The Politics of Service: How a Nation Got behind AmeriCorps

Harris Wofford
Harris Wofford Former CEO, Corporation for National and Community Service

September 1, 2002

The charge from President Bill Clinton in the summer of 1995 was urgent and strong: find a way to take the new national service program, AmeriCorps, off the partisan political battlefield. Make it, like the Peace Corps, a nonpartisan source of pride for all Americans.

After the 1994 elections, the new AmeriCorps program, enacted by Congress with only a handful of Republican votes, was high on Speaker Newt Gingrich’s list for termination. It had been zeroed out in the budget adopted in the House of Representatives. What Clinton called “the transcendent idea” of his administration-and the press called his “pet project”—was imperiled, and the charge to me as the new CEO of the Corporation for National Service was to help save it.

The almost—always resilient president said we could win—if he stood firm in vetoing any budget that killed AmeriCorps and if our team at the Corporation went to work with my former Senate colleagues and with the much harder-line members of the House Republican majority. My first step was to develop a close collaboration with the Points of Light Foundation established in 1990 by former President Bush—and often ridiculed by Democrats. Indeed, on the Senate floor, after the Los Angeles riots of 1992, I had said that the thousand points of light had turned into a thousand fires in Los Angeles. But I had since come to admire the work of the foundation, and an alliance with it offered the most direct way to reach out to Bush.

“Well, I never ridiculed it,” Clinton said. “I thought it was the best thing Bush did.” The one request Bush had made of him was to take care of his Points of Light. And Clinton had promised to do so.

To assure Congress that AmeriCorps would be entirely nonpartisan, I pledged in the confirmation hearings to stay out of political campaigns altogether and make politics off-limits to national service participants, as in the armed forces. Eli Segal, who had launched AmeriCorps, was an outstanding and creative leader, but he had also been Clinton’s campaign chairman. Key Republicans took that as a sign that the new program was an outpost of Democrats. We had to give a different signal.

Patriotism, Not Politics

Why had the idea of national service become such an intensely partisan and controversial issue, and how could we reclaim it as an area of common ground? Several times in the 20th century the idea had reached high tide, and then receded, but beginning with a 1910 essay by William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” the idea had always had an aura of patriotism, not politics, around it. What was the source of the idea’s recurring appeal, and why had it fallen so far out of grace in 1995?

In his first months in office, in response to the emergency of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a Civilian Conservation Corps to offer 500,000 jobless young men the opportunity to live and serve in the nation’s parks and forests. The program soon became overwhelmingly popular, surpassing Roosevelt’s goal of a quarter million “boys in the woods” by the end of summer. Before going off to national service of the military kind in World War II, several million young men of the CCC had turned their lives around and made lasting contributions to the environment. The memory of that achievement lingered on through the next decades.

George H. W. Bush, John Kennedy, and many other veterans of World War II shared the idea of large-scale or universal service as a rite of passage for the young and a way of uniting the nation. The call to ask what you can do for your country became the most remembered and revered aspect of Kennedy’s short-lived presidency. Though small-scale, the Peace Corps, launched by Sargent Shriver, was a symbolic embodiment of that call. In 1961, in sending the Peace Corps volunteers overseas, the president said on the White House lawn: “Someday, we’re going to bring this idea home to America.”

But the Peace Corps was not born without vehement opposition. In the 1960 campaign, President Eisenhower derided Kennedy’s proposal as “a juvenile experiment.” Vice President Nixon likened it to “draft evasion,” and others called it a “Kiddie Korps.” Congress had little interest in the idea.

The surprising enthusiasm of college students, who had been dubbed the silent and apathetic generation, and the good work of the Peace Corps volunteers themselves were the keys to its success. But had Kennedy not been killed, and the Peace Corps enshrined as a central part of his legacy, it might well have become a matter of controversy in the 1964 election.

In the War on Poverty that he later organized for Lyndon Johnson, Shriver started the first domestic Peace Corps, the Volunteers in Service to America, and looked forward to hundreds of thousands of VISTA volunteers leading the assault on poverty. He aimed for similar large numbers of Foster Grandparents and participants in the Job Corps and Head Start. On George Washington’s birthday in 1965, at the University of Kentucky, President Johnson urged the nation to “search for new ways” through which “every young American will have the opportunity—and feel the obligation—to give at least a few years of his or her life to the service of others in the nation and in the world.”

Those Kennedy-Johnson years were the high-water mark, in the 20th century, of the idea of making citizen service the common expectation of all Americans. Soon the war in Vietnam absorbed the resources needed for an expanding war on poverty. The number of Peace Corps volunteers fell from more than 15,000 to fewer than 5,000. The momentum toward a federally led program of national service faltered. With the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the wind went out of the sails of that or any other such far-reaching idea.

Streams of Service Become a River

During the 1970s the idea of full-time youth service percolated up from New York City and a scattering of other local communities that formed youth corps. The larger California Conservation Corps, started by Governor Jerry Brown, grew under Republican and Democratic administrations, and similar conservation corps were launched in other states in the image of the old CCC. All were viewed as nonpartisan, but few were microcosms of national service that brought young people of all racial and economic backgrounds together in common work. Most government, foundation, and corporate money targeted “at risk” young people, and the early service corps were composed largely, if not entirely, of poor and minority youth.

The 1980s also saw a large growth of volunteer centers that helped place traditional volunteers who wanted to serve a few hours a week. Former Michigan Governor George Romney was their greatest champion. Although Ronald Reagan began the decade by invoking the American spirit of service “that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation,” service was not carried much further in his administration. For those of us campaigning for large-scale, full-time national service, the river seemed more like many separate streams: state and local youth service corps programs, volunteer centers, and the civic sector’s array of educational, charitable, and faith-based service organizations engaging millions of citizens in traditional voluntary service.

