Washington The great feat of statesmanship is to turn catastrophe into opportunity. That is what John McCain and Evan Bayh hope to do, by converting the surge of patriotic energy unleashed by the terrorist attacks of last month into a greatly expanded program of national service for young Americans.
McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Bayh, the Indiana Democrat, are putting the finishing touches on legislation they will introduce in the Senate to encourage as many as 1 million youths every four years to spend a period of time working on projects that will benefit the country.
Their effort was under way before the events of Sept.11, but, as McCain told me the other day, "That attack inspired patriotism and also identified many more ways in which people can serve."
Homeland defense the new top priority for President Bush and the military establishment is labor-intensive work. The armed forces will have their hands full hunting down the terrorist cells overseas. But there are myriad tasks here at home that can be done by well-trained volunteers safeguarding the transportation and communications systems, assisting in monitoring the flow of people and goods across U.S. borders and providing security at large public gatherings of all kinds.
And there is the vital work of helping shattered families rebuild their lives and achieve at least some of the dreams they held before the terrorist attacks.
Some or all of these jobs might be assigned to the expanded AmeriCorps that Bayh and McCain are proposing. But much of the volunteer work, as they see it, would continue to focus on community projects, where AmeriCorps members have made themselves a vital catalyst for nonprofit organizations tackling such basic human needs as housing, food, health care and education.
AmeriCorps began in 1994, fulfilling a campaign pledge by President Clinton to provide education benefits to young people who give some time to community service. It was an idea championed by the Democratic Leadership Council, which from its start almost a decade earlier had included national service as one of its distinctive policy proposals.
It is only recently that Republicans have come to embrace the concept, but when AmeriCorps was up for renewal last year, 49 of the 50 governors endorsed it most of them Republicans. They like the program because it is run out of the state capitals, and the AmeriCorps volunteers work for the same community groups that governors and mayors count on to deliver human services.
Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and other organizations use AmeriCorps volunteers who are available to them full-time to help organize their part-time and temporary citizen-helpers, thus multiplying the effectiveness of this grass-roots work force. Teachers and principals deploy them as mentors and tutors. Some already work with local police departments and help out in floods and other natural disasters.
While the full details of the McCain-Bayh proposal are still in the works, the basic idea is to expand the ranks of AmeriCorps, which now have leveled off at 50,000, to five times that number by 2009, so that every four years, 1 million young Americans would have the exalting experience of giving a year of their lives to their country. The McCain-Bayh bill and a companion bipartisan measure in the House would continue the current policy of awarding an education grant (currently $4,725) to each person who completes a year of service.
In our interview and in an article in The Washington Monthly, McCain said he had been particularly impressed by the esprit and energy of young people in two small AmeriCorps programs where they live and work together, wearing distinctive uniforms and functioning as teams.
That semi-military approach might be particularly appropriate for some of the homeland defense functions. Bayh and McCain also want to encourage more of the college students now on work-study programs to give up their menial campus jobs and instead undertake community service projects.
McCain also plans to lobby the Pentagon to develop a more flexible enlistment policy for the armed services perhaps one where a recruit would serve 18 months on active duty and 18 months in the Reserves and walk away with $18,000 in college grants.
His goal and it is an important one is to increase the number of future national leaders with first-hand experience in the armed services, closing the worrisome gap between the civilian and military cultures.
In this, and every other way, expanded opportunities for national service could be a great response to the Sept. 11 tragedy.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.