OPINION: What James Garfield could teach us today

I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time thinking about James Garfield recently. But our 20th president is more relevant now than he ever has been, and he’s worth a moment of your time.

After fighting with the 42nd Ohio Infantry during the Civil War, Garfield served a number of terms in the House of Representatives before running for the presidency in 1880. He won, just barely, and was inaugurated in March 1881. His presidency lasted six months. Early in July he was shot by an assassin, and after languishing for another 11 weeks he died on Sept. 19.

Yet during his brief time in the White House, Garfield initiated one major piece of legislation. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was eventually passed in 1883 and signed by Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur.

I know civil service reform does not sound terribly sexy, but bear with me. Under the Pendleton Act, federal jobs would be awarded on the basis of merit and through competitive exams rather than through political patronage or party affiliation. Dull as that may sound, the act struck a mighty blow for clean, competent government.

Before Garfield came along, government jobs were doled out as patronage goodies by whatever candidate or party won particular elections. That fostered all kinds of corruption, to say nothing of incompetence, since jobs went to the connected — not to the capable. The people in those jobs changed every time there was a change of the political winds.

Civil service reform, in other words, was a revolution in how the federal government functioned on a day-to-day basis, and it upset many vested interests. The reform brought a level of fairness and reliability to how the federal government operates, and created a professionalized bureaucracy.

However much we make fun of them, bureaucrats are necessary for any of our institutions to function. If you don’t believe me, I urge you to visit a country where the functionaries serve the ruling power – China and Russia spring to mind – and where ordinary transactions often require a bribe or favor.

Which is why Garfield is so relevant right now. The mother of all right-wing conspiracy theories floating around these days is the so-called “Deep State.” A dark, mysterious, nefarious constellation of actors who really control things in this country, the “Deep State” sounds more like a discarded X-Files script than a grown-up piece of political analysis.

But Donald Trump brought the Deep State conspiracy from the fringes of Breitbart “news” to the White House when he pledged to “drain the swamp.” What this has meant in practice has been a full-scale assault on the professional, career civil servants who do their jobs and know what they are doing. They have experience and expertise, and in places like the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency they are being removed.

And replaced with loyalists, lackeys and lickspittles. This erosion of the professional civil service is part of what Rex Tillerson, Trump’s own ex-Secretary of State, warned was a “growing crisis of integrity and ethics,” and it matters to all of us. When researchers at the Centers for Disease Control are ordered by Trump political appointees not to use the phrase “science-based” in official documents, to take one example, we’re all in trouble. When experts on Iran are purged from the State Department, the world just got a bit more dangerous.

I guess making America great again means returning to the world poor James Garfield tried to fix.

Steve Conn, the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, is a regular contributor.

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