Presidential elections make for good political theater, and a myth has been perpetuated that President Bush simply told the nation to go shopping after September 11. In the face of terrorist attacks, planes grounded for 23 days at Reagan Washington National Airport, markets closed for a full week and an uncertain economy, the president encouraged Americans to get our country moving again. But he also asked Americans to serve their country, again and again, and created innovative initiatives the next president should embrace.
The citizen reflex after September 11 was instantaneous. Firefighters wrote their Social Security numbers on their arms as they entered burning buildings to save lives. Americans from Seattle drove to New York to offer comfort and meals to strangers; and partisan bickering in Congress stopped.
Moments of national crisis require national leadership, and Mr. Bush seized it. Shortly after September 11, he addressed a joint session of Congress and held a Rose Garden ceremony to urge Americans to support relief efforts in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He asked schoolchildren to raise and donate dollars to America’s Fund for Afghan Children, a 21st century equivalent of FDR’s March of Dimes. He also announced a partnership between schools in America and the Muslim world.
In the January 2002 State of the Union, the president said “we want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self” and said Americans “began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.” He asked every American to give two years of service over their lifetimes and created the USA Freedom Corps to provide more opportunities to serve their neighbors and nation. He devoted 28 presidential events to this cause over the next few years.
Americans responded. Volunteering climbed from 59.8 million Americans in the first year after September 11 to 65.4 million volunteers four years later, before leveling off at 61 million last year. Under Freedom Corps, the AmeriCorps national service program grew, after a rocky start and battle with Congress, from 50,000 to 75,000 members and leveraged another 1.7 million volunteers to build and repair homes, tutor and mentor children, and clean up rivers and parks. The Peace Corps grew to its highest levels in 37 years, opened or reopened programs in 13 countries, and deployed volunteers to work on HIV/AIDS in Africa and disaster response after the Tsunami.
Interest in Peace Corps outpaced slots so a new Volunteers for Prosperity was created, mobilizing 41,000 skilled professionals last year alone to work on urgent needs such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and clean water for the poor. A new Citizen Corps for homeland security recruited nearly 1 million volunteers for police and fire departments, community emergency response teams, and a Medical Reserve Corps. Businesses, faith-based institutions and schools ramped up volunteering to solve problems in local communities.
Remarkably, after the war became divisive, the call to service grew quiet even though such reminders to serve on the home front should be central in a time of war. But the initiative was in place and historians would compare President Bush’s Freedom Corps to Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. What will be its fate? Will the next president keep the Freedom Corps - both the White House national service council and office to coordinate service policy across government and give it top presidential priority? Will the next president do what Mr. Bush did - honor and cross party lines to support national service programs started by other presidents, create new programs to meet the needs of the times, and support traditional volunteering? Such leadership would require a bow to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush. Will the next president press a reluctant Congress to authorize and fund these efforts? And will he repeat the call to service throughout his term?
Fortunately, the next president will have a running start. The ServiceNation Summit in New York City on Sept. 11 and 12 - featuring the presidential candidates, veteran legislators with lifetimes of service and iconic Americans with institutional power - will unveil a bold service agenda with the support of 110 organizations reaching 100 million Americans. Let’s hope we can seize this moment, move beyond partisanship, and fulfill the promise of a culture whose roots of service run deep.
John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and a co-organizer of the ServiceNation Summit. He also is former director of USA Freedom Corps.