Good afternoon, and thank you Cliff for that kind introduction.
It’s a pleasure to join you today to help recognize the accomplishments and the dedication of the federal employees who serve here in New York.
Being back here, in my lifelong home, brings to mind a comment made by one of my predecessors as Attorney General, Robert Jackson, on a trip to California in 1939. Emphasizing the relative virtues of life outside of Washington, D.C., he said: "Everyone in official life should be compelled to spend every third week at home—wherever that is—so as to get the tonic of life as it really is, to relieve the political high blood pressure that always affects Washington, and which, at about this season, is apt to make its victims a little hysterical." It’s debatable, I guess, whether he had New York City in mind when he said that; this place is not exactly known for lowering the blood pressure. But in any event, thank you for inviting me here, and making me a little less hysterical, and a lot more at home.
It is a special honor to join you at this historic venue, the welcoming point for so many immigrants to this country. My father arrived at this island in 1921 with his younger sister from what was then a part of Russia. He was 19 years old, they were alone, and virtually penniless. That his son could return to this island 87 years later as Attorney General of the United States, to praise the idea and the fact of service to what was then his new country, is certainly a powerful testament to this nation’s exceptionalism.
My own perspective on public service is shaped by my combined 23 years with the federal government—as an Assistant United States Attorney, a District Court judge, and now as Attorney General. Looking back, I can easily say that my years in public office have had by far the most meaning to me.
Not only because there is nothing more fulfilling than to work for the public good, but also because the dedicated men and women I have worked with in federal service are among the finest people I’ve known.
Today, when I go to work at the Justice Department, I am surrounded by a staff that stands person after person in the first rank of talent – legal and otherwise – among the many talented people I have dealt with. Any of them could make many times their salaries in the private sector, probably with less stress and shorter hours—and I know the same could be said for many of you here today. But they, like you, have chosen instead to work in government service, and this country benefits from that choice.
So before I go any further, the thing I want to say most of all is thank you – for your dedication, for your commitment, for all of your efforts in behalf of your fellow citizens.
The work of the federal government is difficult, and too often it is done without the thanks that are due, but it could not be more important. Whether the fellow citizens you serve even realize it on a day-to-day basis, the responsibilities of those here today – and across the federal government – touch on just about every aspect of their lives.
You protect our country from terrorist attack, and strengthen our nation’s borders. You safeguard the nation’s food and water supply, and our environment. You care for our children, our sick, our elderly, our poor, our troops and our veterans. The list goes on and on, and it affects and benefits us all.
Just how diverse those contributions are is reflected in the range of award recipients today. They include people from across the executive branch – from the FBI to the FAA, from the U.S. Geological Survey to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Homeland Security.
They range from people whose achievements are the stuff of headlines, like the Operation Shining Light team that disrupted a terrorist plot to attack JFK airport, to people whose achievements are unlikely ever to make the papers, but whose contributions are every bit as significant.
They include supervisors and team leaders, as well as those responsible for providing technical or logistical support, scientific expertise, and clerical assistance. In short, they cover and define what it means to be a federal employee.
People go into public service for many different reasons. For some, it is a job. For others, it is an honor and a duty. For many here today, it goes to the core of who they are: people who are willing to get less even as they give more in the name of serving their communities and their fellow citizens.
A dramatic example of that spirit is found in the valor of Andrew MacDonald, an FAA employee who on his way to work one day literally risked his life in an effort to save a woman lying in the middle of a busy parkway. Less dramatically, but no less significantly, that spirit of helping others above and beyond the four corners of the job is illustrated by Richard Berman, who devotes countless hours to helping the victims of AIDS and HIV; by James Cott, who established an innovative youth mentoring program at the U.S. Attorney’s Office; and by Jeanne Morrone and Patricia Holmes-Burford, who shattered records at the Social Security Administration collecting charitable contributions through the Combined Federal Campaign.
Many of the people here, like me, have gone (or will go) back and forth between public service and the private sector. Our government benefits greatly from that kind of cross-pollination, because it brings energy, skills and experience from the private sector to the task of solving problems in the public interest.
But for many of you, like Nancy Williams and Robert Mudzinski, public service is a lifelong calling. Ms. Williams has served her country at the Social Security Administration for over 50 years – more than a half century! – and Mr. Mudzinski has done the same at the Secret Service for more than 40. Government may benefit from having people, like me, who can’t keep a steady job; but it literally couldn’t function day in day out, year in year out, without the dedication and commitment of those like Ms. Williams and Mr. Mudzinski.
The individual award recipients I have mentioned are just an example of the extraordinary people being honored here today, and each year, by the Federal Executive Board. In reviewing the contents of today’s program, you can’t help but be impressed. It is a catalogue of remarkable accomplishments, and the biographies of these men and women are enough to convince any cynic that government can and does make a difference.
I have been Attorney General for only about six months. But during that time, I have made it a point to get out as much as possible to meet and thank the people who do the work of the Justice Department day in and day out. The Justice Department, like many of the other departments and agencies represented here today, is much less a building in Washington than it is an army of the field. It is the troops – like you – who do the work that others – like me – often get credit for. You do it not for the pay, not for the material comforts, and not for the recognition, but for the pride that comes from doing what’s right and from serving others.
That sense of pride is what first brought me into government service 35 years ago. When I was a young lawyer in private practice in New York, there was a senior associate at the law firm who made a particular impression on me. In the office, he often seemed to be stooped over, with a slightly morose look on his face. Whenever possible, the senior associate would manufacture a reason to go downtown to the federal courthouse, and whenever he did that he would stop by to visit his old colleagues who worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And during those visits on which I tagged along, he was never the same: The burdened look on his face was gone, and he stood tall with pride. I didn’t know at the time what it was that caused that transformation, but whatever it was I wanted a piece of it.
As he did, all of you can and should stand tall with pride.
I congratulate each of today’s award winners, and thank you for your extraordinary service.