Advice for budding public servants: The Hon. Tim Roemer

U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William J. Burns (center) looks on as U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy J. Roemer (right) at the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue reception at the the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 3, 2010. [White House photo/ Public Domain]

Tim Roemer credits his parents for motivating him early in life to pursue his career in serving the public. “They literally poured unconditional love on us,” said Roemer. “In our family we were encouraged to constantly improve ourselves, to never stop learning, and to be extremely curious about the world.” This foundation of family support was crucial for his future accomplishments. “My parents reminded my brothers and sister and me to be people of values, not success, because that is what truly endures.”

For Roemer, the popular American novel To Kill a Mockingbird(1960) — known for its perspective on race relations and social justice — also provides its readers with a “model of good parenting”. As Roemer recalls, the young protagonist Scout learns from her Dad to consider “how the world might appear from another person’s perspective, how to advocate for others, and how to be persistent and tenacious in life.” He challenges his four children with these life-long lessons.

This complementary relationship between education and service to others figures throughout Roemer’s career. As a Member of Congress, he sponsored the legislation to establish AmeriCorps, the national civil service program for young adults modeled after the global Peace Corps program. He also sponsored legislation for the establishment of the Head Start program and vocational training programs.

Committed to innovative education reform, Roemer has promoted high standards for student achievement, as well as further education and training for students with disabilities. He argues for both the economic and social benefits of training students with disabilities to enter and contribute to the workforce as adults.

In the current economic conditions, Roemer underscored that millennials will be required to make many more career transitions in their lifetimes than previous generations had to make. In order to make these transitions, some of which he has made himself, Roemer gives the advice that his father once gave to him: to form a personal “Board of Directors” — a select group of individual mentors whose counsel one trusts. It would be especially helpful if each person in this group came from a different walk of life and offered a different perspective on the situation.

In addition to forming a personal “Board of Directors”, it is essential to learn from the people who might also be your competition. Roemer illuminates this idea with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006), an historical study that describes how President Lincoln had the wisdom to invite his “greatest rivals” into his cabinet: the four other men who had run for election for President and had lost to him. He brought people of vastly different backgrounds and perspectives together to make decisions with him, thereby winning the respect of his former competitors and gaining new insights into critical policy decisions. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, also became one of his trusted friends.

While serving as President of the Center for National Policy, a nonpartisan national security think tank based in Washington, DC, Roemer often had to make difficult decisions about budgets, development, and staff. For Roemer, it was helpful to have multiple advisors from both the private and public sectors when making these decisions and later serving as U.S. Ambassador to India, a position which he held from 2009–2011. Having the background and perspective of both the business world and the government provides critical skills.

During his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to India, Roemer was widely known for selecting to meet with many diverse communities. He and his family volunteered together at schools for the disabled and at the orphanages, which Mother Teresa had founded. Roemer has been concerned throughout his career with the aims of effectively alleviating poverty and developing new ideas to assist the working poor and helping elevate them into the middle class.

Roemer enjoys reading and appreciates the role of literature in defining and understanding who we are, both in a personal and philosophical sense. An important work for him has been St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, a highly introspective account of the author’s spiritual development and one of the first examples in the genre of autobiography.

Another important work informing Roemer’s thinking has been Leo Tolstoy’s short story of “Martin the Cobbler,” the tale of a shoemaker who through the course of a day offers hospitality, assistance in resolving disputes, and friendship to each person who happens to come to his house. In the story, the main character, Martin, learns that his openness to these individuals was at the same time a spiritual openness to his God and to the world in which all individuals are connected. What Tolstoy’s character had anticipated as a spiritual insight deferred into a future time was already realized in that one day, in the here and now, through his attention and care for the poor and hungry.

Roemer emphasizes in equal measure compassion for others along with the determination to firmly stand up for one’s views. He recalls how difficult it was when he first ran for Congress and found out that his opponent was making ad hominem criticisms in campaign advertisements against him and distorting the facts. This experience of running for office aided him in developing the skill to support his positions even more strongly with compelling evidence. Another lesson was to develop a thick skin and not be too bothered by political attacks!

Roemer advises his four children to seek out and listen respectfully to the people with whom they disagree, in order to learn how to stand up for their views and sometimes make deeply principled compromises. As Roemer promotes education and service to others just as his parents did, he recognizes that being well-informed and well-read on these subjects is not enough. One must be tenacious in arguing one’s case, pursuing the aims of social justice, and working to alleviate poverty and suffering in the world. The characteristics and skills that the next generation of public servants and diplomats will need are the ability to set key strategic goals, perseverance in achieving these objectives, and the courage to pursue new ideas.

The Honorable Tim Roemer is Executive Director and Strategic Counselor at APCO Worldwide. He previously served as a Member of Congress (D-IN, 1991–2003), as U.S. Ambassador to India (2009–2011), and a member of the 9/11 Commission.


by Anne-Marie Simon; December 2016

InProfile is a feature of The Congressional Study Group’s biweekly e-newsletter “InBrief.” In this section, we highlight key members of The Congressional Study Groups and their parent organization, the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.