Remarks by Tom Countryman - PWCDC Blue Victory Dinner 2018

Thank you, Joyce, for a very kind introduction. There is no meal as satisfying as a Blue Victory Dinner.  It’s a honor to see Rep. Connolly again and to meet Lt. Governor Fairfax.  When Joyce asked me to speak, my only question was: will Danica Roem be there?  Now I’ve met several other inspiring leaders from Prince William. 

 

With your patience, I would like to tell you a little about the valuable work of federal employees, a little about an unprecedented assault upon them, why their fate should be a driving motivation for the Democratic Party, and why I am proud to stand with you today.

 

My story is neither unique nor dramatic, though in his excellent new book “War on Peace”, Ronan Farrow dressed me up as a tragic, and comic figure.  The simple fact is that I answered a call to public service, a call inspired by the teachers, the Scoutmasters, and Yes, the politicians of my youth.   And I dedicated 35 years to serving American citizens, and American interests at home and abroad.  In Belgrade, Cairo, New York, in the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon, I had the opportunity to see the reunification of families divided by the Iron Curtain; to advocate for American business overseas; to coordinate with activists in Serbia seeking to restore their stolen democracy; to negotiate legal protections for US service members stationed overseas; and to witness the corrosive effect on societies of corrupt, power-mad leaders.

 

I didn’t get rich – hell, I didn’t even get paid overtime.  And my family sacrificed for the sake of my career.  We spent years far away from extended family, changing schools, changing houses, saying goodbye to the closest of friends.  My wife Dubravka, far more multi-talented than me, gave up the opportunity to have her own career.

But I never had a boring day on the job.  And I was convinced every day that I was making a difference for America’s national security. 

I took the greatest pride in speaking for the US on a goal that was of the highest priority for every President in my lifetime: reducing the danger of a nuclear holocaust.  And that’s the topic on which I continue to work today with a small NGO, the Arms Control Association.

I served six Presidents of both parties and implemented and defended even policies with which I disagreed.  I still can’t tell you why I was on the short list of career officials dismissed in the first days of the current Administration.  But being on that list was a point of pride. And a liberating experience.

 

There is a popular caricature of diplomats, one that is often employed for political purposes, and so I take every chance to tell Americans WHY we have a Department of State, why we have a Foreign Service.  We don’t do foreign policy because we love foreigners: we do it because we love Americans. 

We want Americans to prosper, to sell the world’s best food and the world’s best products everywhere.  We want Americans to be protected and safe when they are abroad, whether they are missionaries, tourists, students, or businessmen.

 

We want Americans to sleep the sleep of the righteous, knowing that the smallest fraction of their tax dollar goes to ease poverty and reduce injustice.  We want them to know that our consular officers are the first of many lines of defense against those who would come to the US with evil purpose.  We want the families of America’s heroes - our servicemen - to know that their loved ones are not put into danger simply because of a failure to pursue non-military solutions.

 

And we want Americans to know that democracy does not belong only to Americans.  The longing for freedom, for self-determination, is universal.  It should not be the case that those suffering under authoritarian regimes overseas should have to come to America to experience freedom.  Helping democratic forces overseas has long been a central mission, a noble mission, of the Department of State.

 

That’s the work I did for years, and that thousands of Foreign Service and Civil Service officers continue today.  Any one of them could leave tomorrow for a better-paying job.  They took an oath to the Constitution, not to a party, and not to a President.  They are the servants of the American citizen, and they are patriots.  And they are today under systematic attack from the White House.

 

2,500 years ago, the Roman Army innovated the management technique of decimation.  Every tenth soldier, randomly selected, in an insufficiently obedient unit was executed.  The practice of decimation has gone in and out of style over the centuries.  It has returned with a vengeance in the last 16 months.

 

From January to December 2017, the number of Foreign Service Officers declined by 240, about three percent.  However, that conceals a disproportionate fall in the ranks of Senior FSOs – those with rank equivalent to a military general – our most experienced and competent diplomats.  At the four-star equivalent level, the drop was 67%; at the three-star level 40%; and at the two-star level (my level) 21%.  Think of the outrage if any President in history had caused an equivalent exodus of our most senior military leaders.  And the White House wants to add to the exodus by seeking a cut of 30% in our Foreign Affairs budget.

 

To put the budget number in perspective, the total budget for foreign affairs – which includes diplomatic operations, and foreign assistance, both humanitarian and military – is less than the increase in this year’s DoD budget.  Through the last seventy years, there has been a fairly constant ratio of about ten-to-one between our defense budget and our foreign affairs budget.  This Administration proposes to change that ratio to sixteen-to-one. 

 

The new Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, has pledged to reverse the most debilitating steps taken by his predecessor Mr. Tillerson: the freeze on hiring and lateral transfers, ending a cost-effective program that filled some overseas positions with Foreign Service spouses eager to work for their country, assigning senior officials to the most routine, lowest priority tasks.  That’s an improvement and I wish him well.  But I am skeptical that a Yes Man – this Hell Yes Man – will stand up to the vindictive practices of the White House.  By all indications, the President, his family and others in the White House view civil servants as unpatriotic freeloaders, as not being bright enough to have made millions on Wall Street, in real estate, or in the creation of fake universities.  They are simply unable to understand the mentality of people who believe that public service comes far ahead of personal profit.

