Ready To Serve?

The comparisons to Pearl Harbor came naturally to most people on September 11th, 2001. Newspapers and politicians immediately pronounced this a new day destined to live in infamy, and a new day of shared sacrifice and heroism. It was likely with the imagery of that earlier day in mind—of Uncle Sam and war bonds and victory gardens and the like—that so many Americans seemed to yearn for a summons to service and national engagement in the weeks following the attacks. President Bush and the people around him recognized that yearning, but at first they seemed to have trouble finding the answer to satisfy it. In the face of unprecedented national calamity, it was a tad disconcerting to find the president limiting his invocations of civic duty to forceful, repeated demands for . . . more shopping.

FDR had called on Americans to pursue “the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary” to support the war effort. Sixty years later, George W. told his embattled fellow citizens, “Get down to Disney World in Florida.” Who could help but feel that the times warranted something more than that? Along with the horror and destruction, the terrorist attacks had left in their wake a national reservoir of human resources and energy; Bush seemed reluctant to tap it.

To his credit, the President eventually did summon up both a rhetoric and a policy of national service that seemed commensurate to the nation’s desires, unveiling in his State of the Union address in January 2002 a new umbrella organization for federal service programs, the USA Freedom Corps, and a proposed 50 percent expansion of AmeriCorps, the largest of the existing programs. But some of that initial, tepid attitude toward harnessing the nation’s civic capacity has carried over into Bush’s approach to service in the last two years. Preoccupied with other policies, the president has sidelined some of his boldest service initiatives, and stood silent as others have become hostage to ideological wrangling in Congress. His record has led to charges of broken promises—and of a missed opportunity.

At the same time, the administration’s evident ambivalence about enlisting the citizenry in post-9/11 efforts raises some fundamental questions about what civic participation means in 21st century America—what is needed from the citizenry, and what the citizenry is able and willing to do. Does that post-9/11 yearning for collective service still persist two years later? And even if it does, what is national service really good for?

Those questions may well have important political implications. Advocates for robust national service sense that the issue could turn out to be politically fruitful for Bush’s opponent in 2004—and several of the Democratic candidates seem to agree. After twenty years of efforts to forge a true national service movement, proponents see in next year’s election the potential for a much more expansive discussion of what service and citizenship can mean in the post-9/11 era. They’re looking for a quantum leap in the politically possible. And one candidate in particular seems to have staked his candidacy on just such an appeal.

Patriot Politics

On October 14th, a month into his campaign, General Wesley Clark gave a speech at Hunter College in New York in which he unveiled an ambitious proposal for expanded national service, a project that would, he said, “reinvigorate America’s ethic of service, tap our vast reservoir of skill, generosity, and energy, and call millions more Americans to duty.” The plan was, and remains, extremely skimpy on details, but the main components include a more than three-fold expansion of existing programs like AmeriCorps, new short-term enlistment options for people wishing to serve in the armed forces without pursuing a military career, and, as the centerpiece, an entirely new national service entity called the Civilian Reserve. The Civilian Reserve is a bold idea—a registration of American volunteers offering various skills, to be called up in times of emergency. Clark expects millions to register and volunteer when the time comes, but in case of a personnel shortage during a crisis the president would have the authority to draft up to 5,000 reservists for paid tours of duty lasting six months maximally. The idea would be to have a volunteer force ready for quick mobilization in the event of a terrorist attack or other humanitarian crisis. “It’s an interesting way to tap people in times of need in a much more effective way than we were able to do after 9/11,” said Marc Magee, head of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Civic Enterprise. (Clark’s campaign has reported that scholars at PPI acted as advisors on the plan. Clark also received a good deal of input from his campaign manager, Eli Segal, who was the original founder of AmeriCorps, Bill Clinton’s national service initiative that offers college stipends in exchange for participation in local affiliated service organizations.)

Part of the program’s appeal is its potential to help lighten the burden on military reservists in homeland emergencies, by having skilled civilian volunteers (police, engineers, etc.) supplement first responders and perform some of the logistical work currently left to overstretched soldiers. But beyond the practical benefits, Clark has heady visions for what the plan could do for the civic culture. As Jason Furman, the campaign’s Policy Director, told me in an email, “General Clark envisions tens of millions of people signing up for his Civilian Reserves, making it a central part of our notion of citizenship.”

Clark was hardly the first Democratic candidate to sense a political possibility in this issue. Indeed, no one could have been more irked by the press attention the General got for his plan in October than poor, beleaguered John Kerry. The Massachusetts Senator unveiled his plan for national service—one that is far more detailed and in many ways even more ambitious than Clark’s—back in May. He set a goal of enlisting one million Americans a year in service programs by the end of the decade, and proposed an array of new projects to reach it. Unfortunately, the senator’s candidacy is floundering. Unless he manages, quickly, to reenergize his operation and connect with voters in a new way, his significance in the broader national service discussion will continue to dwindle.

