All Together Now

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As John McCain was having dinner with his fellow Senators in the Capitol on Tuesday evening, just before going to the House chamber to hear the State of the Union speech, he was called to the telephone. It was presidential counselor Karen Hughes, telling him that one of his pet ideas--expanding the national volunteer program known as AmeriCorps--was going to be appropriated by the President. In his address Bush would challenge each American to donate 4,000 hours of community service and would announce a new agency called U.S.A. Freedom Corps to marshal the effort. Freedom Corps builds on existing volunteer programs and creates new ones: the Citizen Corps, a kind of national Neighborhood Watch; and the Medical Reserve Corps, an army of first responders for terror attacks and other national emergencies.

Last year when McCain sent Bush a letter seeking his support for a similar bill, he never heard back. Perhaps Bush would give him more credit if his name were Kennedy.

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But what really matters is that a good proposal is getting off the ground. Sept. 11 unleashed a flood of civic emotions, as each of us was forced to consider whether we would have been brave enough to stay behind to help an injured colleague. The first chance to turn the Selfish Generation into something more like the Greatest Generation was missed last fall when Bush urged us to return to normality--at the mall, the cineplex and Disneyland. With the unveiling of Freedom Corps, the President has a second chance to tap that well of compassion and finally get last year's "communities of character" initiative, sidelined by the war, up and running.

It isn't as apple-pie easy as it looks. Extol "a million acts of kindness" (or a thousand points of light), and you can end up sounding like a mush head, too grateful for white-haired docents and aging hippies adopting highways. Volunteerism hasn't been cool since Camelot, and even then the Peace Corps was ridiculed by conservatives as Kennedy's Kiddie Corps.

Congressional Republicans are still upset because they weren't able to kill off Clinton's AmeriCorps--and now it's coming back at them stronger than ever, as the linchpin of Freedom Corps. Republicans are against paying people with time on their hands to do what they might do anyway. In 1997 House majority leader Dick Armey called AmeriCorps a "welfare program for aspiring yuppies," and Senator Rick Santorum described it as a sweet deal for those "picking up trash in a park and singing Kumbaya."

Besides being several decades behind on his cultural put-downs, Santorum was wrong on the economics. For just $7,600 in living expenses and a $4,725 educational voucher each, AmeriCorps members have worked full time in 1,100 communities. They have retrofitted hundreds of buildings for disabled access, planted 100,000 trees, tutored 500,000 students and built hundreds of houses with Habitat for Humanity.

AmeriCorps survived the ax each year--barely. Now Bush aims to expand it by spending an additional $230 million for 25,000 more volunteers. And Bush wants $10 million for teaching support programs, $50 million to expand Senior Corps (foster grandparents and companions) and $40 million over five years to double the Peace Corps (especially in Islamic countries). The Citizen Corps will tap the naturally nosy--doormen, truckers, postmen--to report anything that looks suspicious to a new terrorist hot line. Unfurling Freedom Corps allows the President to bring the war home, to dress the entire country in green fatigues to "fight evil with acts of goodness."

There's some risk here--that volunteers will be an excuse not to hire armed, trained police for homeland security; that without a solid infrastructure in place to receive them, the most avid volunteers will get frustrated. When I called the Freedom Corps hot line that Bush touted on his promotional tour last week, I got a message saying a representative would be with me shortly. I waited 15 minutes, then gave up. The biggest challenge is always to match the right volunteer to the right task, so that an engineer is building a school, not painting one, and a lawyer is suing the city to get the drug dealers out of the park, not cleaning it up.

But for now, Freedom Corps strikes a note that may help our indulged generation awaken to what McCain describes as "a cause larger than ourselves." Bush should give McCain a call. He'd be happy to volunteer.