What Does Public Service Mean?
What we can learn from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Like everyone else, I’ve been glued to cable news and the internet for the last few days following the events in Ukraine, and also like everyone, I’ve been awed by how Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has risen to the occasion in a way that the world did not expect. Zelenskyy is a former comedian — a Stephen Colbert type — and father of two, whose profile in the U.S. was mostly defined by the fact that he refused to be extorted by Donald Trump in exchange for manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden.
That was a good measure of character by itself, but watching the former actor and entertainer decide to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression, don fatigues, and go to fight alongside his people goes way beyond what I think anyone expected from a guy who in a previous life made a living telling dick jokes.
When offered the opportunity to escape Ukraine with protection, he said — and this will be remembered — “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
But Zelenskyy’s personal bravery in this situation is something that deserves to be recognized in tandem with how he has conducted himself as a leader otherwise. When he was elected in 2019, he gave a speech at his inauguration where he told a story about his son’s reaction to his victory. His son said something to the effect of, “the news is saying that Zelenskyy won. Does that mean I’m president now?” And Zelenskyy said he thought of it as a kid’s joke initially but the more he thought about it, the more it just seemed poignant and true. He went on to emphasize that the presidency was not his personally, that he was the custodian of it and so was every Ukrainian. His message was that everyone was responsible for the fate of the country.
He also said that he did not want his portrait hanging in government buildings. He was not an idol or a king. Hang photos of your children, he said. And think about them every time you make a decision.