ournalists tend to fall for Senator John McCain—and go easy on him in their coverage—for all the reasons you’ve heard of. The hours of unmediated access he gives reporters. The knowing winks he flashes them in the midst of a public pander. The frisson they feel in the presence of someone who showed such astonishing physical courage in war. And of course his record of bucking the GOP on everything from tax cuts to the religious right—a record of independence he has been squandering in the current presidential race.
What made me a confirmed McCain fan was an article he wrote for this magazine seven years ago. Entitled “Putting the ‘National’ in National Service,” it was a rousing defense of AmeriCorps, the civilian service program begun by Bill Clinton. Every year, AmeriCorps sends tens of thousands of young people to work full time building low-income housing, running after-school programs, or helping small towns cope with the aftermath of natural disasters. In his piece, McCain admitted that he, like many congressional Republicans, opposed the creation of AmeriCorps in 1994. “We feared it would be another ‘big government program,’” he wrote, “that would undermine true volunteerism, waste money in ‘make-work’ projects, or be diverted into political activism.” But AmeriCorps’ on the ground success made him a believer.
His only complaint, he wrote, is the program’s low public profile—a consequence of the decentralized structure it was forced to take on in order to win some measure of Republican support. Most AmeriCorps members are deployed to work for nonprofits, like Habitat for Humanity. In practice, that means their identity as AmeriCorps members tends to get subsumed by the identities of the nonprofits where they work. As a result, most voters have never heard of AmeriCorps, even though it is by far the federal government’s largest civilian service program, dwarfing the far-better-known Peace Corps. And a civilian service program that is largely invisible, McCain argued, cannot stir the public imagination and lead to “a resurgence of patriotic service in this country.”
To that end, McCain called for expanding opportunities for both civilian and military service. In particular, he advocated increasing the size of elite AmeriCorps-run service programs like City Year and the National Civilian Community Corps, where members wear uniforms, work in teams, and create a sense of identity—in themselves and in the community—as being part of a proud national service organization.
Though I loved the policy ideas, what most impressed me about the article was how McCain placed national service at the center of his political philosophy. It is a philosophy that emerged from the life experiences he has written about in his books—of an unruly and directionless young man to whom military service brings unimaginable suffering, but also, eventually, honor and purpose. Equal parts civic republicanism and existentialism, with a dash of Pericles, it is a philosophy that attempts to square individual liberty with collective endeavor—a formula for living the good life in a modern capitalist democracy:
In America, our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. But those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.
Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest—these are small things. They make us comfortable, ease the way for our children, and purchase a fleeting regard for our lives, but not the self-respect that, in the end, matters most. Sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause.
McCain incorporated his ideas on national service into legislation he co-sponsored with Senator Evan Bayh. And for a while, he fought for that legislation. But in recent years his enthusiasm for the subject seems to have waned. Maybe it’s frustration with President Bush, who made bold promises after 9/11 to expand national service but did not break a fingernail in pursuit of that goal. Maybe it’s the fact that McCain decided to make another run for the White House and needed the support of small-government conservatives, many of whom loathe AmeriCorps.
Whatever the reason, the Arizona senator has spent this presidential season eloquently exhorting young people to “serve a cause higher than self” while studiously avoiding mention of any new measures to create more opportunities for such service. He took a weeklong “Service to America” speaking tour this spring, during which he said nothing about national service. His website is bereft of information on the subject. When reporters ask his campaign for anything in writing on the candidate’s national service agenda, they are sent copies of his 2001 Washington Monthly article.
As a matter of national policy, this is regrettable. America faces a growing list of unmet domestic needs—from weatherizing low-income homes to helping the elderly with daily chores to help them stay out of nursing homes—that neither the private sector nor traditional public sector bureaucracies are set up to solve. The only sensible way to deal with these vital needs is through a mobilization of volunteers empowered by the federal government. America also faces an overwhelming foreign policy need: to reclaim our good name, and with it some measure of the power we’ve lost. As Kenneth Ballen writes in this issue (“Bin Laden’s Soft Support”), the quickest and easiest way to enhance our image overseas, even among the world’s most alienated Muslims, would be a massive campaign of humanitarian aid delivered not by faceless agencies but by Americans themselves, be they from the military, the Peace Corps, or some other entity yet to be created.
While McCain has gone silent on national service, his opponent has been speaking up. In an address last December, Barack Obama unveiled a plan to triple AmeriCorps, double the Peace Corps, expand service opportunities for middle-aged and older Americans, turn a quarter of all college work-study jobs into community service positions, and offer a $4,000 tuition tax credit to anyone who completes one hundred hours of service. He expanded on these ideas in a much-celebrated commencement address this spring at Wesleyan College.
Like McCain, Obama roots his commitment to national service in his own life story: his choice, only half-understood at the time, to become a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Though his story lacks the gripping drama and heroism of McCain’s tale, it is not without charm (“Day after day, I heard ‘no’ a lot more than I heard ‘yes.’ I saw plenty of empty chairs in those meetings we put together.”) Eventually, as his efforts led to successful voter registration drives and the like, Obama discovered, as did McCain, a higher patriotic purpose. “I found a community that embraced me; a church to belong to; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking.” Obama also fashioned from his service experience a philosophy of civic purpose, one he described to the Wesleyan graduates:
There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.
But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.
It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.
The similarity between Obama’s and McCain’s thinking is more than a little striking. But there’s an extra element to Obama’s vision. Whereas McCain sees service as a route to full citizenship, Obama also sees it as a means to achieve political change.
Consider, for instance, his idea of creating a kind of national service craigslist—an online network where Americans could match their own skills and time commitments with available service opportunities, and even rate those opportunities for other would-be volunteers to see. “This will empower more Americans to craft their own service agenda,” he announced last December, “and make their own change from the bottom up.”
This notion of a web-based, self-organized national service effort might seem a bit dreamy—except that it’s based on the same organizational model Obama used to win the Democratic nomination. Indeed, in his speech last December, he made explicit the connection between his vision of, and commitment to, national service, and the political transformation he is trying to engineer:
I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. That’s why my campaign has called nearly 400,000 Americans to a common purpose. That’s why I’m reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.
Whether Obama really will make national service a cause of his presidency remains to be seen. But if he does, it could define his administration the way the Peace Corps defined JFK’s. At the very least, he’s talking seriously about national service. That’s more than can be said for McCain.