Is there any figure in American political discourse more reviled than the bureaucrat? Say the word and a potent caricature leaps to mind: the petty and shiftless paper pusher who wields his small amount of power with malice and caprice. Whatever the issue–from school reform to overhauling the nation’s intelligence apparatus–the bureaucrat is on the wrong side of it.
It’s slander with a long pedigree–Cicero called the bureaucrat “the most despicable” of men, “petty, dull, almost witless…a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog”–but in the last forty years, conservatives have converted this casual contempt into an ideological fixture. Since as far back as the Goldwater campaign, the American right has generally found that “the government” is too abstract an entity for most people to actively loathe. It’s far more effective to demonize the people who execute its daily functions. Bureaucrats are to conservatives what the bourgeoisie was to Marx: an oppressive class of joyless knaves. Milton Friedman quipped that “hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned”; Ronald Reagan said in 1966 that “the best minds are not in government” because if any were, “business would hire them away”; and George Wallace expressed his desire to “take those bearded bureaucrats” in Washington who were in the process of desegregating the South, “and throw them in the Potomac.”
But a funny thing has happened over the past six years. At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.
It was the midlevel intelligence professionals in the CIA whose expertise led them to argue that Iraq had no means of acquiring nuclear material; it was the planners and country experts at the State Department who prepared a 1,200-page document about postwar Iraq outlining in depressing detail the many challenges and brutalizing exigencies our occupying forces now face. It was professional scientists in the bowels of the Environmental Protection Agency who pushed their reports warning of the effects of climate change, only to have them censored and purged. It was concerned and conscientious spooks and cryptographers at the National Security Agency who contacted reporters to raise alarms about the warrantless wiretapping of Americans. It was a midlevel career bureaucrat at the Department of Education named Jon Oberg who spent his own time–nights and weekends–studying the student loan program and discovered that taxpayers were being ripped off by private lenders to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite warnings from his (appointed) superiors, he published his results in an internal memo sent to the entire department. He retired shortly thereafter.