The most riveting news images during the week leading up to Tuesday’s election were not — at least directly — related to the campaign itself.
They were, rather, scenes of workers protecting or aiding storm victims in a variety of settings: nurses in lower Manhattan carrying out newborn babies after their hospitals lost power; public safety personnel rescuing residents in coastal areas of New Jersey; transit workers cleaning out and repairing a flooded subway system relied on by millions of New Yorkers.
These scenes depicted what is best about America — individual acts of bravery without regard for one’s own safety; folks helping strangers as if they were neighbors; local, state and federal officials of varying political orientations working cooperatively to assist the public.
Nothing about this had to do with the election, and nothing about this was political. Except that, on another level, it had everything to do with the election and with politics.
Let’s begin by noting that many of these workers belong to unions, and that the training, teamwork, dedication and expertise they bring to the job on a daily basis — and that they demonstrated last week — stem in part from union affiliations.
Let’s remember as well that most of them are government employees.
These, then, are the very people whom anti-labor forces have been warning us about for the better part of two years — unionized public employees whose wages and benefits generally are paid for by America’s beleaguered taxpayers.
We also saw Washington spring into action, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency — the very entity that Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized during the campaign as usurping authority and resources from the states.
Speaking of the states, intriguing, too, were the scenes in which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lavishly praised President Obama for sparing no efforts to help the state’s hard-hit coastal areas.
Some perplexed Republican pundits were reduced to asserting that Mr. Christie — the Republican National Convention keynote speaker — suddenly had morphed into a mere self-interested politician aiming to boost his chances for a 2016 run by sabotaging this year’s party ticket.
Some commentators have suggested more soberly that Hurricane Sandy helped Mr. Obama by stalling Mr. Romney’s momentum, by diverting attention from the economy, by providing an opportunity for presidential leadership — and by reminding folks of the need for a strong federal government. Conversely, some pundits contended that the storm could hurt Mr. Obama by disrupting early voting and lowering turnout, or by breeding frustration among residents of hard-hit areas.
Whatever the immediate political impact, Sandy serves as a warning. If we are to remain a strong, effective and compassionate country, we need to respect public employees who serve us. Seeking to make them scapegoats for an economic crisis they did not cause, and which cannot be solved on their backs, hurts us every bit as much as it does them.
Conservatives often rhapsodize about the type of country we were when times were simpler and we treated one another with civility. They tend to overlook the social ills subsequently addressed by the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, but more broadly they have a point. As they make this case, however, they should be reminded that part of that gentler America was the respect we had — and which we inculcated in our children — for the authority figures in our neighborhoods, including police, firefighters, teachers and all those who transported us, protected us, educated us, cleaned for us or otherwise cared for us.
It always has been the constructive interaction — not mindless name-calling — between a productive private sector and a competent public sector that makes our society work.