A Call to Service

NATIONAL leaders, from time to time, need to invoke the better traditions of unselfishness and caring in the American character. That's why the appeal by President Bush last week for Americans to commit themselves to national service and volunteer work was appropriate - even if its effect falls short of its promise.

Bush's proposed ``Points of Light Initiative'' might very well do some good. A clearinghouse that disseminates information and helps people find the best examples of service for the elderly, the homeless, the illiterate, and other needy, won't hurt. The $25 million cost is peanuts. It would be matched by $25 million in private funds - and President Bush is someone who can reach those corporate executives for a donation.

In the world of volunteer help, $50 million can go a long way.

Further, the President's idea, unlike the more ambitious but controversial Nunn-McCurdy bill to give federal aid to students choosing service pursuits, will probably get through Congress.

Still, the plan is just a beginning. It has a long way to go if it is to be seen as more than a one-day ``feel good'' media event.

The plan is still too general. ``Naive'' is the word used by leading civic philosopher Charles Moskos. The target audience is ``all Americans'' - in practice a bit sweeping. Why not the 18 to 26 year-olds who really need a civic ``rite of passage''? Older Americans have many options. Some of the proposed help may be redundant, overlapping current social services.

Volunteer work should not be bureaucratized or programmatic, we agree. The adage is true that most good work is done by busy people in their spare time with their left hand.

But busy people in an information-thick post-modern world, with its cynical tones and economic imperatives, need specifics if they are going to donate valuable time. People need to feel part of some broader vision of service.

``From now on,'' President Bush said, ``any definition of a successful life must include serving others.'' Has it ever been otherwise?

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