Besides, Kerry hasn’t made service a fundamental thematic component of his campaign. Clark has. Every policy proposal his campaign makes is couched within the rubric of what he calls the “New American Patriotism.” Clearly the concept is meant, in part, to affirm the patriotism of democratic dissent, in the face of GOP imputations over the past two years. But it means something else as well—a recognition of new demands for citizenship in a new era. The sterling military background that so many Democrats swoon over is crucial for Clark’s candidacy not only because it serves as a buffer against Republican mudslinging, but because it underlies his genuine commitment to the ideals of public service and duty. What seems to resonate most with Clark’s followers, after all, is the general’s startling, almost artless, sincerity. He’s a Boy Scout, at a time when many are still in a Boy Scout kind of mood. The national service initiative thus lies at the very heart of his campaign. “The original idea came directly from General Clark,” said Furman. “He wanted it to be one of his first policy proposals.” Magee agrees that the service ethic underlies his mission as a candidate: “That’s really what he believes. He feels very strongly in the responsibility of citizens to get engaged in their country. . . That’s definitely the core of his candidacy.” The policy of national service is something that Clark subscribes to naturally. But it’s the politics of service that he’s now banking on as a candidate. For Clark sees an opening—an untapped need—in the failed promises of George W. Bush to speak to his country’s civic instincts. In the wake of the attacks, the General lamented, “people were asking what they could do to help their country . . . In that moment, there was so much the President could have called on Americans to do.”

Clark is railing against a squandered opportunity—and making a political bet that others feel the same way.

Bad Service


Unlike some of the GOP warriors who now carry his water, President Bush was never an anti-service ideologue. As governor of Texas, he supported his state’s AmeriCorps-affiliated national service commission. Vague but seemingly heartfelt notions about service and civic commitment featured as part of his “compassionate conservative” appeal in the 2000 campaign. And he put respected people from the service community in charge of the major programs—most notably Leslie Lenkowsky, an expert on philanthropic policies whom Bush appointed as head of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the organization that administers AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.At the same time, Bush’s philosophy on service more or less echoed his father’s notion of “a thousand points of light”—that is, service as local, nongovernmental, nonpolitical volunteerism. As described by Kayla Drogosz, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of the new book United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship, this outlook views service as “the authentic alternative to government engagement,” the good side in a zero-sum policy relationship between the public and private sector.

The public’s response to the disasters of 9/11 seemed to alter his viewpoint. After that odd, initial period in which he was hard-pressed to find a language resonant with the new national mood, Bush and his team at the CNCS formulated what seemed like a robust new national role for government to harness the civic capacities of the citizenry. “After America was attacked, it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves,” he said in January 2002, in the State of the Union address where he announced the formation of USA Freedom Corps and his planned 25,000-position expansion of AmeriCorps. “We were reminded that we are citizens, with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history... We’ve been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass.”

Longtime national service advocates—and scholars of civic engagement and public opinion—couldn’t help but agree. This did seem like a unique moment. Articles with names like “Bowling Together” and “‘We’—Not ‘Me’” appeared in the months following the attacks offering statistical evidence of revived social cohesion and popular interest in service and government initiatives. Though anecdotal press reports of post-9/11 surges in ROTC applications and church attendance greatly overstated the case, hard data pointed to some genuine changes. Summer 2002 AmeriCorps applications were up 50 percent from their levels a year earlier, for example; Peace Corps applications doubled, and Teach for America applications tripled, during this same period. The sour economy surely contributed something to this up-tick in interest—but it was doubtfully the whole story. The tragedy of 9/11 marked, strangely enough, an opportunity for national service advocates the likes of which they could hardly have dreamed possible before. Elements of this historic moment echoed past periods when civic service came to the fore of the national conscious. The first real push for a national service apparatus came during the Progressive era, when the philosopher William James and others called for programs aimed at “inflaming the civic tempers” to tackle national problems. As Magee relates, this was a public effort to “restore civic virtue coming out of the Gilded Age.” In by far the largest national service effort in American history, FDR put over three million unemployed young men to work in the national forests between 1933 and 1942 as part of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Twenty years later, in an era of unprecedented prosperity, John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps as a Cold War project meant to instill national ideals in Americans while pursuing friendly relations abroad.

You don’t have to read too deeply to sense a few parallels. Newspaper columns and TV commentaries after 9/11 were filled with claims heralding the coming of a more mature, civic-minded national culture, once the attacks had finally jolted us out of our modern Guilded Age of heady prosperity and indulgence. New threats abroad now combined with economic troubles at home. A global struggle rendered the goals of spreading American ideals throughout the world and cultivating civic virtue as important now as they ever were during the Cold War. But was the president willing to think big—to seize the moment and build something lasting from it?

