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Godfather of National Service Sees Bright Future

• January 12, 2009 • 8:15 PM

Interview with retired legislator Harris Wofford, who helped birth such organizations as the Peace Corps.

Over his almost 83 years, Harris Wofford has been a lawyer, a serviceman in World War II, an author, a civil rights pioneer, one of the founders of the Peace Corps, a college president (SUNY’s Old Westbury campus and Bryn Mawr), a Democratic U.S. senator for Pennsylvania, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (from 1995 to 2001) and a lifelong proponent of universal voluntary national service.

With the incoming administration extolling national service — former Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled Barack Obama’s “Renew America Together” program just last week — Miller-McCune.com asked Wofford to reflect on the status and hopes for the concept of citizen service.

Miller-McCune.com: You were one of the first to support Barack Obama, and you campaigned extensively for him, correct?

Harris Wofford: Yes, for 21 months, and I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that felt so important. The other side of that coin is that in this extraordinarily big and diverse campaign, one truly felt like a drop in the bucket. The bucket was so big, and there were so many drops. But by the time we were finished with the primaries and the election, I was as tired as I’ve ever been since Army Air Corps basic training in 1944 in Biloxi, Miss., in sweltering heat.

I’m very impressed with Barack’s first test of governing, his selecting such extraordinary people, strong people, for his cabinet and key agencies. And there are a few still to come, such as the Corporation for National and Community Service.

M-M: Might you be going back there?

Wofford.jpgHW: No, I’m one of those rare birds who doesn’t want a post in this administration. I want to finish my memoirs. Also, for over a year, I have been the national spokesman for the Experience Wave, the multi- faceted campaign funded by Atlantic Philanthropies to persuade people, especially the baby boomers, to use their post-50 or post-60 lives to contribute their talent and experience and energy and idealism to do things they’ve always wanted to do to help their community. Most people think of the coming population of older Americans as a burden, but my thesis is that it should be seen primarily as a potential asset of tremendous power and importance, a great fuel, a great force for the common good.

M-M: Are the prospects for national service better now?

HW: Never before have the prospects for national service been this good. I think it’s going to be a perfect storm — of the good kind. Barack’s going to put in action a spirit that was first stirred in the Kennedy years with the orps.gov/index.cfm?shell=learn.whatispc” target=”_blank”>Peace Corps, then Bush the First inspired the Thousand Points of Light campaign and signed the first Citizen Service Act. When Bush left, he said to Clinton, “Take care of my Points of Light,” and Clinton said he would. And when Clinton left, he said to the second Bush that AmeriCorps needs your support. We’ve combined the Points of Light and unpaid volunteering with national service. They’re the twin engines that work, and he hoped Bush would carry them forward. Bush said he would, and he did.

When I left the Corporation for National and Community Service at the end of the Clinton administration it was 50,000 strong, and under Clinton it grew to 75,000. After 9/11 Bush asked that it be expanded to 75,000, and despite serious ups and downs now it’s at 75,000.

Barack has a chance to take a quantum leap from a foundation of bipartisan support, and I think he’s going to do it.

M-M: Has a specific legislative agenda been set up?

HW: Yes. It’s the Kennedy-Hatch Serve America bill, which was introduced in September, and may be one of (Ted) Kennedy’s final contributions of major significance. It doesn’t cover everything that Barack has proposed, but it covers a lot. It will take national service positions to 250,000, an increase of a 175,000.

Its first two co-sponsors were Barack Obama and John McCain — and there’s quite a head of steam for it. The pending economic recovery pla of the persident-elect is going to give a stimulus to the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure of bridges and roads and schools, and that will mean lots of jobs. The investment in clean energy is also going to be very substantial, and produce jobs and help our economy move forward, and get into high gear again. We also stimulus into the civic infrastructure, including the big expansion of AmeriCorps and programs like Dorothy Stoneman‘s YouthBuild, which enlists unemployed, dropout students to build houses for low-income families, learn to build and get their GED. It’s been an extraordinary success, and Barack wants to increase it from 8,000 to 50,000, and develop other service corps that get people to work meeting important needs..

M-M: Won’t the first 100 days be fascinating to watch?

HW: To put it mildly! Did you know that Barack Obama has announced that his family and the Bidens are going to do service on Martin Luther King Day? They are sending out a message to millions of Americans and to thousands of organizations asking them to serve on Martin Luther King Day — and not just for one day, but as the beginning of a commitment to service they intend to render in the coming year. Gen. Colin Powell, on behalf of the president-elect, the Inaugural Committee and the Corporation for National and Community Service, has just announced the new Web site on which people can register their commitments for action. You can see the seriousness of this call to service, which is part of what the president-elect says will be a central cause of his presidency.

M-M: Did you ever lose faith and think that national service was an idea whose time would never come?

