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Overheard at a Tribute to 25 ‘Great’ Public Servants…

By Ed O'Keefe

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, university president Shirley A. Jackson, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) were among 25 individuals recognized Wednesday for their public service careers.

The Eye spent most of his Wednesday evening at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Center for Excellence in Government. The nonpartisan D.C.-based organization works to improve government performance at all levels through seminars, training sessions and publications. Last night it celebrated its anniversary by (what else?!) handing out some awards.

But these special honors went to 25 "great" public servants who have served at least one of the three branches of government in the past quarter century.

And it's quite an impressive list:

Former prisoner of war Everett Alvarez, Jr., former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, former Vice President Al Gore, former 9/11 Commission Co-Chair Lee H. Hamilton, Shirley A. Jackson, former 9/11 Commission Co-Chair Thomas H. Kean, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), Wilma Mankiller, former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, former Sen. and professional mediator George Mitchell, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Peter G. Peterson; former Gen. Colin Powell, former Homeland Security Secretary Thomas J. Ridge, Alice M. Rivlin; former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, John C. Whitehead.

Alvarez, Fauci, Hamilton, Jackson, Lugar, Ridge and Shalala attended the dinner.

Fauci noted that he has “been an employee of the federal government for literally my entire professional career,” something no other honoree can claim.

“It’s my hope that the 25 of us…will bequeath to those who follow us, a passion for public service, a recognition of the importance of it and something of the deep satisfaction that comes with it,” Hamilton told the crowd.

Shalala noted that her first stint in public service came as a Peace Corps volunteer in Southern Iran, having been inspired by President Kennedy to join up. At the end of her term as secretary of Health and Human Services she could not distinguish between career employees and political appointments because everyone had worked together so well, something she hopes happens again in the future.

The event also allowed CEG to toast its outgoing president and CEO, Patricia McGinniss, who is stepping down after 14 years at the helm. Whenever she travels the country and tells people she works for the Council for Excellence in Government, McGinniss said someone inevitably asks her, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?” She noted however that the council has worked on several projects in concert with the federal government, including training seminars for incoming administration officials, its SAGE program and its compilation of top government positions, the Prune Book.

Perhaps the most awkward moment of the evening came early on, courtesy of Clay Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, who was asked to make a few remarks about McGinniss’ tenure.

“I was asked along with 3,000 other people to submit my letter of resignation last week,” he joked at the start, saying that he wanted to include something clever in his letter to President Bush besides the formal “I hereby resign” passage. Johnson said he ended his letter to the president by writing, “We done good and left it better than we found it.” An obvious silence fell over the room, perhaps a sign that most did not agree with Johnson’s sentiments.

There was a real sense in the room that Washington and the nation are on the verge of something neat, new and slightly different as the Obama administration takes shape, and The Eye couldn’t help but notice that the 25 honorees came of age and served their country in a governing era quite different than the one soon set to begin. What an exciting time to be in this town.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | December 11, 2008; 7:05 AM ET
Categories:  Overheard  
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