What we do for our country

Arthur Schlesinger is authority for the fact that no Kennedy speech went through as much redrafting as his inaugural address. And no sentence was more worked-on than, "Ask not what your country can do for you ...." The theme had appeared in campaign speeches around the country in such forms as, "We do not campaign stressing what our country is going to do for us." The extra work on that line paid off in an inspiring call to service beyond self that can still draw us here a generation later.

President Kennedy and I were of the same generation. Our generation had known national service in World War II. At a time of confrontation with the Soviet Union a summons to serve the nation had a familiar ring. His speech dwelt more with global dangers than domestic traumas. But, he added, in his commitment to human rights, the words, " ... at home and around the world."

At home, it seemed natural that our national government should guide and mobilize our energies. This was the era of the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, VISTA. The era of the Johnsonian Great Society whose roots Kennedy had planted. The era when teachers, doctors, lawyers, were enlisted by government to serve those in need. Over the heads of state and local government, the federal government reached out to stimulate community action in the ghetto and it gave support to the activists, the preachers, and students who were making the civil rights revolution.

But then the Great Society and the idea of looking to government for leadership foundered on the Vietnam War and its offspring, Watergate.

Grizzled veterans of Watergate will remember that symbol of disillusionment, Gordon Strachan, the young Haldeman assistant caught up in the White House conspiracy. He testified before the Senate Watergate committee about how he'd been led astray. And when asked what he would advise other young men planning careers in Washington, he said, "My advice would be to stay away."

Mr. Strachan is now a lawyer in Park City, Utah, and a board member of the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee. In preparing this speech, it occurred to me to ask whe ther he's still turned off by government service. He didn't return my call.

Among those disturbed by the "stay away" mentality was Mortimer Caplin, Kennedy's IRS Commissioner and himself an exemplary public servant. In a speech in 1975, Mr. Caplin said not all of Strachan's generation was "as easily beguiled by power as he was." He quoted Edmund Burke's observation, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." And he asked, "What would the state of our nation be if the able and good withdrew?"

Alas, we're on the way to finding out. The Reagan-Bush Iran-Contra scandal followed the Nixon scandal and was, in turn, followed by the Clinton impeachment scandal. One effect of the scandals has been oppressive disclosure requirements for job candidates and inquisitions into past histories that drive many away. Alienation from government is a clich, a settled fact, with many convinced government is more a problem than a solution.

What does it mean that, for the second successive year, the armed forces, although offering lavish sign-up bonuses, have been unable to reach their recruiting goals? What does it mean that voter turnout in national elections keeps declining? What does it mean that a recent Wilson Center study found Americans of mixed minds about government - wanting its services but suspicious of its power?

Does this mean Kennedy's summons to serve the country would fall on deaf ears today? One doesn't hear ringing calls to public service from today's crop of presidential candidates. That maverick, Sen. John McCain, stands out for pledging to renew faith in government "so that Americans can believe once again that public service is a summons to duty and not a lifetime of privilege."

I have no doubt that altruism and compassion - without the "conservative" modifier - runs through our nation like an underground stream. It's most evident at times of earthquake or flood disaster. It can be seen in the way a child fallen into a well becomes a matter of national concern. Or the national shock over a school or church shooting. That Wilson Center study that found Americans so ambivalent about government said that 54 percent of detractors of government still favor increased aid for low-income families.

While Americans largely do not lack altruism and a bent for public service, public service has been redefined by many as service not necessarily through government, but to the community.

May I mention my son, Jonathan, and daughter, Lisa, who answered Kennedy's summons their own ways? Jonathan, on graduation from Yale, joined the first contingent of Teach for America volunteers and spent three years teaching in an urban high school in Pasadena. Lisa, on graduating from Harvard, joined the service group City Year, which became the model for AmeriCorps. Then she went to Harvard Business School for an MBA because she believed nonprofits needed skilled managers. Now she is the director of business enterprise for the Pine Street Inn, New England's biggest homeless shelter.

Jonathan and Lisa aren't unique - except to their parents. There are many ways to serve the community. Some may pass up more profitable opportunities to become teachers or social workers. Others may donate organs of their bodies. Still others may donate money, like Bill Gates and Ted Turner. (Mr. Turner told me 20 years ago that how much money you amass is how you keep score. More recently he has decided that how much you give away is how you really keep score.)

It would be nice to be able to conclude that what you can do for your country can be done in your community, ignoring a largely discredited government. Many in government would be happy to abdicate responsibility by shifting the burden to "a thousand points of light": to churches, philanthropies, and other nongovernmental efforts. But it can't work without government. Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, a hunger relief and anti-poverty organization that has mobilized private wealth to support 450 community-based service organizations, writes of the limitations of private effort performed in isolation: "Reforming and revitalizing our political institutions to make them more responsive and more effective is as important and as worthwhile as ever."

Inspiring examples of communal effort will not go very far unless underpinned by an enlightened national policy, national leadership, and, yes, national money.

John Gardner [minence grise of the philanthropic world], says government "will not become worthy of trust until citizens take positive action to hold it to account."

Once, when Kennedy was president, we could ask the government to lead the people. Today we must ask the people to lead the government. Public service may begin at home. But it cannot end there.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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