Drogosz doesn’t mince words, and she isn’t alone in her assessment: “I think the White House hasn’t delivered in any way, shape, or form.” She is particularly unimpressed by the showy new umbrella organization Bush unveiled in 2002, the USA Freedom Corps, headed by John Bridgeland. “I think for a lot of people in the service community, the USA Freedom Corps has been a big disappointment,” she said. “[It] has really been an obstruction to policies that have come out of the CNCS, where instead of being a catalyst to bring people together, the office has been kind of a black hole.” Drogosz likens the Freedom Corps to a P.R. campaign, while Clark has ridiculed it as “an exercise in re-branding,” and it’s difficult to find a reason to disagree—the organization doesn’t seem to do much. Its website touts the number of visitors it receives and provides a handy array of links to service organizations across the country, but beyond that there isn’t much to point to it. Erik Hotmire, the Communications Director for the Corps, told me in an email that the office “connect[s] millions of Americans to a culture of service through new and existing domestic and international federally-supported service programs,” and he listed a number of new initiatives the office was coordinating, including Citizen Corps and Volunteers in Police Service. But most of these have suffered the same fate as the more established service programs—namely, underfunding and a lack of institutional follow-through. Unsurprisingly, the USA Freedom Corps hasn’t exactly seeped into the nation’s civic consciousness: this year less than 10 percent of under-30 Americans in one survey reported knowing even a “fair amount” about the program.

It appears that national service has gone the way of so much of the high-profile “compassionate conservative” agenda Bush has touted over the last three years, from education reform to faith-based service to fighting AIDS in Africa. The issue made a grand public entrance with soaring presidential speeches and promises, only to die a slow and relatively unnoticed death in the legislative process as the president opted to expend political capital on other commitments. “When it comes down to it, his legislative priorities have consistently been about tax cuts for the wealthy and giveaways for large corporations,” asserted Furman.

It is, indeed, a question of priorities for Bush more than ideology. The president is no more of an anti-service ideologue now than he ever was. As for the hardcore contingent of his party in Congress—the contingent that happens to make up the leadership in Congress—the same cannot be said.

“Creamed by Congress”

There’s no better or more tragic illustration of Bush’s fundamental disinterest in this issue than the funding debacle that hit Americorps this year. The Clinton-era initiative had become a popular and increasingly bipartisan success over the last decade. A program that gives people the opportunity to work on useful public projects with other Americans from diverse class and ethnic backgrounds (generating, in the social science lingo, “bridging social capital”), it was the kind of thing Americans seemed to want more of after 9/11. In 2002 Bush pledged to expand its ranks from 50,000 to 75,000 in two years.

Instead, the operating budget for the program was cut by 30 percent this year and the membership ranks are consequently set to decline by over 50 percent next year. The story of how this happened should serve as a useful reminder to national service advocates—who’ve often been tempted to view service as the perfect way to depoliticize social activism—that the issue can never truly be detached from politics and political struggle. It’s a point that Democratic hopefuls like Clark cannot afford to forget.

The details of the fiasco are complex, but can be boiled down to a story of fiscal stinginess on the part of the administration compounded by mismanagement from the essentially well-meaning administrators running the program; the combination sparked a fiscal crisis that congressional Republicans seized upon as a pretext for strangling the program.

After Bush pledged his 50 percent expansion last year, Lenkowsky and the other Bush appointees running the CNCS proved overeager to reach the goal quickly, provoking a fiscal breakdown. The House GOP leadership then refused to authorize an emergency $100 million infusion to keep the program afloat through the year. Over the summer, the budget shortage forced massive cutbacks in AmeriCorps programs across the country. The press recounted one horror story after another—of closed service projects and gutted programs, volunteers turned away and direct beneficiaries neglected. Despite lobbying efforts by a coalition of hundreds of business leaders, governors, mayors, U.S. Senators, and many others, the administration and the congressional holdouts have not budged, and the funding prospects for AmeriCorps heading into next year remain dire.

