Cigar Aficionado

Insights: Politics

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.

Think how much difference that rite of passage would make.

For starters, it would begin a lifetime of commitment to the nation by the younger generation. That's certainly what we saw with the Second World War generation: they came home and devoted themselves to community building. Before Tom Brokaw called them "the greatest generation," they were known as "the civic generation."

Today's younger generation already likes to give back. Volunteer programs at most colleges have been bursting at the seams for some years now. But until September 11, America's youth were increasingly disengaged from national civic life and most of them hated national politics. Presidential voting among 18- to 29-year-olds has dropped precipitously over the past three decades, from half to less than a third. Some 47 percent have said their source of political news is late-night comedy shows.

Evidence is abundant that a year of serious community service -- moving beyond two or three hours a week on a college campus -- can change an outlook.

Alan Khazei and Michael Brown, co-founders of City Year, have found that graduates of their highly successful one-year national service program for people 17 to 24 years old vote at twice the rates of their peers. Wendy Kopp, creator of Teach for America, a corps of college graduates who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools, reports that 60 percent of its graduates remain engaged in public education. Most of them are pushing hard for reforms, so much so that a former Rhodes Scholar quit her job to mobilize the program's alumni behind educational change.

National service would also refresh America's democracy. One of the most disturbing trends in recent years is the accelerating economic and social cleavage between the people who spend their lives in first class versus everyone else in coach. Born in affluence, reared in elite schools, settling into the best jobs -- who wants to mix? Not many, it turns out. That's why housing remains as racially segregated today as in the early '60s, why school segregation remains rampant, and class segregation is deepening. The consequences are immense: until September 11, the country -- to paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger's phrase -- had more and more pluribus and less and less unum.

National service would throw everyone together in a great mixing bowl. In the Second World War, as it was said, a Saltonstall from Massachusetts saluted a Polish kid from Brooklyn. Young people in uniform learned to have a common purpose and share a common sacrifice. Only in modern times have we forgotten how important that is to the civic life of a great nation.

If the past is a guide, and it usually is, national service would also do something else of increasing importance -- it would be the crucible from which a new generation of responsible, effective public leaders would emerge. Out of the Second World War came every American president from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush. Six of them wore uniforms during the war; two -- Kennedy and Bush -- nearly sacrificed their lives in combat; the seventh, Jimmy Carter, was too young -- he went to Annapolis and served honorably in the late '40s.

In their book, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, Charles Moskos and John Butler point out how that tradition of leadership building continued long after the war, with benefits that were unexpected. From the Korean War through the early days of Vietnam, the United States had mandatory military service. In 1953, as many as half of the students at the nation's elite universities were drafted. Many white soldiers went on to become major public leaders -- people like George Shultz and Jim Baker. But the real lift came among blacks: 40 percent of young blacks who reached age 18 went into the military in those days, and from that experience, say Moskos and Butler, thousands of them worked their way up, became professionals and were leading members of a new middle class.

The military is relatively small today, so those avenues of upward mobility are no longer available. By the mid-1990s, just 8 percent of young blacks were enlisting. A new ethic of national service would change all that: it would bring whites, blacks and Hispanics -- and this time, women -- into an embracing national movement, one that would help the country address many of its social needs while transforming a generation. From the ashes of September 11 would rise a living commitment to community and nation.


David Gergen is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.