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Insights: Politics

David Gergen
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

As he lay dying, one of my early political heroes, Terry Sanford, kindly granted me time for a long conversation and a farewell. He wanted to look back over his life, and I expected he would reflect upon some of the mountains he had climbed -- as a progressive governor of the New South in the early '60s, as a U.S. senator from North Carolina, and as the president who transformed Duke into a national university.

But no, other memories came pouring out that spring day in 1998. Of the values he learned as an Eagle Scout. And of his service as a paratrooper in the Second World War, when he jumped into Normandy just after D-Day, survived the horrendous winter of 1944-45, and went on to the Battle of the Bulge. "What I learned in the Scouts sustained me all my life; it helped me make decisions about what was best…and then the war, well, that was the defining moment for many of us in my generation."

Two weeks later he was dead. The people of North Carolina gave him the biggest send-off anyone could remember, recalling his many accomplishments, but what lingered with me was how, at the end, he cherished his days when he first served his country.

"Duty, honor, country" -- those words were more than the motto of West Point for people of Terry's generation. They were a motto for life, a touchstone for shaping one's career. People were grateful to grow up here and were proud to give back.

Many of us thought we might never see that day again -- until September 11. In an instant, scores of young Americans wanted to do something -- anything -- to help again. Leaving Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, a young man named Seth Moulton stopped to talk. Seth is a clean-cut, good-looking guy who graduated from the college last spring and was commencement speaker for his class. He had intended to make some money after school, he said. "Now with what's happened, I think I should give some time to the country. But tell me, where should I sign up?" A few weeks later Seth made his decision and in January reported to Quantico, where he will begin nearly four years of service as a Marine. And he doesn't want a desk job: he wants to be an infantry officer.

That's the flame that came to life among the younger generation after September 11. The question now is: how can we keep it alive? How can we transform this new love of nation into a lasting mission? How can we nurture the Terry Sanfords of the future?

The answer is as challenging and clear as the question: by creating a new ethic of national service.

President Bush is in favor of expanding national service. So is former President Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Evan Bayh (D-IN) are trying to push a bill through Congress this year that would quintuple the size of Americorps, the service program started by Clinton and, over time, embraced by many Republicans. In a recent national survey, 81 percent of Americans told pollsters from Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates that they would like the federal government to encourage increased community and national service. They strongly support college scholarships, similar to the GI bill, for young people who first serve as police officers, firefighters or civil-defense workers.

So, why isn't a national service bill a slam-dunk? Because it is not high on the agenda in Washington, and politicians there are returning to business as usual -- squabbling over their differences, often petty and contrived, while they lose sight of their common interests. And mark this: unless the country moves swiftly to take advantage of the new public mood, it will pass. Citizens will return to business as usual, too, putting private pursuits ahead of public interests. Irretrievably lost will be the best opportunity in a generation to create a new culture of service.

It's worth imagining how it would be if every young person, sometime from the age of 18 to 24, was expected to enlist in national service. Some would choose to enter the military. Most would enter civilian service, beginning with, say, three months of basic training -- a physical fitness program combined with classroom training in their field of service, whether in homeland security, working in a hospital, tutoring in a school or refurbishing national and state parks. Some would prepare to have leadership roles, others would choose to be followers. Service would be for a minimum of a year (preferably two), with modest pay, and at the end, every graduate would be entitled to a scholarship to college or vocational training.


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