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McCain, Obama pledge to boost US volunteerism

Obama would expand federal service efforts; McCain would rely more on private sector.

By Staff writer / September 12, 2008

GOP presidential candidate John McCain (left) greets his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, at a forum on national service at Columbia University on Sept. 11.

Stephan Savoia/AP

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New York

Barack Obama wants to make government “cool again” to encourage young people to serve and leverage volunteerism in communities across the country. John McCain wants to “inspire” people to serve a cause “greater than their own self interest” and encourage businesses to support employees who do public service.

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In a rare congenial evening during this increasingly acrimonious campaign, the two presidential candidates agreed that the American heritage of volunteerism and selfless service is part of what makes this country “exceptional.”

Both also pledged to make the encouragement of national service one of their top priorities if elected and to expand AmeriCorps, the federal government’s community-service program.

Each even went so far as to pledge to appoint the other to a “cabinet level” position to oversee national service, although Senator McCain then hedged about creating yet another cabinet level position.

This unusual show of unity came Thursday evening, the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks at a summit at Columbia University in New York. It was sponsored by ServiceNation, a coalition of groups dedicated to restoring what it calls the nation’s “great tradition of citizen service.” The movement was inspired by the families of the 9/11 victims. They are determined that the day be remembered not just for the loss of lives and tragedy when the Twin Towers came down, but also for the extraordinary outpouring of humanity that followed.

“Flash back to how you felt in the days and weeks after 9/11,” says Jay Winuk, who lost his brother Glenn and is now the vice president and cofounder of MyGoodDeed.org. “As a nation, we need to embrace that and put it to good and sustained use.”

And so to kick off a two-day summit dedicated to “an America that is ruggedly idealistic, compassionate, and above all committed to the idea of shared sacrifice" – in the words of the ServiceNation’s website – it brought together the two men who want to lead the country.

Each was eager to talk about his own life of service – in the military and in communities hard hit by job losses. And each praised the other’s history of service. McCain even called Senator Obama’s “record there outstanding,” despite repeated efforts by his campaign to disparage “community organizing.”