning it over to them. It is the land our ancestors took from the native people and on which they formed a nation. Now — acknowledging the physical neglect, human injustices and mistakes of the past — the land and the nation are our responsibility. It is our opportunity and our obligation to ensure that the America our children and grandchildren inherit is more honest, decent, open, fair, and compassionate. We must commit to bequeathing future generations a solid 21st-centruy infrastructure of cleaner air, a sustainable environment, and rigorous protection of basic human rights, human opportunity and human dignity.
Embrace the Opportunity
If we embrace the opportunity and accept the obligation, our challenges will be daunting but not discouraging. America’s history proves that when we come together, when we focus together on big challenges, when we walk together on Woody’s freedom highway — nobody living can stop us, nobody living can make us turn back, because this land was made for you and me and our posterity. But, if we are not awake to each other, if we ignore the physical needs of our country and the planet, we’ll wake up to a nation in peril. We must, together, make the difficult decisions and do the hard work required of those who have the stewardship responsibility of a great nation.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.