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Public Papers - 1989 - September

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Rank Awards

1989-09-14

Thank you all. Thank you, Connie Newman, and thank you, my two distinguished Cabinet colleagues, Lou Sullivan and Lauro Cavazos, for being here today. I also want to thank at the outset the marvelous music -- the United States Marine Corps. They never fail to inspire, and once again my thanks to you, and all of you.

And I do appreciate this warm welcome, your warm greetings. But really we may have this a little backwards today, because, you see, I came over here to applaud you, you of the Senior Executive Service, and you whose leadership helps make possible the continuing success of the world's greatest experiment in freedom and diversity. And I'd like to take a moment to offer my personal thanks again to Connie Newman for the first-class job that she is doing at OPM. And I'm also glad to recognize, as I did a minute ago, these two Cabinet members, Lauro Cavazos and Louis Sullivan. I told them it seems we're going steady lately because we're appearing at so many worthwhile events.

But this is a cheerful occasion, and it's a pleasure to be here, really, to help honor a talented group of public servants whose contributions all too often do go unrewarded. And I'm thinking of the Defense Department official who was waiting for his annual physical when a young doctor struck up a conversation asking about the Pentagon and his job and so on. And the official said he liked his work, but then he launched into a nasty tirade about Washington weather, expensive housing, government pay. And the doctor heard him out and then wrote a few notes on the form. And nervously the official asked: ``Did I do something wrong?'' ``Oh, no,'' the doctor answered, ``you just passed the psychiatric part of the exam.'' [Laughter] But the official then said: ``Well, what if I said I had no complaints about the weather or the pay?'' And the psychiatrist said: ``Well, then we'd have to ask you a few more questions.'' [Laughter]

But it's often said that nobody notices when things go right. Well, I notice the oath of office that each of you has taken is not much different from the oath that I took when I signed up for the United States Navy on my 18th birthday, and not much different from the oath that I've taken as President of the United States. And during the years that link those two events, I've held a lifelong belief in the nobility of public service and a lifetime respect for you who are engaged in this important and honorable work.

And that's why, right after I became President, you were the first group that I met with outside the White House. And 7 months as President have only confirmed what I told you then, that you're one of the most important groups I will ever speak to. And that's why we're back. And that's why we're honoring 63 public servants with the Presidential Rank of Distinguished Executive -- the highest number of gold pins ever awarded. We're also very pleased to welcome today's nearly 300 meritorious winners, marking the first time this Presidential ceremony has included this special and very talented group.

All these awards represent a great honor, but they also represent something concrete: cash bonuses totaling more than million. It's a sound investment -- an investment in people. And it's an investment in excellence. And it's also money well earned. But the truth is, for too many years, money for the Senior Executive Service itself simply has not matched the high quality of the people and their efforts. And it sure hasn't kept pace with pay scales in the private sector. And that, in my view, is penny wise and pound foolish. An ever-increasing flood of skilled personnel leaving government service has indeed cost America some of her finest servants, and in the process, some of her best ideas.

We're with you in this battle for a fair shake for America's starting team. In July, we submitted legislation to Congress calling for pay increases of up to 25 percent for SES officials, along with higher salaries for positions requiring specialized and critical skills. And the numbers now on the table call for executive schedule compensation of nearly 5,000 and bring the top SES salaries up where they belong. It's not just that you deserve fair wages, America deserves a system that attracts the best in the land. And when we met here last January, I called on you to build a spirit of teamwork between career SES and newly appointed officials. And today we are very pleased with the progress that my administration is making and know that a large part of that success is due to the fact that you've answered that call with energy and, certainly, with good faith.

Our government works because it is made up of people who try to make their lives count -- people who try to make a difference. And today we honor 349 who did. People like Wade Houk, whose management of the largest prison construction program in history has backed up law enforcement with something even the drug lords can respect -- concrete and steel. And Stanley Laskowski of EPA, who will soon be returning to Poland as part of our pledge to provide environmental assistance abroad. Our commitment to a new era of educational excellence would be impossible without leaders like Mary Jean Le Tendre, who administers programs active in 75 percent of America's elementary schools and who helped develop that Nation at Risk report. And many of you have far-flung responsibilities almost epic in distance and time, like NASA's Richard Petersen, whose programs range from understanding global warming to the basic research needed to take us back to the Moon and to Mars and beyond.

There's never enough time to single out each of you, but there is time for me to say that I am proud to be leading a government served by the likes of you. And I will be proud to shake your hands when we finish. And before leaving, I do want to mention something very close to my heart, and that's community service -- and to salute your efforts to give something back to society.

For example, one of today's distinguished executives, John Mullen of AID, showed leadership and initiative after the Armenian earthquake struck, cutting redtape to help speed private relief efforts for the victims. Over at Interior, they've launched the Take Pride in America campaign, coordinating volunteers to protect and enhance our natural resources. The Department of Transportation has bridged generations by adopting both a senior citizens home and an elementary school, enriching the lives of both young and old. Back at the White House, our staff is encouraged to sign up for at least one volunteer project each month, whether repairing low-income housing or answering phones for last week's telethon -- you know, the muscular dystrophy telethon. And these kinds of initiatives are vital to our progress as a nation in our fight against homelessness, illiteracy, hunger, loneliness, and so many other social problems.

And so, I urge you, as I did America's business leaders in June, to make community service central to your daily life and work. The theme of my administration is building a better America, and with commitment, imagination, and sometimes daring, you strive to do that every day and have for years -- not because of glamour or power, and certainly not for the pay. You do it because you believe it and because it is the right thing to do.

It's an exciting time to be serving America. The world is changing, and it's changing in part because America has stood steadfast as a beacon, a shining modern example of a system that works and of a people committed to doing the right thing.

Congratulations! You do really have my admiration, my respect, and my support. God bless each of you, and God bless the America that you serve so well. Thank you very much for letting me come.

Note: The President spoke at 2:08 p.m. at Constitution Hall. In his remarks, he referred to Constance B. Newman, Director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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