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Trust in Government

01/15/02 12:00AM By Madeleine M. Kunin

One of the unexpected side effects of September 11 is that the public has increased its trust in government.

What a sparkling gem to pull out of the ashes.

We hear less about government being the problem and more about government being the solution.

No doubt the fearless firemen, police men and rescue workers who sacrificed their lives in pursuit of their duty made people think twice. These were not simply anonymous gray government workers.

These men and women who entered the inferno to assist others to safety were fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. They could have been us, or our neighbors.

Reading their short obituaries in the paper, we learn that they loved their jobs, took pride in their work.

Government service, whether it is local, state or federal, attracts many of the best and the brightest. Seldom, however, do any of the men and women who make up the "civil service" find themselves on television, or noted in the newspaper, except when something goes wrong.

They do their work every day, no matter what happens. It is their sense of duty, which compels them to take terrible risks, that we saw on September 11 and the days that followed.

We all know the expression, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

I sometimes said it in self mockery when I worked in Washington because it was always sure to get a laugh.

I wouldn't think of being so self deprecating now. It wouldn't be fair to the others.

And then there's the phrase: "pretty good for government work?" Again, a no-no.

Perhaps the most telling change in the mood of the country was the decision to federalize airport security personnel.

Add more bureaucrats to the federal government? The answer would have been a near unanimous "no" four months ago.

And now?

A federal employee is considered a quality employee; one who has a certain level of competence, meets high standards, and is reliable. The move to make this significant change won bipartisan approval.

It is surprising to discover this resurgence of trust, which we hadn't seen since John F. Kennedy issued his famous call to all Americans, " ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

In those days, the country responded. It believed that public service, whether through government or volunteerism was a noble undertaking.

And then, the spirit sagged. Faith in government trickled down to a dedicated few.

Why is it that in a time of tragedy, confusion and fear, we look to institutions and leaders to give us strength and direction? Is it because we need structure; we need reassurance that the world is still turning on its axis?

Our leaders and our democratic institutions can give us the security and continuity we seek.

We can say thank you to the firemen and policemen and rescue workers not only for their extraordinary self sacrifice on Sept 11, but also for demonstrating for us that we need one another. That government is not only "pretty good," but that it can be exceptional, and that those who work for the government, are in fact, "here to help."

This is Madeleine Kunin in Burlington.

--Madeleine Kunin is a former Governor of Vermont.

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