The only action Bush administration did take this fall on the AmeriCorps front was to fire Lenkowsky. Drogosz, for one, has a jaundiced view of the administration’s motives, seeing Lenkowsky as “the fall-guy for the Freedom Corps not delivering, and the White House not delivering, on national service.” She argues that the root of the problem was less fiscal mismanagement on the part of the program’s administrators than broken promises from above. “Lenkowsky was going off of John Bridgeland’s promise and President Bush’s promise to increase funding for AmeriCorps students and increase the numbers.” So he accelerated the recruiting, only to be left out to dry when the money came up short. In fact, Magee asserts that the real turning point for Bush seemed to have come much earlier, in the fall of 2002, when the president submitted a list of policy priorities to Congress that didn’t include AmeriCorps. “That was his signal to the GOP leadership, ‘I’m not going to fight for this.’ And then over

the next year it sort of got creamed by Congress.” It got creamed, specifically, by a contingent of hardcore conservatives who came of age fighting Bill Clinton tooth and nail, and who see in AmeriCorps the worst kind of Clintonesque big-government do-gooderism. It’s useful to recall the rhetoric these politicians and their ideological predecessors trotted out when Clinton first proposed the program—their corrosive, visceral language expressed a loathing of the very notion of a public role in the service sector. Representative Dick Armey from Texas derided AmeriCorps as “a welfare program for aspiring yuppies,” while Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) suggested that it was intended “for hippie kids to stand around a campfire singing ‘Kumbaya’ at taxpayers’ expense.” Newt Gingrich deemed the proposal “not only useless, but dangerous.” The conservatives were never able to completely kill the program (though they certainly tried); but their assaults rendered it a smaller and more decentralized endeavor, a shadow of its original conception. And they’re still fighting.

“For some people on the right it’s really ideological,” explained Magee. “They just hate the idea of this. They hate the idea of citizens working with their government to solve things.”

It is true that the popular success of AmeriCorps helped to change many minds over the last decade. Most dramatically, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) morphed from an initial opponent into one of its fiercest supporters—and a co-sponsor, over the last two years, of a bill that would quintuple the number of available AmeriCorps positions to 250,000 (the White House has ignored the plan). “He observed some of the things AmeriCorps does, some of the positive impacts in society,” explained Matt Rimkunas, a legislative correspondent in McCain’s office. “There’s just a myriad of great benefits that come from AmeriCorps and all that has come together to help sway McCain’s opinion.”

The conservative holdouts on AmeriCorps do indeed seem to be a dwindling (if obnoxious) minority, waging a rearguard battle. And one could argue that this vindicates the modern service movement’s peculiarly anti-ideological approach to politics. The modern national service vision, it should be remembered, emerged in the 1980s from centrist “New Democrats” (centered around the Democratic Leadership Council and its policy shop, the Progressive Policy Institute) looking to forge a new pact between citizen and government and a new way to approach national problems. Their tendency was to think of national service as a kind of Trojan Horse for progressive policy, a way to circumvent the old left-right battles over government responsibilities. PPI service proponents often spoke of national service replacing “big government” with “big citizenship.” The decentralized, un-bureaucratic AmeriCorps program epitomized that notion, and it, after all, has only accumulated steady support over the years. No wonder: if replacing “government” with “citizenship” means the same thing to all people, who could possibly be against it?

But, in fact, it doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. For all the progress of the last decade, it seems clear that as long as there remains a conservative counter-vision of service as the ennobled private act of individual kindness—as the very antithesis of government engagement—the movement for national service will continue to face intense opposition. Even if AmeriCorps in its diminished organizational form survives, the long-term goal of civic service taking a central place in our national life will never become a reality without a real political fight. After all, if national service is best conceived, in Drogosz’s words, as “a bridge toward community involvement and to government and politics,” it will always face resistance from people who denigrate government as a matter of course. Service as a policy idea doesn’t transcend politics, but is at its very heart a political issue. All arguments over the nature of citizenship inevitably are.

Everyone likes the language of service, of civic duty and the strengthening of civil society. The rhetoric’s nice, and comes at no cost to anyone. Bush is banking on the rhetoric meaning more to the public than anything else. If Clark or any other Democratic candidate wants to gain strength from this issue, he’ll have to make a different bet—that people want more than the rhetoric, and will respond to a real, practical politics that can translate their desires into new avenues of engagement. And he’ll have to be willing to wage a substantive challenge against the conservative vision of government and the responsibilities of citizens—a political challenge. There’s no easy way out of that debate. But surely there’s no better place to articulate a vision of service than in a political campaign—so long as it is the kind of campaign that focuses on building a grassroots organizational structure to harness individual energies into a collective political endeavor. In a setting like that, the language of service and engagement will never seem empty. (Indeed, though he hasn’t yet proposed an actual service program, the frontrunner Howard Dean is the one candidate so far to have run precisely that kind of a campaign; he’d do well to take up a language and politics of service himself.)

In the end, it may be this simple: the rhetoric of patriotism and citizenship—the flag-waving and the salutes—came relatively cheap after 9/11. But people still wished for something more. If the attacks gave Americans a new sense of what it was about their country that was worth defending and enhancing, then perhaps it’s time we had a real fight over what those values actually mean and how best they can be strengthened. Whatever the outcome of the election, that’s a discussion we’d be better off for having.