A wild week defining President Bush’s legacy of calling Americans into service

Posted by aaronjmarquez on January 29, 2008 

President George W. Bush (R) marked last week’s Martin Luther King Jr. King holiday by volunteering and calling on Americans to honor his legacy by showing compassion on the holiday and throughout the year.  The President and First Lady Laura Bush joined dozens of volunteers at the Martin Luther King Jr. library as they repaired and shelved books and taught lessons about King’s life to children. More than a half million Americans served at over 5,000 King Day of Service projects across the country.

“They say Martin Luther King Day is not a day off, it should be a day on,” said the President. “But a day on should be not just one day. It really ought to be every day. And our fellow citizens have got to understand that by loving a neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself, by reaching out to someone who hurts, by just simply living a life of kindness and compassion, you can make America a better place and fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King.”

One week later, President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union volunteerism initiative was described as “sputtering” in a New York Times article.  The President asked Americans to devote at least two year – 4,000 hours – of their lives to public service, promised to expand AmeriCorps, double the size of the Peace Corps, and created the USA Freedom Corps to help facilitate the process of connecting citizens with volunteer opportunities. 

The initiative has had some success. Early on, John Bridgeland (a top Bush aide) helped set up the Citizens Corps, a national network of doctors, firefighters and others who volunteer in an emergency, and today there are 2,300 Citizens Corps councils across the country. The White House says that since 2000 it has recruited more than one million Americans, far more than the 200,000 new recruits Mr. Bush promised.

But the initiative has also fallen short of some goals. The Peace Corps, which had 6,663 volunteers in 2002, today has 8,049 — more than at any time in the past 30 years, but hardly the doubling the president promised.

And though the president also pledged to increase the ranks of AmeriCorps to 75,000 from 50,000, critics said he did so through creative accounting, because fewer than half the 75,000 slots are full time.

“There are a whole lot of shell games they engaged in, in order to try to not back away from the president’s announced target,” said Bob Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard who was consulted by the administration. “I thought Bush got it, and that’s why I worked with him. He talked a good game, the president, but I’m actually pretty cynical of it now.”

In what one might have guessed was in response to the article’s criticism, President Bush recognized citizen service in his final State of the Union address last night.

In communities across our land, we must trust in the good heart of the American people and empower them to serve their neighbors in need. Over the past seven years, more of our fellow citizens have discovered that the pursuit of happiness leads to the path of service. Americans have volunteered in record numbers.

But that’s wasn’t the end of it…

Following the address, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who immediately after 9/11 suggested expanding AmeriCorps’ membership to 250,000 and then in 2003 introduced a bill to expand the program to 175,000 members, told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that the President has missed an opportunity to call Americans into service.  He cited his encounters on the Presidential campaign trail with volunteers from organizations including “AmeriCorps, City Year, and the ONE Campaign.”   

Earlier this afternoon, the White House released a statement from President Bush commemorating the 6th anniversary of the USA Freedom Corps.

People across this great Nation have heard the universal call to love a neighbor and are using their time and talents to make a difference in the lives of others. On the sixth anniversary of the USA Freedom Corps, we celebrate the spirit of service in America and honor the volunteers whose good work represents the generous character of our country.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I created the USA Freedom Corps to build on the countless acts of service, sacrifice, and generosity undertaken by our citizens. The USA Freedom Corps is dedicated to expanding volunteer service and extending the goodwill of the American people across our country and around the globe. By connecting individuals with volunteer opportunities, the USA Freedom Corps has helped ensure that millions of people have a chance to make a difference in the lives of those in need. The USA Freedom Corps also helps strengthen the non-profit sector and supports other national service programs and initiatives such as the Peace Corps, Citizen Corps, AmeriCorps, and Senior Corps. These efforts can help us build a more hopeful country and create a chain of compassion for generations to come.

Volunteers demonstrate kindness and touch lives. With hard work and dedication, volunteers help the less fortunate, respond to crises, mentor children, assist the elderly, and strengthen our communities. I urge all Americans to serve others and to learn more about service opportunities by visiting the USA Freedom Corps website. By providing help and hope to others, Americans can lead the world toward a more caring and compassionate tomorrow.

What will President Bush’s legacy be when it comes to National Service in America?

More importantly, what role with the next President play in expanding National Service programs?   


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