Reinvesting in American leadership

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We all know the problems the nation faces in the years ahead. But what about the solutions? Where will they come from? How can we instill a spirit of working together, finding solutions that reach across the partisan divide?  

Some say that the spirit of cooperation and problem-solving spirit is increasingly rare, especially in Washington, D.C. Yet we beg to differ. In fact, we continue to see such positive thinking at work every day. That’s because we are fortunate enough to be eyewitnesses to ongoing success stories here in the nation’s capital: The White House Fellowship and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship.  

These two programs recruit Americans from around the country — from diverse backgrounds, experiences and views — and support them in paths in public service.

Most experts agree that “human capital” is the most important input for the economy. Resourceful, dedicated leaders’ talent, experience and hard work are what drive our national prosperity and wellbeing. And we can say the same about the government: it’s only as good as the people who work for it.

John F. Kennedy saw this clearly. Having already created the Peace Corps as a vehicle for idealists, on Nov. 19, 1963, President Kennedy told one of his White House aides, “If I am reelected in ‘64, I am going to spend more and more time toward making government service an honorable career.” Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated just three days later. 

And yet, through the work of his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the vision lived on. Less than a year later, on Oct. 3, 1964, Johnson addressed a group of student leaders at the White House, “This country needs… your boundless energy. We need your curiosity, your inquisitive minds… We need your belief that the impossible is only a little more difficult to do.”

Executive order 11183 established the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships; today, nine presidents later, the program is still going strong, attracting Americans from diverse backgrounds to spend a year working at high levels within the executive branch, in close proximity to top officials, who return to their communities to do great things for our nation. Alumni of the program include General Colin Powell, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.

The Harry S. Truman Foundation was created by Congress in 1975 as the living memorial to President Truman and our national monument to public service. People are often surprised to learn that Truman never attended college. Ever the pragmatic Midwesterner, he did not want a traditional brick-and-mortar monument. Instead, when approached by bipartisan admirers, he encouraged a living memorial that would give life to the values of service that had animated his career. In that spirit, the Truman Foundation is a place that nurtures and supports future generations who answer the call to public service leadership.

The foundation’s mission is premised on the belief that a better future relies on attracting to public service the commitment and sound judgment of bright, outstanding Americans. Since its first class of Truman Scholars in 1977, the Truman Foundation has fulfilled that mission: inspiring and supporting Americans from diverse backgrounds and from across the United States to public service. There are no former Truman Scholars. Rather, as a living legacy, once a Truman, always a Truman, with programming and an active community supporting one another across the course of life and career.

Prominent Truman Scholars include Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams. 

In 2020, we celebrate the 55th class of White House Fellows and 45 years since the founding of the Truman Foundation. Despite the myriad challenges facing us, this is an apt moment to celebrate two programs that speak to the combined vision of U.S. presidents who led during tumultuous times and met their moments.

As we consider all the ways in which we might invest in a healthy democracy, prioritize good governance and empower leaders of character, now is the time to reinvest in selfless service and mission-driven innovation. While there may be accolades or prestige bestowed on our Truman Scholars and White House Fellows, we recognize that they are stronger together as a community of Americans actively engaged — and it is Truman himself who reminds us “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Dr. Terry Babcock-Lumish is the sixth executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Follow her on Twitter @TerryBL. Elizabeth Dial Pinkerton directs the White House Fellowships. Follow her on Twitter @EDPinkerton. 

Tags American leadership Bipartisanship Chris Coons Climate change Colin Powell COVID-19 Dan Sullivan divided government Elaine Chao Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation Harry Truman Neil Gorsuch Pandemic racial inequality Sharice Davids White House Fellowship

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