 

I am not concerned only about my former organization, the Foreign Service.  The attack on America’s civil servants of all categories is as comprehensive as it is destructive.  I encourage you to read the article by Evan Osnos in the latest New Yorker.  In the first nine months of this Administration, 79,000 government employees quit or retired, a number 50 % higher than in the first nine months of the Obama Administration.  The ‘hostile takeover’ mentality that I saw at State has been even more pernicious at the Department of Interior and at the Environmental Protection Agency.  Dedicated professionals at agencies created to protect public health and our national heritage are being replaced by employees ready to sell anything to the highest private bidder.

 

Now I don’t expect a farmer to know how hard American diplomats have worked to open markets for their produce.  A parent driving kids to school may never appreciate the radical improvement in auto safety in the last 50 years, which came not from the auto industry but from federal action.  Residents of nursing homes may take for granted regulations that prevent abuse of the elderly. And few of us who fly appreciate the legion of federal employees, from air controllers to safety regulators to the TSA, who make air travel the safest way to go. Nobody in Pittsburgh today has nostalgia for the air quality, the literally killing smog, that used to mark that city.

 

But the people who made all of that possible, in addition to progressive members of Congress, were thousands of highly skilled civil servants who used factual, scientific analysis in order to do their job: the protection of American citizens’ lives and health.  Federal employees at NASA and throughout the government have won sixty-nine Nobel Prizes, each one of them advancing America’s scientific and economic superiority.

 

Sadly, the attack on public servants led by the White House reaches below the federal level.  There is a lot of competition for the title of Most Spectacularly Unqualified Cabinet Member, but I think the winner is Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education.  At a time when Republican legislatures are cutting to the bone state funding for public education, she piles on to the attack against the public servants we say we appreciate the most, but who we reward the least:   our public school teachers.

 

So far in this speech, I have mostly said things I’ve said to other audiences.  But I told you that my own separation from government was a liberating experience, so here comes the liberation.  For 35 years, I carefully avoid partisanship in my public remarks.  Tonight I get to give an openly partisan speech. It feels good, and it goes like this.

 

I am proud to call myself a Democrat, because of what I believe, because of what WE believe.

 

John Kennedy said in his first State of the Union message: “let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: 'I served the United States Government in that hour of our nation's need.' There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats believed that everyone who served our nation deserved respect, and Democrats still believe that.

 

A new opinion poll this week showed that German citizens believe Russia and China to be more reliable partners than the United States.  There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats believed that our closest friends should be able to rely on America’s word, and Democrats still believe that.

 

The only time that NATO’s mutual defense clause has ever been invoked was when our European Allies responded with us after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats preferred democratic leaders to unelected strongmen, and believed that alliances are a reciprocal declaration of loyalty, and Democrats still believe that.

 

In 2002-03, most Republicans and too many Democrats chose to believe a campaign based on dubious reasoning and outright false intelligence, leading us to the disastrous war in Iraq.  And this time, with some of the same people peddling a false narrative about Iran, and preparing for the moment when an economic war becomes a military war, Democrats will NOT believe it.

 

Since Harry Truman recognized the new State of Israel, both Democrats and Republicans have stood squarely in support of Israel’s security.  But there was a time when we could also sympathize, and grieve, at the loss of human life, and human dignity, among the Palestinians.  Unrestrained violence is NOT the path to peace, and Democrats still believe that.

 

In drafting the Constitutional, our founders recognized the pernicious influence of foreign powers and outside money.  Our foreign policy decisions should not be for sale to the highest bidders from China, Saudi Arabia, Russia or anywhere else, and Democrats still believe that.

 

There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats believed, regardless of who held the White House, that corruption and malfeasance in the executive branch needed to be investigated vigorously by Congress.  And Democrats still believe that.

 

At the National Zoo, you can visit the House of Invertebrates.  We do not need on Capitol Hill two more houses managed by invertebrates, and Democrats are convinced of that.

 

At one time, both Republicans and Democrats believed that a candidate for public office had an obligation to be transparent about their personal finance and business interests.  And Democrats still believe that.

 

Most Americans, and a few Republicans, believe that campaign financing should be a matter of public record, that the public deserves to know which billionaires own which elected officials.  The interests of hidden donors is what drives today the Republican agenda, from tax cuts for the rich to privatizing public land to gutting environmental protection.  Transparent and enforceable rules on campaign finance are needed to halt our descent into plutocracy, and Democrats still believe that.

 

When Richard Nixon signed the law creating the Environmental Protection Agency, both parties said they believed the working class in the cities and the countryside had the same right to clean water and clean air as those who lived in gated communities.  And Democrats still believe that.

