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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Heroes Without a Dollar Sign


The crew of the Jan. 15 US Airways Flight 1549 — Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, first officer Jeffrey Skiles, and flight attendants Doreen Walsh, Sheila Dail and Donna Dent — deserve all the public praise they have received, and more, for their incredibly cool and heroically courageous leadership and actions in saving all 155 lives on board while "landing" their Airbus 320 on New York's Hudson River.

But as Sullenberger nobly and accurately emphasizes: There were countless other heroes that cold January day in addition to the admirable US Airways quintet. To listen to the three-and-a-half minutes of tapes released by the Federal Aviation Administration is to hear, for the first time, the composed know-how of Patrick Harten, a 10-year veteran air traffic controller. Under unimaginable pressure, Sullenberger, Harten and a number of other air traffic controllers (whose names I do not know) comprise the very definition of professionalism.

Even before the aircraft touched the arctic waters of the Hudson, the "first responders" were racing to the rescue. The crews of the New York Waterways and Circle Line ferries rushed to help. Once again, the men and women of the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York more than answered the call and met the challenge. Fire and rescue workers from New Jersey's Hudson County sheriff's department and fire and rescue teams provided valuable help.

This is a great American story with a New York City dateline. New York has been too much in the news of late with sordid stories about the rampant, almost criminal greed among the elites of the city's financial district.

New York, to read the headlines, must be a place where the smartest know the price of everything and the value of nothing. They are full of guile and know all the angles.

But the people who came to save strangers — strangers facing death by drowning in the Hudson — were also New Yorkers. These New Yorkers were not motivated by the almighty buck, however. Profit was not their feverish pursuit. Most of them were public servants — that's right, public employees.

Do you remember the 343 New York firefighters who marched into the fires of Hell on Sept. 11, 2001? Just like the 114 firefighters who died in the line of duty last year and the 132 police officers who gave their lives, they too were public employees.

Public employees — that subspecies commentators and candidates love to belittle and attack. If they are not incompetent and surly, the caricature goes, they are zealous meddlers bent on crippling the initiative and ingenuity of the captains of capitalism. You've heard about them: the faceless bureaucrats who've never met a payroll.

It's been too long since an American leader spoke publicly the way John Kennedy did in his first State of the Union: "Let the public service be a proud and lively career."

Yes, there are incompetent and surly public employees. But surliness and incompetence are not entirely alien to our vaunted private sector, either.

The next time you hear about a teacher giving up her free time to help a struggling child, or a social worker comforting a family in distress, or a young Marine risking his own life to save three buddies, please remember that they — like the firefighter and the cop and those "first responders" on the Hudson that fateful January afternoon — in addition to being American heroes, are all public employees.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




