Jeh Johnson encourages students to consider public service
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson explained his love for government work to a crowd of AU students in Ward 1 Tuesday night.
"My first love is public service, even though most of my adult career I practiced private and corporate law,” he said.
The Kennedy Political Union, in co-sponsorship with the School of Public Affairs, hosted Johnson to discuss his experience as a lawyer and involvement with the federal government as well as the important national security issues that face the nation today.
In his discussion on the Department of Homeland Security, Johnson focused on the changing face of terrorism, cyber security and immigration.
“The answer is not to build a wall across 2,000 miles of our border and spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing so,” Johnson said on the topic of border security. “What will building a wall across that accomplish? My predecessor used to say, ‘Show me a ten-foot wall, and I’ll show you an 11-foot ladder.’”
Johnson experienced his earliest political memory, the political and cultural turmoil of 1968, from a color TV for the first time and was inspired by the vividness of the world around him.
“I realized then, though I was only 10-years-old, going on 11, that there was this larger world around me, and I felt a call to want to be a part of it,” Johnson said.
Despite his early interest in politics, Johnson said he was not motivated academically in high school and only changed his mindset during his sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, when he volunteered for former President Jimmy Carter’s campaign. Johnson said this first experience with the political process shaped his career trajectory, and he never looked back.
After attending law school at Columbia University, Johnson spent many years alternating between private law practice at the firm Paul, Weiss in Manhattan and various positions in public service. He served as the assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York as well as the General Counsel of the Department of Defense near the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term in office.
He then returned to New Jersey where he met then-Sen. Barack Obama. When Obama expressed interest in running for president, Johnson said he immediately supported him.
“I had a sense that I was being asked to participate in history from the ground floor, and I said, ‘Barack, if you run, I am with you,” Johnson said.
President Obama rewarded Johnson for his support with a position as the Department of Defense General Counsel. During this time, Johnson played a key role in shaping the military’s counterterrorism efforts and worked to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
In 2012, Johnson returned to private practice only to be nominated to become the Secretary of Homeland Security in 2013.
“I was totally stunned that he asked,” Johnson said. “And I said yes, really out of a sense of duty, loyalty to this president and frankly because I love public service.”
Johnson encouraged students to also pursue careers in public service because of how rewarding of an experience it has been for him.
“I hope that most of you here will consider a career in public service just like I was when I was a freshman in college,” Johnson said. “It truly is great work. I have spent more time in private law practice than I have in public service and I will tell you that serving your country, serving your community, making a difference is really fun, and it’s really meaningful work.”