Janet Napolitano gave a strong defense of American values, of education and of public service during an appearance in Independence on Tuesday.
“We are the government, and our service to each other is of the highest importance,” she said in accepting the annual Harry S. Truman Public Service Award, the highest civilian award given by the city of Independence.
Napolitano was the secretary of homeland security in former President Obama’s first term. Before that, she was a U.S. attorney, then Arizona’s attorney general, then its governor.
“Public service is the lifeblood of our democracy,” she said.
She expanded on that theme during an interview with The Examiner before the award ceremony. She made note of the current political atmosphere.
“I think there’s a … skepticism that has arisen about our public institutions generally, and that had led to skepticism about public service,” she said, but added that America needs “a sense of community and a sense of what binds us together.”
How does the county get that back? You fight for it, she said, “with persistence, with consistency, with facts.”
An election, she said, will push the political pendulum one way or another, but that pendulum does swing back.
“You have to believe in (the) basic resilience of the country,” she said.
Napolitano today is the president of the University of California, a system with 10 campuses, and she noted that 42 percent of the students are in their families’ first generation to go to college. She said that’s transformative for individuals and the country.
“It is a unique American formula for success,” she said in her remarks during the award ceremony at the Truman Library.
Also Tuesday, the city gave the annual Special Recognition Award for Public Service to former Mayor Don Reimal.
Mayor Eileen Weir stressed his role in saving the Truman Courthouse on the Square, which was extensively renovated and then reopened five years ago. Weir also said he worked hard – much like the carpenter he was for many years – at the job of mayor.
“Don listened to every problem, took every call, listened to everyone who needed his help,” she said.
Reimal spoke briefly and mentioned the well-known Truman quote that it’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.
“There are so many people who have done so much,” he said.
Napolitano touched on local service in her remarks, too. She said local government is where we live out our democratic ideals.
“Places like Independence,” she added.
Napolitano has a Truman connection, too. The Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation in Washington, D.C., each year names dozens of Truman Scholars from among college students across the country. She was in the first class, in 1977.
She said Truman embodied what she called solid Midwestern values: He was decisive, pragmatic and down to earth. She said she’s tried to profit from his example.
It’s important to hold on to hope, she said, and she mentioned how young people often embody that.
“Hope,” she said, “rests on the shoulders of the next generation.”