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Peace Corps Deserves Better than GOP Deadwood
Peace Corps Deserves Better than GOP Deadwood
By Judy Mann
Friday, November 9, 2001; Page C08
At a time when the United States needs friends abroad more than ever, President Bush has nominated to head the Peace Corps a discredited California party hack whose principal public achievement to date has been to help bankrupt the richest county in his state.
The nomination of Gaddi H. Vasquez has aroused a storm of protest among former Peace Corps volunteers, a formidable group of people who have made names for themselves in every rank of American life. And they, perhaps more than other Americans, know the abysmal conditions of poverty and hopelessness that spawn terrorism.
Mystery writer Richard Lipez (pen name Richard Stevenson), a volunteer in Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964, hit the nail on the head in an Internet message to other volunteers:
"Suddenly the Peace Corps is more important than ever. Wrenched horribly out of its long, isolationist reverie, the United States is now attempting to engage the larger, messy, complex, often violent rest-of-the-world in ways the Peace Corps has been learning about and eagerly grappling with for more than 40 years."
Lipez, who also writes editorials for the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts, went on to say: "Far more than just military . . . this multifaceted re-engagement with the rest of the planet needs a Peace Corps that is as brave, committed and vital as ever. That means it also requires a Peace Corps leader with judgment, imagination and vision. Sadly . . . Gaddi Vasquez is not that person."
The Peace Corps has been a crown jewel in our ever-diminishing foreign aid efforts. With 7,000 volunteers a year, it has taught and served people in nearly 80 of the poorest and most-troubled countries in the world. Volunteers from the get-go won respect from host countries, and they won respect for the United States.
So who does Bush nominate to head the agency? Somebody who is singularly unqualified to head anything, let alone the Peace Corps. Vasquez was a member of the notorious Orange County Board of Supervisors that fiddled while the county lost $1.64 billion in risky investments. The news became public in December 1994, and the Board of Supervisors decided to file for bankruptcy. It became the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation's history.
A month later, Vasquez was named chairman of the Board of Supervisors. He resigned nine months later, just a step ahead of a recall effort. The hard-shell conservative Orange County Register, normally no critic of right-wing functionaries, said that "too often" Vasquez "has been a slave to the 'finger in the wind' impulse, emerging as someone always running to board the caboose rather than staking out a place in the locomotive's cabin. . . . [Trying] to pin him down on a strategy for plowing us out of bankruptcy without plowing taxpayers deeper into the hole has been an exercise in exasperating frustration."
The Register noted that Vasquez had a campaign war chest of $300,000 or more and asked what he planned to do with the money: "Will he return it to donors? Or give it to the county treasury?" Turns out that Vasquez did neither, and so in the election year 2000 he had $100,000 to give to the Republican National Committee. That has bought him a ticket to Washington.
Vasquez brings with him no international experience, no experience running a large agency and no history of humanitarian commitments. His record argues strongly that he should not be put in charge of an agency with a $275 million annual budget.
Lipez, in his letter (posted at www.peacecorpswriters.org), makes a further case against him because as a county supervisor he voted twice to deny housing rights and job protections to people with HIV/AIDS. "A sizable part of the work now performed by the Peace Corps involves AIDS education and prevention, especially in Africa," Lipez says. With that record, he argues, Vasquez is not the person to head the Peace Corps.
Vasquez's confirmation hearing will probably be next week. At the same time, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider the nomination of Josephine "Jody" Olsen to be deputy director of the Peace Corps. The contrast in qualifications is about as sharp as the contrast in Bush's and Vice President Cheney's.
Olsen is a former volunteer who then joined the Peace Corps staff and became a country director of Peace Corps activities. She later served as chief of staff to then-Peace Corps Director Paul Coverdell, whom Bush's father dug out of the obscurity of the Georgia Senate.
Olsen is highly regarded within the Peace Corps community, and the administration no doubt hopes that her nomination as deputy will somehow make the nomination of Vasquez more palatable. It doesn't.
Not since the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II has there been a more urgent need for the United States to reach out to the world's underdeveloped nations.
Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps, recalled the agency's spirit and its mission when he spoke at a Sept. 22 peace vigil with returned volunteers:
"We risked everything in a leap of faith that the volunteers would respond favorably to our call for peace. We opposed the idea that war is inevitable." They believed peace could be achieved "through service, not through economic strength or military power."
The Peace Corps has been an agency of goodwill. It is respected around the world. Bush ought to tell the world that he takes its work and its mission so seriously that he is going to put a top-flight person in charge of it.
Instead, he is telling the world that the Peace Corps is of so little consequence to him that he can afford to dump a second-rater with a suspect record into the director's chair.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company