About a month ago, I attended ex-CIA director John Brennan’s lecture, “The Ethos of Public Service” where he, as one might expect, spoke about the importance of public service. He started with a little bit about his own background, as the son of Irish immigrants to whom the United States represented the land of opportunity. Brennan, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and a master’s degree from UT-Austin, entered the CIA as a career trainee in 1980. He continued to work there for 25 years, and was eventually nominated by President Barack Obama to take over as Director of the agency in 2013 (he was considered in 2008, but withdrew his name from consideration based on his controversial support of some terrorist interrogation techniques post-9/11). He retired from the agency in 2017.
Brennan, as might be somewhat required for an official who have spent much of their lives in public service and advancing American interests through an agency with a decidedly spotty history, is a firm believer of American exceptionalism. This exceptionalism — in which America was blessed with the good fortune of being blessed with so many natural resources and navigable rivers — meant that America had an “exceptional responsibility”. He didn’t seem to imply that this responsibility was as imperialistic as it sounded, just that Americans have a duty to make this country strong and safe.
The ethos of public service, according to him, meant that public officials (elected or otherwise) have solemn obligations, must fulfill obligations of those offices, and are entrusted with the authority of our society. He then spoke a little bit about how he was neither a Democrat or Republican, and was frustrated with partisan politics from a very young age. He then told a fun story about voting for the Communist Party candidate when he was 21 years old.
He then spoke about the importance of civility and respect in political discourse — and how the recent rancor and name-calling among public officials worried him. This idea of civility is particularly interesting to me, just because it’s difficult where to begin to solve this problem, that is perpetuated by people on all sides of the political spectrum (perhaps Liz’ civility training curriculum could help!) There’s definitely an importance and power of civility in public discourse. But at the same time, I think about how there are people who have had to fight their entire lives for the government to take their concerns seriously, and even for the government to stop actively harming their livelihoods. Especially under this new administration, there are people — for example, trans folks — who watch as the government strips away old protections. I think about the “respectability politics” the idea of civil discourse plays into, where minority groups have to act certain ways for those in power to take their voices seriously. It can be an unfair burden on folks to have to act and speak civilly to the very people taking away their rights.
Brennan ended on that, although he spoke a little more in response to questions about diversity in the CIA, and a little more about his concern that the U.S. was projecting an image that they wanted to use American power for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else.
He also had some amusing moments where he called out Donald Trump for being a public official who didn’t know what he was talking about, who was a particularly salient example of the poor state of discourse in politics, but without calling him out by name. (If I actually thought direct condemnation of a highly respected official would sway anyone on Donald Trump, perhaps I would have been slightly annoyed).
Overall, I thought it was a nice, if not particularly exceptional, talk from somehow who certainly knew what he was talking about in regards to public service given his long history of it. I was always predisposed to agree with what he said about public service, given that I have always believed in the importance of working to make your communities stronger. But I expected a more specific, national security take on public service from him, as I thought his talk sounded like any other career public servant talking generically about public service (very similar to Joe Biden, who I also had the opportunity to see on campus this year). I hope, next time John Brennan comes to UT, he’ll have something slightly more interesting to say.