Peace Corps adapts to GOP rule with 'up by the bootstraps' theme

If the new tone of the Peace Corps can be gauged by the past volunteers who came to the John F. Kennedy Library to meet the corps' new Republican director recently, it is upbeat and slightly combative.

The Peace Corps -- a 20-year-old legacy of President John F. Kennedy and the idealism of his "Camelot" administration --seems to be out of place as a conservative tide washes over federal agencies.

But it doesn't have to be that way, says Reagan-appointed Peace Corps director-designate Loret M. Ruppe. She says the corps had conservative support 20 years ago, and she is out to regain it.

Can the Peace Corps thrive in a Republican climate?

It didn't last time. Under President Nixon, it lost its identity to become the international operations division of ACTION, an umbrella agency that also includes the VISTA program. For this reason, and perhaps because of a general loss of idealism in the latter Vietnam years, the corps declined from a peak of nearly 15,000 volunteers in 1967 to just over 6,000.

Now the signs read differently. Volunteers are up 13 percent from a year ago. Inquiries have risen nearly 60 percent.

The budget knife of David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, leaves the Peace Corps about 10 percent leaner in 1982 than this year, but director-designate Ruppe thinks the economies can come out of the Washington headquarters so that the number of volunteers in the field may not have to be cut.

The thrust of Ms. Ruppe's strategy for winning back conservatives on Capitol Hill is the right kind of publicity -- lifting the public profile of the corps back from its post-Vietnam oblivion.

The Peace Corps "is a person-to-person, pull-them-up-by-the-bootstraps type of program," she says, the kind of foreign aid that appeals to conservatives. Ms. Ruppe says she found bipartisan support for the corps when she made the rounds of congressional offices recently.

"There's no question in my mind that, morally, America has an obligation to share its expertise," she says. "But there are practical reasons." It's the practical reasons that she thinks can sell the Peace Corps in Washington now.

For example: A Peace Corps worker in Jamaica many years ago told his students he would take the one with the highest score on a coming exam on a trip to Montego Bay.For the winning student it was a seminal experience. He is now a member of the Jamaican government. This is an effective kind of diplomacy, she says.

Ms. Ruppe is adamant on the independence of the Peace Corps from the ACTION agency. This has been controversial in the past under the Carter-appointed ACTION director Sam Brown. While he headed the agency, one Peace Corps director resigned and some in Congress attempted to pull the corps out from under ACTION's aegis.

Sam Brown's designated successor at ACTION, Thomas W. Pauken, is as keen as Ms. Ruppe is on Peace Corps independence. While Mr. Brown had ambitions for Peace Corps policy, the incoming directors both say they will cooperate only in support services: financial service, communications, etc. There is no policy connection, they say.

This is important in the context of a recurring issue recently: the use of Peace Corps volunteers for intelligence purposes.

Some have voiced concern that Mr. Pauken's intelligence background in the US Army might imply some intelligence-gathering use of Peace Corps workers. Pauken has little patience for the idea:

"I don't believe, first of all, in getting the Peace Corps involved in intelligence. And I don't have any sway over the policy of the Peace Corps."

Ms. Ruppe's background is in organizing, not foreign affairs or social work. She was Michigan cochairman of the Reagan-Bush Committee, and formerly chairman of the George Bush's campaign committee.

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