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Public Service Is Not All About Glory

Washington -- I remember how President Kennedy constantly urged young people to go into public service, telling them it could be the crown of their careers.

And I remember contrary advice from a young aide in the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal. When he was asked at a Senate committee hearing what he would tell a young person who wanted to go into public service, the aide replied: "I'd tell him to stay away."

There is no question that there has been disillusionment on the part of many government officials in every administration. Quite often it's a slippery slope when aides become "good soldiers" and follow orders that may run counter to their conscience.

The fate of Lewis "Scooter" Libby is a case in point. Libby had served in many government positions since 1981. His last job was as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, a powerful role considering the clout that Cheney wields in the current administration.

Libby was convicted last month of obstruction of justice and perjury in the investigation of the leaking of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's name.

In an interview last weekend on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation," Cheney said he had not talked to Libby since his conviction. "There hasn't been an occasion to do so, but I have enormous regard for the man. I believe deeply in Scooter Lobby. This is a great tragedy."

While government service can be rewarding, it also has its pitfalls. The Libby case shows how former aides become untouchable once they fall by the wayside.

The Bush administration called on then-Secretary of State Colin Powell before the U.S. invasion of Iraq to win over Americans who were undecided about the merits of such an attack. He made a take-no-prisoners presentation on Feb. 5, 2003, and convinced many that Saddam Hussein was indeed seeking weapons of mass destruction.

Later, when the evidence was in and no weapons were found, Powell said the whole sales job had been a "blot" on his career.

Powell was ousted after Bush's first term, as was former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who had been serving as head of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in the Bush White House. That board advises the president about U.S. intelligence operations.

In Scowcroft's case, he had made the mistake of publicly criticizing the attack on Iraq.

Both Powell and Scowcroft are veterans of the administration of the president's father, former President Bush. Both were dedicated public servants but both were dumped for being too dovish in a very hawkish administration.

It is sad that the White House was turned down by five retired generals when they were offered the new post of "czar" to coordinate all U.S. activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Sheehan explained his rejection of the job in an op-ed column in The Washington Post Monday titled "Why I Declined To Serve."

He began by saying:

"Service to the nation is both a responsibility and an honor for every citizen presented with an opportunity. This is especially true in times of war and crisis.

"Today, because of the war in Iraq, this nation is in a crisis of confidence and is confused about its foreign policy direction, especially in the Middle East."

The general went on to list the obstacles and the enormity of the post, including overcoming the bureaucracy and fitting the new "surge" -- or escalation of the war -- into the overall strategic framework.

Sheehan wound up by saying, "It would have been a great honor to serve the country again" but after "thoughtful discussions with people in and out of the administration," he decided not to take the position.

The general added: "We got it right in the early days of Afghanistan ... (but) we have never gotten it right in Iraq."

There probably are many who are serving in those far off places who feel the same way, but they don't have the luxury of saying, "No, I won't go."

Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: helent@hearstdc.com.

Copyright 2007 Hearst Newspapers.

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