COLLEGE PARK, MD. — Sen. John McCain has gone full circle, from opposing AmeriCorps - the federal program that involves tens of thousands of young people in building houses, tutoring, assisting the elderly, and otherwise acting as a domestic Peace Corps - to becoming a true believer.
Last week, he and Sen. Evan Bayh introduced new national service legislation to boost funding for AmeriCorps and "dramatically expand opportunities for public service." Unfortunately, it's a good idea that's masking a missed opportunity.
Senator McCain wants to give every young person who's interested the opportunity for service. But in a time of war, he can and should call for more. Young Americans should be told they have an obligation to serve, a duty to actively support their democracy. National conscription for national service is what America needs to ensure that when we win the war on terrorism we have a civil society as mighty as our military.
No one likes the idea of a draft, but we've never tried a draft that didn't have battle as the recruits' ultimate objective. Right now, the military appears to have enough volunteers willing to fight so that we don't need to force young people into harm's way. But our battlefront is not only in the barren reaches of Afghanistan. As President Bush said in his speech last Thursday calling for new opportunities within Americorps, our country needs "a commitment to service in our own communities." What better time to enlist young people to help their country than right now?
This isn't a new idea. In the summer of 1940, as Hitler's troops stormed across Europe, Congress debated the first peacetime draft in American history. The Army and Navy argued for one year of compulsory military service for Americans. But Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, wanted to see a "wider service." She wanted to combine military training with training administered by domestic New Deal agencies. Recruits would revitalize communities, teach, and learn job skills. Their service would strengthen their character and, more important, strengthen democracy.
The first lady was characteristically ahead of her time. With his reelection looming, FDR didn't dare anger isolationists and others opposed to the draft by combining defense with social reform. Eleanor Roosevelt's idea bit the dust.
Half a century later, AmeriCorps began. But President Clinton barely had the support to get it off the ground, much less make it mandatory. Before Sept. 11, the national mood - characterized by me-firstism, apathy, and weakened patriotism - provided no basis for a national-service draft. But war changes everything.
Teaching at a large public university, I've seen this firsthand. Since we have come under attack, college students are more passionate about wanting to help, more thoughtful about the meaning of leadership. In a recent class discussion on presidential leadership, one young man asked, "What about the police and fire-fighters? They're the leaders we never think about. That's real leadership to me." It's also the kind of leadership our young people would see and understand firsthand as AmeriCorps recruits.
John McCain believes AmeriCorps should build in every participant a sense of American values. With elegance, he writes that 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."
There's no better way to teach duty than to live it; no better way to understand the blessings of liberty than to help secure them for another American. Now is the time for our national leaders to use the fervor of patriotic passion to act boldly. Now is the time when the public will be receptive to the idea of compulsory service that teaches young people the meaning of being an American.
"National defense means more than military training," Eleanor Roosevelt said in 1940. "It means the building up of physique, of character, and of a people conscious of what they owe to their country and what it means to them."
Roosevelt knew it would take more than bombs and tanks to protect our liberty and values in the long term.
Robin Gerber is a senior fellow at the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland. Her book, 'Eleanor Roosevelt's Leadership Advice for Women,' will be published by Prentice Hall Press next year.