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February 2, 2002
Column #1066


     President George Bush moved America to a new level of commitment to serve others in his State of the Union. 

     First, he chillingly defined America's crisis: "Most of the 19 men who hijacked planes on September the 11th were trained in Afghanistan's camps. And so were tens of thousands of others" who "are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning." Where? Captured documents in Afghanistan included diagrams of America's nuclear plants, public water facilities and city landmarks.

     Second, he outlined government's response, such as a big increase in military spending and homeland defense. 

     Third, he praised a new "bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens" which gave America a glimpse of "a new culture of responsibility." He thanked flight attendants for saving hundreds of lives by spotting a terrorist lighting a match to a shoe with explosives.

     And he declared that after September 11th "It was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves. We were reminded that we are citizens with obligations to each other, to our country, and to history. We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do.

     "For too long our culture has said, `If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic, and a new creed, `Let's roll'" -- Todd Beamer's call to overpower terrorists on Flight 93, preventing the plane from crashing into Washington.

     The President movingly asserted, "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self. We have been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass."

     Then President Bush blew a clear trumpet call to arms, "My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime to the service of your neighbors and your nation." 

     Bush's call is far more specific and demanding than Kennedy's, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Kennedy did create the Peace Corps, which at one point had 15,000 volunteers, but is now less than half as big. Bush plans to double its size, with many volunteers going to Afghanistan.

     More important, the President invited people to consider joining "the new USA Freedom Corps," a goal of which is homeland security. He counseled, "America needs retired doctors and nurses who can be mobilized in major emergencies, volunteers to help police and fire departments, transportation and utility workers well trained in spotting danger."

      "Our country also needs citizens working to rebuild our communities. We need mentors to love children, especially (the 2 million) children whose parents are in prison. And we need more talented teachers in troubled schools."

     The USA Freedom Corps will expand some existing programs. The Senior Corps, now 500,000 people who help the frail elderly, will grow to 600,000. The AmeriCorps, a domestic Peace Corps started by President Clinton to serve the poor (over stout Republican opposition), will grow from 50,000 to 75,000. These volunteers are paid a $9,300 a year (the minimum wage) plus $4,725 of tuition for college after a year of service. 

     A totally new initiative is a Citizen Corps of Americans to volunteer in homeland security efforts in their own communities. This new volunteer arm of the Federal  Emergency Management Agency will be directed by local Citizen Corps Councils who will assess possible threats, identifying where volunteers might help law enforcement, fire and emergency services, businesses, schools, hospitals, reservoirs, etc. 

     Some volunteers will be paid a stipend. The President is seeking $560 million of new funding for the USA Freedom Corps. 

     When President Bush mentioned the need to recruit retired doctors and nurses, I thought of Eileen Cranmer, the mother of my daughter-in-law. She's a retired nurse who lives alone and has some health problems. Asked for her reactions, she told me, "The minute I heard it, I thought of myself, `I could do that!' When my leg is better I am going to volunteer as a nurse. I thought the speech was wonderful."

     John Gardner, a member of Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet, in a book "On Leadership" wrote, : "Leaders must not only have their own commitments, they must move the rest of us toward commitment. They call us to the sacrifices necessary to achieve our goals."

     President Bush did that magnificently. 

     A day later he declared "At home, you fight evil with acts of goodness...If somebody out there is interested in figuring out how to serve, its 1-877-USA-CORPS." 

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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