Thursday, November 24, 2011


With this and next year’s election rapidly approaching, I want to honor an official elected to Washington who put his duty before his ideology to make government do the right thing. Washington Senator, formerly Representative, William Armstrong, a conservative Republican, was my representative in the mid 70s, and he helped me to get part-time employment at the Colorado Springs campus (Cragmor) of The University of Colorado. He is now president of Colorado Christian University.

In ordinary times, a young English Ph.D. does not seek such assistance. But those were not ordinary times. In a few years, a projected scarcity of English Ph.D.’s became a persistent surplus. I was a part of it. At a time of preferential hiring for minorities, women, and those with specialties not mine, few colleges needed another white, male Shakespearean. So I was lucky to get a one-year, full-time position to teach composition in Manhattan, Kansas, and commuted on a fortnightly basis. But, when the Arab Oil Embargo struck, the country cut the speed limit to 55, and my daughter’s first words were “Daddy,” “car,” and “bye-bye,” I resigned and sought part-time work at Cragmor.

I applied but could not get a job. Moonlighting officers teaching English at the Air Force Academy taught the extra courses. I thought it wrong that ranking government employees could take a second job and deny me, a qualified civilian, any job, even a part-time, one. So I did what any trained scholar would do: research.

In turn, I requested the relevant regulations from the Air Force Academy, the Air Force, and the Department of Defense. In turn, although their regulations clearly stated that officers could not take jobs for which civilians were qualified and available, all three denied any violation.

Then I wrote Armstrong, who served on the House Armed Services Committee, with my complaint. I was not surprised when a staffer replied that Armstrong had asked DoD about my complaint and had been assured that the Academy was in full compliance with all relevant regulations.

In the spring of 1974, with President Nixon facing impeachment and others linked to his campaign or administration having given false assurances about their compliance with laws, I wrote Armstrong again, this time to say that I thought his reliance on the word of the accused seemed untimely and unwise. My letter caught his attention and prompted a telephone call directly from him. He told me of his confidence in DoD assurances. I remember my response very clearly.

I said that I was not a lawyer, only an English Ph.D., but that I was sure that every legal document from the U.S. Code to the Academy regulations prohibited competition between officers and civilians for the same job. I said that neither of us could make an interstate bet over the phone but that, if we could, I would wager whatever I was worth to a dollar of his that I was right. Armstrong was impressed. He said that, though he thought the odds were a million to one that I was wrong, he would inquire again.

Two weeks later, Armstrong called. He said that I was absolutely right and that he was flabbergasted and furious that the DoD had lied to him. He said that he would see that my situation was resolved to my satisfaction. The end of the story is short. The Cragmor campus president apologized for my frustrating experience and promised a suitable response; the English department chair invited me to an interview, the purpose of which was to match my interests to unstaffed fall-term courses. Later, he gave me my choice of any spring-term courses.

I tell this story because it has at least three lessons. First, although Armstrong was a strong supporter of the military and trusted it to tell him the truth, when he learned that it had lied to him and had violated the law, he took action to redress its misconduct. (I doubt not that the liaison officer who lied to him and perhaps others involved were reprimanded or reassigned or even encouraged to resign). Second, although he was a conservative Republican and probably imagined that I was anything but, he acted on the principle that justice must be done, regardless of real or presumed differences of politics.

The third lesson includes the first two: Armstrong’s conduct exemplifies what we expect of elected officials: whatever their affiliations or allegiances, duty to truth and right, not ideology, comes first.

In these difficult times, when we lack confidence in government, we must elect officials who, whatever their ideological convictions or political alliances, know their duty to their country and constituents. We must vote for those local, state, and federal officials who know that their duty is not to shirk duty by shrinking government, but to make it work. Conservative Republican William Armstrong knew and did his duty. I honor him for knowing and doing it.

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