Long ago and far away, I had a brief, unhappy career as a federal bureaucrat.

Right out of college, I worked for $19,000 as a “program analyst” at the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a regional office. The work was sometimes interesting, but wasn’t really for me.

The inspector general made news last week. The OIG at the U.S. State Department issued a report on the matter of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of private e-mail and a private server for her business-related (and sometimes classified) communications while at State.

This made me reminisce. It also made me think of my old boss at OIG. I’ll call him Mike.

Sometimes we had to travel for work. It was annoying that we usually had to pay for our own travel, then get reimbursed. When we did so, Mike told us clearly:

Don’t take the frequent-flier miles.

Why not? some in our office said, noting that federal employees do this all the time. You’re not stealing the miles from anyone else, they added. You have to make the reservations and put the fares on your own credit card to begin with. So why not?

Mike was as clear as any boss could be. Taking the miles could create the appearance that government employees benefited personally from business-related travel, and so had an improper incentive to undertake such travel. And the government’s guidelines made clear that you shouldn’t take the miles.

But it wasn’t a law.

Mike was probably the best boss I’ve ever had. He drew clear, bright lines for tyros like me. And there is no way in the world that he thought those in higher positions should be held to a lower standard.

And he sent an unmistakable message — proper behavior begins with small matters, and with small fry. If you get it right with the little things, you’ll probably get the bigger things right.

So, when my fellow Democrats say the Clinton e-mail issue is a nonissue, I can’t agree. I don’t think it’s as important as the Supreme Court, reproductive choice or foreign policy. But putting it in proper perspective does not mean misrepresenting it.

This was not inadvertent. It was a concerted, intentional effort to defy clear guidelines for government employees.

Clinton may get past this and become our next president. If so, Democrats should realize this won’t be the last time they have to defend things they would never do themselves. This is life with the Clintons.

 

Doug Rossinow is a professor of history at Metropolitan State University. His most recent book is “The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s.”