March 17, 2002 - Washington Post: A Time to Be 'Citizens, Not Spectators'

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A Time to Be 'Citizens, Not Spectators'

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A Time to Be 'Citizens, Not Spectators'*

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A Time to Be 'Citizens, Not Spectators'

By Dana Milbank

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, March 17, 2002; Page A06

Two short months ago, John Bridgeland drove President Bush's agenda as the influential director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. These days, he is paid to talk about Aristotle.

"Nicomachean Ethics," he explains. He also has been dabbling in Sophocles, Cicero, Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Paine.

But Bridgeland is no dilettante. As head of Bush's new USA Freedom Corps initiative, he has been charged with launching what is probably the most unusual and innovative of the Bush administration's efforts. Its goal sounds utopian, particularly for an administration devoted to limited government: finding a role for the feds in the creation of human happiness, and helping Americans live what the ancient philosophers called "the good life."

To Bridgeland and his administration allies, the classical notion of the good life is to be found in rebuilding enthusiasm for service to community and country -- qualities observed in Americans from the time of Tocqueville but less visible after the culture wars that began with the Vietnam War.

"The president, as the leader of a free people, is enlisting people to be citizens," Bridgeland said. He and other Bush aides believe the shock of Sept. 11 could be a catalyst. "This can be a transforming time," Bridgeland said. "We need to be citizens, not spectators. It's part of a complete and full life."

That is high-minded thinking for a former Wall Street lawyer and West Wing operative. But this strain of thought encapsulates much of the Bush administration's domestic agenda: recalibrating the balance among government, the private sector and a languishing "civil society" of community groups.

The effort began with Bush's State of the Union challenge for each American to give two years -- 4,000 hours -- in volunteer service. Bush also created the USA Freedom Corps, with directions to link Americans to service opportunities through an expanded Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other government and private service programs. Leslie Lenkowsky, Bush's head of the Corporation for National Service, said the goal is to get "as close to 100 percent as possible" of college-age Americans engaging in volunteer service (only about half do now). The 76 million baby boomers entering retirement in the next decade are also a target.

The idea is, in some ways, a threat to conservative tradition. Bush's notion of cultural change, as Bridgeland and his allies explain it, rejects both John Ashcroft-style moralism and Richard Armey-style individualism. It embraces the idea that government has a role in the personal actions of citizens. "Lincoln said it was the role of government to do for people that which they cannot do themselves," Bridgeland noted.

The Bush plan, with its support for John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps and Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, appeals to some left-leaning thinkers. "The administration is right to see that the tragedy of 9-11 is also a quite historic opportunity to try to increase civic engagement and an ethic of service," said Harvard University's Robert Putnam. "It's the kind of opportunity that comes along once or twice a century."

Of course, the Bush proposal also will offend some liberals who favor government solutions rather than charity and volunteerism. "We can get away with a much smaller government because we have this tradition," Putnam said.

Still, this is strange territory for an administration known for its conservative orthodoxy. The 41-year-old Bridgeland, the initiative's architect, has photographs of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on his wall along with those of Bush, Reagan, Lincoln and Washington. He volunteered in college as a Big Brother and later started a group called "Civic Solutions" to help nonprofits. As a Hill staffer, he spent hours in the Library of Congress studying philanthropy. His father, once the mayor of little Indian Hill, Ohio, had him read as a boy the writings of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on the notion of the public happiness.

Bridgeland's peers are similarly iconoclastic. Lenkowsky rejects the "extreme individualist" view of conservatives in Congress who say government should not meddle in community-building. "Goldwater made a big mistake" in dividing the world into the benign market and malignant government, he said. Even Adam Smith, the prophet of the free market, wrote about the importance of "moral sentiments" in communities.

Lenkowsky, Bridgeland and the other Bush aides involved in the effort often sound as if they are teaching political theories. In his speeches, Bridgeland quotes Sophocles (service "is man's highest end"), Cicero ("our country claims a share of our lives") and, of course, Tocqueville. "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations," he wrote in the 19th century. "From that moment they are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar."

"The challenge is how you take some of the ideas of what the good society is and apply it," Lenkowsky said.

The Freedom Corps office has hosted more than 150 nonprofit leaders to study practical ways to achieve that. Service experts such as Putnam, Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford and Ross Perot have given advice. The office is studying ways to contract with nonprofits and to ease regulations inhibiting cooperation between government and community services. The president, meanwhile, has been mentioning the virtues of service in most speeches.

Some people inside and outside the administration wonder whether those leading the new initiative have the clout or the funds to do what they plan. The USA Freedom Corps has a structure similar to the White House Office of Homeland Security and the Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. This means it must try to coordinate other agencies but does not have authority over them. It is not yet clear whether the office can handle the task.

"There's a long way to go from making a speech and providing the infrastructure to do that," said George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, a specialist in community service. "I wrote them and said I want to give my 4,000 hours. I haven't heard back. They need to take care of that."

Stephen Goldsmith, a Bush adviser who works with Bridgeland and Lenkowsky, said the goal is to do just that: create "a civic switchboard connecting people with opportunities."

To begin with, the Bush aides have been talking with the Census Bureau about ways to measure volunteer service, to gauge their success. Beyond that, Goldsmith said, "we really need to come up with a long-term strategy."

The solution will be found through a mix of philosophical contemplation and practical programs. In other words, Lenkowsky said, "we have an Aristotelian approach at work here." Naturally.

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