With the 1990s, those streams began to come together, and for a few years the river ran high. President Bush appointed the first special assistant to the president for national service, Gregg Petersmeyer. In 1990 Congress enacted the first National Service Act, which authorized funds for the Points of Light Foundation-and for a new bipartisan Commission on National and Community Service.

In negotiating a consensus bill, Senate Democrats pressed for a demonstration program of full-time national service. The White House emphasized support for traditional community volunteering. The joint bill embodied both, as well as a noncontroversial program for service learning that reflected a growing movement for student service.

In 1988, Governor Clinton had endorsed the Democratic Leadership Council’s landmark report Citizenship and National Service, which called for national service for all who volunteered and proposed that federal college student aid be conditioned on such service. As chair of the National Governors Association, Clinton had formed a working group on national youth service. In the 1992 presidential campaign the idea clicked. Clinton found that his most popular campaign promise was to create a large-scale service corps, offering as a carrot college aid to all who served a year or more in the community.

When the 1993 National and Community Service Act emerged from intense negotiations between the White House and Congress, most of the press treated the authorization of a national service corps of 20,000 members the first year as an embarrassing falling-off from the campaign promise of a program for all who wanted to serve.

Nevertheless, the president launched the new AmeriCorps with fanfare, and almost all governors, most of whom were Republicans, formed the bipartisan state commissions required by the act to allocate most of the positions for AmeriCorps members. During the budget crisis and government shut-down of 1995-96, however, the budget of the just-launched AmeriCorps was substantially cut. Thereafter, despite opposition by most House Republicans, the appropriations for the Corporation for National Service increased modestly each year, and the number of AmeriCorps members continued to grow.

Before his death in 1995, George Romney set in motion a plan that led to increasing Republican support. He enlisted the Corporation for National Service and the Points of Light Foundation in realizing a dream he had unsuccessfully tried to sell to three presidential administrations: a summit of all the presidents and leaders from all sectors of society and from hundreds of communities to mobilize civic and government forces to solve some of America’s most urgent problems, especially those facing young people heading down the wrong track.

Romney saw the need for a large-scale domestic Peace Corps such as AmeriCorps as a cadre of leaders to help the civic sector recruit and organize what he hoped would be an ever-growing army of unpaid volunteers. He saw national service and traditional volunteers as twin engines pulling together to get things done that vitally needed to be done in every community. He argued, “If we were threatened by external forces, our resurgence would be swift and sure, centered around a full-scale mobilization of the entire nation. Our domestic problems demand no less. . . .” A summit convened and attended by all the presidents, Republicans and Democrats, would, he believed, take AmeriCorps off the partisan playing field and demonstrate the nonpartisan nature of both national service and community volunteering.

General Colin Powell accepted the chairmanship of the summit and of the ensuing nationwide campaign called “America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth.” He became an outspoken champion of AmeriCorps and the other programs of the Corporation for National Service—and thus broke the back of much of the Republican opposition. In the aftermath of the summit, Senator Dan Coates, a conservative who had voted against AmeriCorps, wrote a persuasive article, “Why I Changed My Mind on AmeriCorps.”

Republicans Take Up the Torch

When Clinton left office, he may not have asked the incoming president to take care of AmeriCorps, but he knew that in Texas, Governor Bush had supported the work of his state’s national service commission (though he seldom used the controversial word “AmeriCorps”). Clinton was delighted that 49 governors, including those of Texas and Florida, signed a letter circulated by Montana Governor Marc Racicot that supported reauthorizing and strengthening AmeriCorps.

Most supporters of national service were nonetheless anxious about the future of AmeriCorps in a Republican administration—until Leslie Lenkowsky was nominated and confirmed as the new CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Lenkowsky had served diligently and constructively both on the board of former President Bush’s 1990 commission and on the board of the corporation, nominated by Clinton in 1993.

Bush also recommended Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and a close campaign associate, as chair of the corporation’s board and later picked Racicot to be chair of the Republican National Committee. Both shared George Romney’s vision of national and community service, and Racicot had taken Powell’s place as chairman of America’s Promise.

In his campaign for president, John McCain surprised his fellow Republicans by announcing he had been wrong about AmeriCorps—and wrong not to say so sooner. When McCain enlisted Democratic Senator Evan Bayh and, later, House Democrat Harold Ford, Jr., to call for an increase of AmeriCorps to 250,000 members within five years, no one could foresee that President Bush would join in the bidding. Budgetary limits alone would presumably hold him back.

September 11 changed that. With the assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the challenge by outside forces that George Romney had imagined came to pass, and a new reality began. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush called for 4,000 hours, or two years, of service by every American and asked for a doubling of the Peace Corps and a 50 percent increase in AmeriCorps in one year, from 50,000 to 75,000 members.

Since then, President Bush has renewed that call in visits and talks around the country and at White House conferences. The Citizen Service Act of 2002 has been approved by the very House committee that had been a bastion of opposition to AmeriCorps and is supported by the leading former opponent, Congressman Peter Hoekstra. To drive his call to service, the president created the USA Freedom Corps Council, a cabinet-level council that he chairs, and selected John Bridgeland to direct it. At the council table are AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, the newly created Citizens Corps for national emergencies, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the secretaries of the appropriate federal departments.

For some of us who witnessed the origins of the Peace Corps, Bridgeland calls to mind the early Sargent Shriver. And though some of us may disagree with President Bush on tax cuts, environmental decisions, or foreign policy, his determination to build national and community service as a major institution of the civic sector is a common ground on which a large majority of Americans can come together.

For George W. Bush to be the president who presides over the largest quantum leap in national service is not the equivalent of Nixon going to China. But for the president, the secretary of state, and the head of the Republican party to lead the way in national and community service is taking that party on a new journey.

Quo Vadis?