WASHINGTON, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan ran for office against government, beginning an era of denigrating public service, scoffing at people in federal jobs, pushing privatization of government services and tangling with government unions.
When aircraft controllers went on strike in 1981, Reagan fired 2,000 of them, sweeping aside warnings of passenger danger and using military controllers and management personnel to keep the planes flying. Republicans became heroes to every corporation chafing under safety inspections or environmental cleanup orders.
Cutting government employees has often been used to reduce regulation or inspection, leaving the public with the sense the government is protecting their safety when in fact the agency was disarmed.
The best and the brightest who flocked to government in the 1960s went to Wall Street or corporations in the 1980s, and those people who chose federal public service, particularly in regulatory agencies, were harried and hounded by lobbyists and special interest groups.
President George W. Bush came to office on an almost identical platform as Reagan, denigrating Washington and talking about cutting federal service further and moving even sensitive government tasks to private companies.
Now Bush finds himself facing repeated contradictions over this central Republican theme.
The men and women who rushed to aid the victims of the World Trade Center bombing and the Pentagon were government employees: New York firemen, Arlington County rescue squad workers, police officers and hospital workers. Hundreds died saving the lives of others.
These are the same people Bush lauds with almost every public breath. New York is a blue-collar town and a union town and most of the public service heroes were in a union.
When anthrax struck the Postal Service and four employees died, others flocked to work, keeping the world's largest postal service running, asking only that they be treated and protected as quickly as others.
It was certainly not pay or monetary reward that induced those people to stay on the job despite personal danger. It was the esprit de corps of public service, the sense of what John Kennedy's great challenge posed: ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.
But when it came to airport security, President Bush and the House Republican leadership delayed the public safety bill for almost two months to keep 28,000 baggage handler jobs from becoming federal employment. Bush's reason was that it was "more flexible" because they could be fired.
The real reason was the Reagan legacy. Texas Republican Dick Armey came clean about it during the debate. He said they didn't want the 28,000 workers to be federalized because they might join a government union and the union would contribute to the Democratic campaign.
For this, millions of Americans were delayed two months in getting the airport safety that they thought the government was providing anyway. Yet the repeated reputation of the Department of Transportation and the FAA is for failing to make the airline industry enforce safety rules.
Would the marginal workers of the private security companies, ill-trained and dispirited, making minimum wage or a little above, stay at their posts in an airport emergency? Would they have the esprit de corps to confront the dangerous passenger and coolly call security officers?
Anyone who has gone through a baggage security system in recent months would doubt that. The president is unfamiliar with the dangerous state of the airports. Anybody who rides on his plane is screened by the Secret Service.
There are other jobs -- like investigating the background of government employees and security at many government agencies -- that have been privatized over recent years and should be brought back under federal service.
Bush is fighting a war on three fronts and discovering something other war presidents have learned: to win you have to be willing to let old political values and objectives slide.
Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison saved the bill for the president by overcoming the right-wing House leadership. Who will help the president on the next one?