Edward McGaffigan: Public Service at its best

May 9, 2007
Sharon Alexandra

Edward McGaffigan MPP 1976 answered John F. Kennedy’s call to service and the country has been the better for it. He has brought intelligence, integrity, and the eye of a realist to a distinguished 31-year public service career that has placed him in high-level positions in the U.S. Foreign Service, the White House, Congress and, for the past ten years, as a commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC bio).

Now McGaffigan is losing his battle with cancer and has begun calmly and efficiently to wrap things up. That includes speaking about public service.

“If you get a charge out of making money, government isn’t the right place for you. But if you get a charge out of being in the arena, it is,” he says.

Thirty-one years in the arena has given him a unique perspective. “Deal with facts as they are; not as you wish them to be. Look behind things,” he says, speaking like the scientist he is.

McGaffigan reflected recently about best and worst examples of the government at work.

Working with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), he saw the best. Federal acquisition policy was seriously flawed, so the senator convened the Section 800 Panel. For two years these experts studied all 600 federal acquisition provisions and made a decision on each. Their recommendations were incorporated into President Clinton’s “Reinventing Government” initiative and the bipartisan legislation that passed in 1994. “That in my mind is how government should work,” says McGaffigan.

The proposed Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel in Nevada stands as an example of government at its most negligent. Although sound enough technically, it has been mishandled politically, he thinks. In 1989 DOE Secretary James Watkins announced that he would request a construction authorization with a startup date of 2010, but Congress had an earlier commitment to take spent fuel in 1998. The discrepancy in dates should have triggered questioning; but there was none. “The project was left to slide, mismanaged by DOE, neglected by Congress,” he says. “What bothers me most is the unwillingness of Congress over a very long period to fix the law. Problems should be dealt with, not neglected. Unfortunately, the willingness of members of Congress and the Presidents since 1989 to take on obvious challenges has eroded greatly as sound bite politics has driven both parties to extremes.”

“If you stay long enough, you own the problems and try to fix them,” he said.

As the longest-serving commissioner of the NRC, he is proud of the changes made during his tenure, especially in the oversight process for reactors, improved security, and a marked increase in the level of transparency. Want to know how your reactor is doing? Go to the NRC website.

“I like what I do and I’m good at it,” he said in a recent interview. Those who work with him agree. Last November the Commissioner received the NRC’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. And his co-workers speak of him with affection and admiration, recounting fondly his ability to quote even the most obscure regulations.

Classmate and close friend Cathy Abbott remembers from their student days, “He was the key that got us through statistics and he did it without making any of us feel stupid. It’s that human quality that makes the difference.”

It was classmate Marshall Hoyler who introduced him to his wife Peggy. When she was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease only six years after they married, McGaffigan methodically planned so their house could be made supportive as her illness progressed. After she lost the ability to drive in 1989, he structured his life in a way that allowed him to continue to excel at his job, take primary responsibility for his children, and care for his wife until her death.

“I can’t recall a time I’ve seen him flustered,” says Hoyler. “He approaches every problem with a calm courage and dignity.”

University Professor Joseph Nye calls McGaffigan a “true public leader” with a lengthy track record stretching from the State Department to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Ed is a great example for the Kennedy School,” Nye says.

Photos: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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Edward McGaffigan being sworn in as commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1996.

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Edward McGaffigan, commissioner, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; MPP 1976.