I knew a group of men, brilliant scientists and astute attorneys, who took jobs with the federal government to serve their country and make it a better place. They were college graduates of the 1960s who had heard John F. Kennedy's call to public service — "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" — and who a decade later took JFK's challenge into government jobs in food safety and environmental protection.
But within two decades, Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency with a very different message: to reduce government's scope and regulatory power. As he once put it, "I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
The scientists and attorneys, who had found personal fulfillment in conducting research and enforcing federal laws to protect the environment and human health, soon left government service. They heard in Reagan the sound of retreat from the progressive efforts that had brought advances in the quality of life for millions of Americans.
Since even before Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Congress had enacted laws to keep children out of the workplace, to protect the nation's waterways and its air, to make motor vehicles safer, to keep watch over financial institutions, to advance voting rights, to end racial discrimination in public places, to keep Americans from starving.
What some condemned as the expensive growth of bureaucracy and government overreach, others saw as vigilance necessary for a better country.
But during the years since Reagan, Americans have come of age hearing that government is too big and too powerful, that it has strangled commerce and individual freedom, that it is generally incompetent or corrupt, or some combination of all of that.
And if you went to work for the government, you must have been ill-equipped for the private sector, unable to compete in the "real world." (I always felt sorry for school teachers who might have been listening when a certain local talk radio host criticized them with sarcastic broadsides, relishing a George Bernard Shaw line: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.")
I've known a lot of people who worked for taxpayers over the years, from the local planning commission to the public defender's office — smart, serious, diligent, judicious, well-educated, wonkish people who believed in what they were doing, despite hearing steady, anti-government harangues.
That message has been repeated, in different forms, throughout Donald Trump's campaign for president.
It is most pronounced in his outrageous claims that the coming election is rigged. In making that baseless assertion, Trump further degrades the public's confidence in government, because it is government, in the form of state and local boards, that conduct the November election in accordance with law.
And Trump's repeated use of the word "disaster" to describe almost everything the government does supports his narrative of a country in collapse.
This is toxic talk.
My job requires skepticism and curiosity; the press is supposed to serve as a civic watchdog. So I offer no blanket defense of government, by any means. My colleagues spend a lot of time probing and prodding to shed light on government operations.
But what I'm concerned about is something all Americans should be concerned about, and that's the effect nearly four decades of anti-government rhetoric have had on our ability to recruit good people into public service, and that includes elected office.
When Trump and his surrogates attack the Washington establishment, their targets are the Obama administration and what they see as its likely continuation with the election of Hillary Clinton.
Of course, President Barack Obama is enjoying pretty high approval ratings as he prepares to leave office. So, no surprise, Trump and his talking-head supporters are out of step.
When most Americans express disapproval of the "Washington establishment," they're thinking about something else. They're thinking about the super-partisan, do-nothing Congress, controlled by just-say-no Republicans who have worked against the Obama administration 24/7 for going on eight years.
Example: Republicans criticize the Affordable Care Act, and they seem downright gleeful with predictions of Obamacare's impending meltdown. But they've been unwilling to work with Democrats to improve it. Obamacare's inherent problems, left to fester, further erode public confidence in the government. That's no way to run a company. That's no way to run a country.
While Reagan gets credit for launching the anti-government age in America, he had reinforcements — the right-wing media, the tea party — to second his message that government is too large, too costly, too clumsy, too grabby.
And the Democrats, including Obama and Clinton, have not countered this message with resounding, repeated and inspired appeals to young people to consider public service. And I mean all kinds of service — civilian, military, law enforcement. And not just for the pay and pension; for the greater good. Young Americans need to hear that again.