 

The United States has the most technologically advanced – and most expensive – medical system in the world. Yet we have the poorest health results among the world’s richest countries.  Health care should not be about making medical practice more profitable; health care should be about people’s health, and Democrats still believe that.

 

There was a time when America had the best transportation and communication infrastructure in the world, and it underlay two centuries of economic growth.  Sustaining and rejuvenating our infrastructure is not a burden; it is an opportunity and an obligation for government at all levels, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Our public safety is built on the courageous service of our police force, and they will always have our respect.  But they cannot do their job when they are called to respond every time a citizen feels uncomfortable around a person of color.  Americans of every color have an equal right to personal freedom in public spaces, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Harry Truman once said: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”  America’s freedom may have been attained with firearms, but it is sustained by a free press and peaceful opposition to over-reaching authority.  And Democrats still believe that.

 

The United States does not have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, but it does have a higher rate of gun fatalities than any of the places our President labels ‘s—thole’ countries.  For every other dangerous item we use – from cars and motorcycles to pharmaceuticals – we have reasonable regulations about their purchase, ownership and use.  Republicans say that nothing can prevent all gun violence, and they may be right when they say all.  But it is immoral not even to try to prevent any.  Our citizens, and our schoolchildren deserve more than prayers; they deserve the additional protection that can be provided by reasonable regulations about firearms, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Most Americans believe that the justice system should provide equal access to all, that the thief who steals from thousands of middle class Americans should be punished as surely as the thief who steals a car, and Democrats need to believe that.

 

Bernie Sanders said: Government exists to serve 100% of the people, not just the 1%, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Democrats have always stood with the working class and the middle class, though we haven’t always explained well what we have done to defend their economic interests.  Today, tax cuts for billionaires that explode the national debt are theft from the middle class and from our children and grandchildren.  The Republican fetish for immediate enrichment and eternal deficits is not just voodoo economics, it is an orgy of swamp predators, and Democrats will continue to reject it. 

 

It used to be that both Democrats and Republicans believed that education was crucial to our democracy and to our economic well-being.  We were all proud that the US attracted more foreign students than any other country, with large measurable benefits to our economy.  Today, a majority of Republicans surveyed say that American universities have a negative effect on our society.  Nothing is more central to our future well-being than insuring a quality education for all Americans, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Lyndon Johnson once said: “Lincoln was right about not fooling all the people all the time. But Republicans haven't given up trying.” Democrats still believe in facts. And in science.

 

Religious faith is a huge, and mostly positive, influence on our civic life, and politicians should not shy away from discussion of religion and should recognize its importance to our fellow citizens.  But the United States was founded with a principle unprecedented in human history: that one’s full citizenship did not depend upon one’s religious beliefs.   I read the same Bible as my Republican friends, but I am unable to find anywhere in the Gospel where Jesus said he hates somebody.  Now whatever your relationship to Jesus, I think he was on to something in his refusal to return hatred for hatred, and Democrats need to believe that.

 

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court began the process of removing the government from our bedrooms, gradually – and belatedly – recognizing a woman’s rights over her own body, and the freedom to love, publicly as well as privately, whom we choose.  There is more work to do to achieve genuine LGBTQ rights, and genuine gender equality, but this struggle for personal freedom is central to achieving a vision of true American liberty.  And Democrats still believe that.

 

 

And just to throw you a curveball, let me quote….. Ronald Reagan: “We must never remain silent in the face of bigotry. We must condemn those who seek to divide us. In all quarters and at all times, we must teach tolerance and denounce racism, anti-Semitism and all ethnic or religious bigotry wherever they exist as unacceptable evils. We have no place for haters in America -- none, whatsoever.”  Republican leaders today ignore Reagan’s words and remain silent.  But Democrats still believe- still loudly believe - that we have no place for racism in America.

 

Most Republicans used to agree that Nazis and fascists are not “really good people”, and Democrats still believe that. 

 

“The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."  Those are the words of Franklin Roosevelt.  We reject the claim that some of us are ‘real Americans’ entitled to limit the freedoms of others.  We are all real Americans, and Democrats still believe that.

 

Robert Kennedy said: “There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of the comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.” The very concept of America has always been forward-looking, the shared determination to create a better future, and Democrats still believe that.

 

America is not angry tweets; it is respectful dialogue.  America is not about the language of power, but about the power of language.  America is not just our gross domestic product; it’s about our common pursuit of happiness.  America is not just a military and economic superpower; it is a superpower of ideas and inspiration.  And America is NOT blood and soil; it is a concept, an idea, and 300 million people doing their best to live up to an ideal.  That’s what Democrats believe.

 

And there’s one more thing.  President Obama said that: “Hope is not blind optimism…It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” Our party is not people sitting at a nice dinner listening to a long speech.  It’s getting out to the streets and the malls and offices and universities and engaging with the majority of Americans who agree with us and with the minority who aren’t yet convinced.  That’s our task between now and November, when we can begin to turn America — our land, our people, our ideals – back toward its noblest purposes.

 

And so I simply ask of you: keep believing!

Thank you, and God bless you!