The American dream can be revived, says Tom Brokaw, if we can overcome our disunity, and universal national service is the key.
When Clinton’s national service bill passed in 1993, but with only 20,000 initial slots for his newly created Ameri- Corps program, the press treated it almost like a defeat. But it was a start. When the Republicans swept both houses of Congress in 1994, the House of Representatives voted to terminate the new program. President Clinton held firm and AmeriCorps was saved, and with increasing bipartisan support grew to 50,000 members by the year 2000. With President George W. Bush’s support, after 9/11 the national service positions grew to 75,000, working in hundreds of nonprofit service programs, including Teach for America and the Harlem Children’s Zone, City Year and the National Civilian Community Corps, and in large numbers serving in long-standing organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Red Cross.
In 2008, Senators Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton joined Senators Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch as prime cosponsors of what became the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, authorizing the five-year growth to 250,000 National Service participants. The bill passed with large bipartisan majorities in the first hundred days of the Obama presidency, and the president signed it into law. After the election of 2010, however, House Republicans, many of whom had supported tripling AmeriCorps’ size in 2009, voted to terminate the entire program. Fortunately, the Senate reversed those cuts in the latest federal budget passed in December. Still, national service will not reach the goal of 250,000 members— much less Tom Brokaw’s even bolder aims—anytime soon.
In his book Brokaw does not report the fitful growth of AmeriCorps. But he is right in seeing that the success of the program to date is too little told and too little understood. His book’s presence high on the November best-seller list is a sign that the public is open to his call for expanding national service, and his advocacy could make a difference in public opinion and the legislative struggles to come. This reviewer hopes that when his book touring is over, Brokaw will play an important role in shaping the next steps and helping to lead the way.
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