HW: No, but I’ve lived a long time in this land, more than a third of the life of this country. I began at a high point, as a boy, seeing what Roosevelt did in five months, getting 300,000 men in 1,600 camps with the Civilian Conservation Corps program (the CCC). And in three years more than 9 million young Americans’ lives were turned around, and so much was accomplished in our state and national parks and other public lands — including 3 billion trees planted.

I grew up in a Republican family from East Tennessee that liked two things Roosevelt did — the Tennessee Valley Authority and the CCC. By the time I was 10, I became a Democrat because of what Roosevelt said and did. Then, believe it or not, another high point with Roosevelt was World War II. After Pearl Harbor, the all-out national mobilization showed the whole productive and creative power of the American people to win the war we had to win, to save civilization. In high school, it was a great time to be growing up, when all Americans seemed to be working together, and everyone was involved in what was happening in the world . And that was the feeling I had in the Army Air Corps, with men of different backgrounds, in national service of the military kind, in the last years of the war.

Kennedy was another high point for me, with his anuagural call to service and the Peace Corps, and then he was killed. Fortunately, Lyndon Johnson picked up the torch before we could lose faith, as you put it, and in the name of JFK pushed forward with civil rights and the War on Poverty.

Next came the war in Vietnam that tore the country apart and drained resources from the proclaimed War on Poverty, and even the Peace Corps was reduced. Then the lowest point in my lifetime, so far, was in the sad spring of 1968 when both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Did I lose faith that we could pick ourselves up and try again? No, but my faith in the possibility that we can govern ourselves successfully and secure peace and the rule of law is matched by the recognitionthat much of politics is tragic. Sometimes out of the great tragedies, like the Civil War, you have a Lincoln emerge, and in different circumstances you have a nation that’s united in common cause.

I’m not one who believes that every day in every way the world will get better, but I offer my grandchildren a six-week trip around the world when they’re 12  — in honor of my grandmother who took me on a six-month trip around the world in 1938 when I was 12. Four grandsons have had such shorter globe-circling — and when they see Angkor Wat or the ancient Greek or ancient African sites they realize that civilizations have risen and fallen. They’re very struck by that discovery. I don’t want ours to fall, but I’m not somebody who thinks history is a progressive upward line. Some turning points go down, far down, but I’m full of new hope that the turning point now, with Barack Obama, will go up.

M-M: Where else did you travel as a child?

JW: We moved to New York when my father was promoted, and we would drive back to Tennessee to visit my grandparents, and very often stop in Washington over night. I guess that’s part of why very early I fell for the Founding Fathers and Lincoln and the great experiment of self-government in the United States. We would always visit the monuments, the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon,  and the Lincoln Memorial, number one, and the Jefferson Memorial, and the words on the walls.

By the time I was 10, I had the Founding Fathers’ pictures and the Declaration of Independence all over my walls. You might say I fell in love with the idea of a Republic by going to Washington. Those memorials were teachers.

M-M: Let me return, somewhat reluctantly, to national service. What do people need to know about it that they still don’t know?

JW: The number one thing is that it is not just service for service’s sake. The aim is to mobilize people for action through service, or social innovation, or citizen action to help solve our problems. For example, Teach For America is well recognized and popular AmeriCorps program that raises the quality of teaching in schools that were under-resourced. City Year works in and outside of schools to give students the kind of extra support schools need to help the students succeed and end the epidemic of drop-outs.

And each year, some 500 full-time AmeriCorps members are selected by Habitat for Humanity and put to work organizing the sites and making it possible for Habitat to use large numbers of part-time unpaid volunteers.

The power of full-time service in Katrina was demonstrated by the National Civilian Community Corps, a residential corps that is trained to deal with disasters. The first units of the NCCC arrived in the Gulf before Katrina did. So I think the connection between national service and solving national problems where they exist on the ground in communities is the connection that people don’t understand very well. People need to understand that full-time service, whether it’s in the military or the Peace Corps, is a different thing from traditional, occasional, unpaid volunteering. It’s a very different kind of force.

M-M: As part of your Jan. 1, 2008, message to friends and service colleagues in Iowa, you wrote, “I have not felt like this since the days of high hopes with John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.” Do you believe Barack Obama belongs in that company?

HW: He is very much in that tradition. The spirit of asking what you can do for your country and for the world is John Kennedy’s most lasting legacy. Part of my pitch for Barack around the country was that he has picked up the torch that John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King lit. I think  people see that. It’s the same flame that they lit, the same search for common ground and the common good of Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Like all of those great ones, Barack Obama is an original, not a copy. But I believe he is going to make that flame burn more brightly than ever.

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John Greenya
John Greenya, a Washington, D.C.-based writer, is the author or co-author of 18 books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Republic, among other publications.

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