- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008


On the sixth-year anniversary of USA Freedom Corps, President Bush’s community and national service initiative, we can take stock of progress made and paths forward.

In the aftermath of September 11 and before a near-record State of the Union audience of more than 50 million Americans in 2002, Mr. Bush called on every American to give two years of their lives in service to the nation and announced the largest civic engagement initiative since Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. He issued a call to service that echoes down the ages.

Washington had said that “when we assumed the soldier, we did not lay down the citizen”; Adams that “our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives”; JFK declared “ask not”; and Ronald Reagan that “voluntary service flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation.”

Drawing on the lessons from Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, John Kennedy’s Peace Corps, Lyndon Johnson’s VISTA, Richard Nixon’s Senior Corps, Jimmy Carter’s support for Habitat for Humanity, Ronald Reagan’s private-sector initiative, George H.W. Bush’s Office of National Service and Points of Light Foundation, and Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps, Mr. Bush worked to marry two previously competing ideas: federal support for full-time, national service programs and bully-pulpit support for traditional volunteering. He also introduced new ideas — unleashing trained citizens to protect the homeland and to meet urgent needs abroad, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

The “culture of responsibility” he envisioned works two ways — and tells us about both presidential leadership and public response. What actually happened?

Over the next two years, Mr. Bush participated in 28 events to announce or highlight components of his Freedom Corps. He and the first lady also hit the airwaves and conference circuits with public service campaigns, with the help of iconic Americans John Glenn and Bob Dole. Americans responded in droves so strongly in fact that decades-old systems were overwhelmed with people wanting to serve.

Six years later, the results were both hopeful and mixed. Census numbers showed that volunteer service swelled from 59 million Americans in the first year after September 11 to 65 million four years later. Americans responded strongly to the call to protect the homeland and government met the demand. Citizen Corps has councils in 2,300 communities, 720 units of a new Medical Reserve Corps that proved their metal post-Katrina, and community troops of support for emergency responders, firefighters and police officers.

AmeriCorps enrolled more participants than it had funding for educational awards, creating a disturbing pause in enrollments. After a year of pain, and with personal calls to Capitol Hill from the president and first lady, AmeriCorps would grow to 75,000 members, as Mr. Bush promised. Critics would unfairly claim that increases were won with more “part-time” participants, when the truth is that the full-time and part-time ratios have stayed largely the same since before Freedom Corps was created.

Peace Corps grew from 6,663 volunteers when we inherited it to 8,049 today. While enrollment reached the highest levels in more than 30 years, and significant new funding was provided by Congress, the program is hard to grow and did not meet the doubling promised.

Other good progress was made — with more than 22,000 skilled “Volunteers for Prosperity” annually who serve abroad to meet urgent needs; $200 million in new resources for mentoring disadvantaged children; and an American History and Civics initiative with new resources to awaken young teachers and their students to a better understanding of our heritage.

Stumbles occurred. We overreached on “Operation TIPS,” a program to increase state-based programs that engage transportation workers in crime (and now terrorism) prevention, and a leery Congress shut it down. We failed to increase the number of college students with access to meaningful work in non-profits to meet their work-study requirements. And we did not sustain a repeated call to service in a time of war, even after Americans had responded to our “On the Homefront” initiative to help military families.

The 2008 presidential candidates have shown interest in advancing the service legacy of many presidents and creating their own. They should be encouraged by the extraordinary response from Americans at every turn and should study lessons from the past to ensure their own initiative meets the test of the times.

Citizen service defines who we are as Americans, harnesses people of goodwill to solve our nation’s toughest problems and leads to a more informed foreign policy. Tapping that civic spirit is the job of a president and Congress; reminds each of us of our duties to one another; and breathes life into what the Founders meant by the “pursuit of happiness.” The next president and Congress might also remember the words of Arthur Schlesinger, who had it right: “too much pluribus, not enough unum.”

John M. Bridgeland, who served as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and as the first director of the USA Freedom Corps, is CEO of Civic Enterprises.

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