10 Comments | Post Comment
This op-ed should be sent to all the heads of New York's financial institutions.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Anthony Perry
Sat Feb 7, 2009 2:29 AM
Sir;....All those people who think the government can't get anything right, or that Socialism will never work here should look at the situation you illustrate...We love to give, and we love to share, and we love to be heroes... We may find that as government fails us that the need to play the hero becomes more common... We may find we are pretty good at it... But when people tell me the government cannot handle the economy, I say read a history of the  Manhattan District Project or the history of the creation of the Nuclear Bomb; or of the whole fighting of WWII... Power, necessity, and responsibility make demands upon people, and bring the best people to the fore... If  it became neccessary to draft everyone on Wall Street to make it work for people, then it could be done, with the will... Or we could let ourselves be dominated by those people and blame fate... Certainly they have to be shown their duty, since they cannot see their duty....And there is a legitimate fear, that necessity will make generals our masters rather than our servants; but how bad should anyone let their economy get before acting to nationalize and if necessary, to militarize society???.... You do not have to lead most people to correct behavior...Law does not exist because people are lawless, or immoral...Morality is general, and people are good except in schools of immorality, like Prison, or Wall Street, or Washington D.C....
Which brings me to the point of this note: lobbyists...You seem to believe they are necessary to the process in the Nation's Capital...They are not, and will not ever be a substitute for democracy....We could have good representation of the people in the house of representatives without a single change to the constitution...With a slight change to the constitution we could get rid of the Senate...The Senate is only a government of rotton burrows... And we could rein in the Supreme Court, make them stand for election, or let the people recall them... And the same is true of the presidency.... But we need democracy; and we cannot ever expect people acting for money will represent all the people...We have seen what government for General Motors can do, and it is not what the people need...It is not good for America, and it has brought us to ruin...We need each representatives to do as their own people need, and to represent so few that there can be no doubt...We think a powerless people, having not the time, nor the money to influence government need the lobby...Quite the opposite; because it is government, serving the paid dogs of wealth who have made the people generally powerless and poor- in time and money... Government is beyond our reach... It cannot be driven, but runs on rails laid for it by money...It should be responsive...The people should be able to drive government to serve their needs, and they cannot... Look at what the people must move to move government.... Are there parties in the constitution, or lobbyists??? National parties must be moved to make government move... And lobbyists are always there perverting legislation, sabotaging or corrupting government... There is no argument for parties or lobbyists that is not answered by representation as the government once had, of one to every thirty thousand...Let me ask you...Who elects the parties, or the lobbyists???We have too little of democracy as it is without letting these extra-constitutional organizations gum up everything at every opportunity...They are a conduit for money to influence the course of government...I understand they are a part of your world...They have wrecked America, and for that reason you may forgive them... It is time for those people to go...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #2
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Feb 7, 2009 5:13 AM
Mr. Shields:
Thank you. I am a teacher.
Barry Bussewitz
Comment: #3
Posted by: Barry bussewitz
Sat Feb 7, 2009 9:13 AM
Re: Barry bussewitz; Hey Barry; do you want to hear a teacher story???Well, I had this coach and algebra teacher in high school named Smith... Believe it or not, and this guy did everything in his power to belittle me for sucking so bad at math, and being a poor athelete... I tried, hard, and I did get stronger, but my wind was always bad because I had asthma, and I did not know it....I have learned algebra since, and forgot it almost before hitting the door... Curiously, geometry never presented much trouble, but in algebra where I coulld have used some extra help, all I got was abuse... Well Smith became a winning coach  near this city, and I would see that guy on the news, and say: That esshole, and think about that crap he would give me... And I promised myself, if  I ever saw that guy I would tell him what an esshole he was.... So, it happened this week that I walked into a coffee house/antique bookstore; and there stood Smith; so I said Smith!!! And He said YA??? And I said: YOU Esshole!!!.. I think I called him everything but a white man, and he said I recognize the face, but you have to tell me your name....Sweeney is my name...And He said: You look like you're doing well...And I am, about thirty pounds over, but still got some arms...But he has sort of shrunk...The funny thing is...Iwanted to tell him, and I did, about how I thought of the way he treated me, but I wouldn't have taken two steps out of my way to do so,  just because there is nothing in my past worth revisiting, even while I often do, accidently... But having told the guy what a jackess he was, I wished him well, told him to take care of himself...I don't know how it was for him...But I found it very theraputic...And I told my daughter about it, and my wife when she got home, and even my father when I talked to him... I wish I had known back then to ask for help, and to demand it...Taking a poke at that guy way back when might have been a hundred percent better than carrying a grudge for thirty-five years...I know one thing: When I walked into that place, and saw him there, I thought the wheel of fortune had suddenly turned up Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and my Birthday all in the same instant...I could have crushed him with one hand, and He Knew It...And then it was past... Thanks...And thanks for being a teacher...If you can't do it with love, don't do it...Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Feb 7, 2009 10:28 PM
Re: Anthony Perry
What memories this evokes! My algebra teacher threw a piece of chalk at me and told me to memorize the darned rule. The rule in question was the one that demanded a plus answer when one multiplied two minus numbers, i.e. a minus times a minus equals a plus. I wanted to know why that seemingly illogical rule applied. The class laughed at me for being so dumb, while my ninth grade pride was hammering my brain and soul. I was too afraid of my parents to show my independence by stalking out of the classroom. Rather I hated that bastard teacher most passionately until I saw him cry at his mother's funeral, where we were obliged to attend. I just calmed down and forgot the incident, or so I thought.
Years later I met him at a class reunion. I approached him with intentions to make peace, to smoke the peace pipe, but instead I found him to be the same pompous, arrogant SOB that he was years before. I had no reason for any accord with that man, whatsoever.
BTW I found geometry a walk in the sun, probably because I could "see" ideas when they were represented as pictures. Old Pythagoras and Euclid were models of understanding in my tenth grad mind.
Today, more than 60 years after that algebra incident, I still puzzle over the minus times a minus conundrum. To be sure, I've come to accept it as a method for signifying a mathematical change in direction, a little more confusing than a double negative in English grammar. However, someday I'm going to write an essay on the subject so that other children who come up against it as I did might be helped over the hurdle.
Of course, knowing why a minus times a minus equals a plus didn't mean a damn thing when it came to survival in Vietnam nor does it now in the midst of our national calamity.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Martin Young
Sun Feb 8, 2009 6:37 AM
Re: Martin Young;...Sir... I don't know why it is, but I have seen that too often among math teachers, and whether they think they are superior, or what, I do not know... I don't think there is anything wrong with my reasoning, but I use words to think...And I realize some people are better spacially, and some are better linearly...  It is not a value judgement...People are what they are... And it takes all kind... And I often recall a line from one of the Platonic Dialogues; something about people doing in life what they  do well, and to this they give the chief of all their days... No one seeks out the misery of failure... I know I don't... We enjoy what we can do well, and do well what we enjoy... Hopefully, there will be a paycheck in it... For those who do not enjoy their work the paycheck is always too small... My paycheck was huge, even when I couldn't make it stretch an inch further than anyone else...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #6
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Feb 9, 2009 3:36 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney: What a wonderful story. You know that old saying, civilization is the long process of learning to be kind. You are a fine product of civilization. I have a small teacher story, about a man dying of HIV who taught me organic chemistry in a community college. Never used a note to lecture, was a brilliant artist who could make you see three (sometimes four!) dimensions on a dingy blackboard as if you were staring out into the universe itself, never stumbled once in any of the beautiful sentences I sat on the edge of my seat to hear, wasn't even a native speaker of English. He opened the doors of science to me, and if it had not been for him I would never been able to enter that world of endless possibilities. We take for granted the fact that the institution of government is one of the things that makes us stand out from all the other animals on this planet. Without government we could not be human, yet we trash it and those who work for it. But everyone knows deep down that government is where we turn, like a kid turns to Mom, when we are in trouble. That's the bottom line. We can't trust any other entity to protect us from war and calamity and...ourselves. The government is us. Some day those Republicans who make sport of chewing away like termites at the fiber of our civilization will finally get that.
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Sat Mar 21, 2009 3:49 PM
This is a very good article! There are surely employees and abuses by some but anyone who truly cares should always be appreciated.
I wish I was well of because then I could focus on what I could do without looking to be paid. Currently I do volunteer but I do have to make a living as well.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Gregory Powers
Sat Dec 22, 2012 2:44 PM
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