February 11, 2002 - Harrisburg Patriot: Reply tepid to national service call

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Reply tepid to national service call

Read and comment on this op ed piece from the Harrisburg Patriot that says that the glow of self-sacrifice that flowed from Sept. 11 is already fading and that if the president is serious about instilling the idea of public service in a self-obsessed culture, he will have to do more than give a few speeches at:

Reply tepid to national service call *

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Reply tepid to national service call

Feb 11, 2002 - The Harrisburg Patriot Author(s): Cynthia Tucker

What a relief.

Somewhere between the news headlines dedicated to basketball megastar Michael Jordan's marital woes and the racial fracas in New York City over a memorial to firefighters, it became clear that the nation was back to normal.

Sept. 11 didn't really change us much after all. As a culture, we are as superficial, petty and self-absorbed as ever.

That does not portend well for President Bush's call to national service, issued in his State of the Union speech. Speaking eloquently of "a nation that serves goals larger than self," the president asked for volunteers to fill the ranks of his new USA Freedom Corps -- an umbrella organization that would combine and augment the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, all existing volunteer programs.

Bush's aides claim the president is dedicated to the idea of building on the spurt of patriotism and volunteerism that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist atrocities. Indeed, he launched a two-day trip to several Southern cities, including Atlanta, to reinforce his proposal, and he has created an eight-person White House office to oversee the volunteer initiative.

But if the president is serious about instilling the idea of public service in a self-obsessed culture, he will have to do more than give a few speeches. The glow of self-sacrifice and generosity that flowed from Sept. 11 is already fading. Church attendance has dropped back to usual levels, according to surveys. Neither police forces nor the armed services have registered significant increases in recruits. Patriotism has become, once again, a spectator sport.

Indeed, the nation's reluctance to invest heavily in the ideal of public service can be measured by the resounding silence around the subject of reinstating the draft. Though a few politicians, including Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., have gently suggested it, none has seriously proposed it. While politicians across the political spectrum hawkishly insist on taking the war on terror around the world, very few of them plan to send their sons and daughters. The nation's volunteer armed forces depend heavily on the working classes; the sons and daughters of the powerful and affluent rarely sign up.

Even Sen. John McCain, D-Ariz., who made a call to "serve a cause greater than oneself" a part of his presidential campaign, has not been willing to call for a draft, either for military service or other forms of public service. Instead, McCain and Sen. Evan Bayh, D- Ind., introduced a bill to expand the volunteer AmeriCorps, often referred to as a "domestic Peace Corps." That proposal, though modest, has not gained widespread support.

Indeed, until quite recently Bush was no big fan of AmeriCorps. A pet project of President Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps was criticized harshly by Republican members of Congress, including McCain, who tried to kill it. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., dismissed AmeriCorps as a program for "kids to stand around a campfire to hold hands and sing Kumbaya at taxpayers' expense." Asked about the program during the presidential campaign, Bush said he would want to "evaluate its effectiveness" before deciding whether to continue its funding.

But the events of Sept. 11 and the uplifting, if brief, outpouring of public spiritedness that followed convinced many American leaders that citizens were looking for a way to serve. Perhaps that's true; perhaps we're just seeking leadership.

Perhaps the ideal that President Bush proposed -- two years of service to "your neighbors and your nation" -- can thrive, but that will happen only if the president uses his widespread popularity to make it a part of the civic culture. Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for the Atlanta Constitution.

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