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Perspective | Magazine

Dear civil servants: Keep it up. No, really.

For years you’ve been a punch line. But now, my friends, you are the most important people in America.

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Good day, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Servant.

I ask humbly: May I approach your coffee-splattered desk? I promise this won’t take long. It’s only the survival of the republic that we need to talk about. I’ll speak quietly. I can even sing my plea lite-rock style, so it blends in with the tunes from your clock radio. Better not to arouse your supervisor’s curiosity.

Let’s clear the air first. Listen, it’s true. For years you’ve been a punch line. Admit that sometimes you made it easy, with your interminable cigarette breaks, your surly manner, and your dawdling pace — unless there was only one glazed cruller left in the box.


Wait, wait, wait — come back! You’re right. Sorry. Really sorry. Old habits, you know?

Seriously, though: You, my friend, are the most important person in America right now. A nation turns its jittery eyes to you.

Here’s the thing about our 45th president. Unlike every other newly elected American leader in recent memory, this one seems to care little about conventions and traditions like, say, telling the truth. It’s not clear to me how interested in the job he even is. He evidently doesn’t understand many facets of it. It would all be really, really funny if it weren’t really, really terrifying.

We both know that a lot of people voted for him because they’re sick of the status quo. Fair enough; that’s their right. But it’s more than just broken, dysfunctional Washington that’s under threat here. This election and this president have cracked the bedrock of truth and dignity and, yes, humanity that has long anchored our vibrant democracy.

Our new president has, in recent days, moved to bar a religious group from a country founded on freedom of worship. He’s appointed his right-wing puppeteer to the National Security Council at the expense of people who are actually national security experts. He’s trashed media outlets that weren’t sufficiently deferential and picked a fight with Australia. (Australia!) He’s remained wedded to the utter fiction that millions of voters cast illegal ballots.


Perhaps most worryingly, he’s moving ahead with policies that threaten to swiftly erase steady progress we’ve made on health care coverage, clean air and water, climate change, peace, and tolerance. Here, my beloved, card-carrying member of the Permanent Government, is where you — and your roughly 2.6 million federal officemates — come in.

As the political churn reaches your cubicle, I ask of you this: Smile, nod — hell, bake a Bundt cake if you need to. And then: Continue on your merry way. Keep doing your thing.

Please continue producing non-biased, fact-based reports and stats on global warming, federal deficits, health care coverage, and whatever else comes across your desk. Go where the science or the numbers lead you, not where someone above you wants them to go.

Please speak up if you’re asked to do something unethical, and blow the whistle if you see something wrong. I don’t take lightly the risk that might pose to your career and livelihood — a risk to which former acting Attorney General Sally Yates can attest. But it will serve a larger cause. Let me highlight here the nearly 1,000 State Department officials who, as of late January, had signed on to a “dissent cable” protesting the president’s executive order barring travelers from certain Muslim countries.

Please continue to promote the freedoms — of speech, assembly, and religion — that make this country great. Continue safeguarding the scaffolding of democracy, foremost the cherished right to vote. Please also continue to funnel research dollars to universities and other institutions that every day are pushing technology and medicine forward for the betterment of all. Continue to protect and defend hard-won rights for gender equity, hold firm against sexual harassment and discrimination, and always maintain a respectful workplace.


Look, I know you can’t buck every political decision. Elections have consequences. I get that. Maybe you even welcome the change, unlike those cheeky chums from the national parks who started shadow Twitter accounts.

But this is bigger than politics or party. We need you to protect that bedrock as if our lives depend on it. Because they might. You are but a cog in a massive machine, yes. But the machine cannot run without you. Exercise your judgment and talent and authority wisely.

It’s true you and I have had our run-ins. I grumbled when you sniffed at my requests for public court records, and when you screwed up my mail delivery. I was furious when I read about veterans not getting the care they deserved from the VA system. I’ve aged far more than I’d like waiting for passports, driver’s licenses, and other government documents.

But here we are in 2017. And it feels like our democracy may be on the line. I’m truly sorry for taking you for granted before. I never realized just how essential bureaucracy could be. So let’s let bygones be bygones, shall we? Like water under a taxpayer-funded bridge that’s crumbling because of government incompetence.


Ha-ha! Just checking to make sure you’re still paying attention.

One more thing. Don’t let anybody tell you that pushing back against a sinister agenda is somehow un-American. To the contrary. It’s the most American thing you can do.

Oh, and hey, I love Rod Stewart, too. What’s that line he sings in “Reason to Believe”? Oh, yeah: “Someone like you makes it hard to live without.”

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter at @swhelman.