Washington — Call it grand larceny, if you will, but it's still grand. I am referring not to Enron but to President Bush's enthusiastic embrace of community and national service for hundreds of thousands of Americans as a way to answer the question repeatedly asked since last Sept. 11: What can I do to help?
In the State of the Union address and a series of follow-up appearances across the South, Bush introduced "the USA Freedom Corps" of volunteers who will serve at home and abroad on projects ranging from homeland defense to teaching and mentoring to bringing the message of democracy to the Muslim world.
No one was more thrilled to hear the president's words than Will Marshall, the longtime president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think-tank arm of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). "This action by the president dramatically enhances the prospects of a significant expansion of national service programs," Marshall told me.
It also demonstrates how good ideas Â carefully nurtured for years by people in one party Â can be brought to fruition when shamelessly swiped by their political opponents.
The practice had been long familiar in the British Parliament when Anthony Trollope had a Gladstone-like character complain about his fictional version of Disraeli: "He has taken the bread from our mouths!"
Bill Clinton was a master at such publicly justifiable thievery. Years of futile Republican efforts to develop some form of "workfare" preceded his potent 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." And when the new Republican majorities in Congress began in 1995 demanding an end to deficits, Clinton promptly pirouetted and placed himself at the head of that fiscal responsibility parade.
Since Bush "forgot" to mention the ancestry of his good idea, let it be noted that its parentage was largely on the other side of the aisle. The Peace Corps, whose size he proposes almost to double, traces back to John Kennedy's administration. The idea was introduced into the political world by Hubert Humphrey and by Henry Reuss, an able Milwaukee congressman who died just last month.
AmeriCorps Â the domestic version of the Peace Corps whose functions and membership Bush also proposes to expand Â came with the Clinton administration and survived a number of attempts by congressional Republicans to strangle it in the crib. It was saved in part by support from governors of both parties, who found AmeriCorps volunteers enormously helpful to community organizations in their states. Marshall tells me that the governors were rallied to the cause of that Clinton initiative by none other than Marc Racicot, then governor of Montana and now chairman of the Republican National Committee.
National service was one of the bedrock ideas of the DLC. Sam Nunn, then a senator from Georgia, and Dave McCurdy, then a representative from Oklahoma, introduced legislation in 1989 to create what became AmeriCorps.
Last year, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, the current DLC chairman, wrote a national service bill more ambitious than Bush's proposal. The co-sponsor was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who candidly acknowledged that he had once opposed AmeriCorps but had come to see its potential and believed it should grow. McCain promoted the idea in magazine articles, speeches and interviews last year.
It would have been gracious of Bush to acknowledge publicly the contribution of his onetime rival for the nomination; as it was, presidential adviser Karen Hughes gave McCain a heads-up on the proposal just a half-hour before the speech.
But none of that matters as much as Bush putting his prestige behind the idea. Bayh and McCain praised him for it, and some blend of their plan and his is likely to become law.
John Bridgeland, the astute domestic policy adviser who crafted the Bush proposal and will supervise the program from the White House, has the right experience to help capture the energy and idealism that is available in local communities without a stifling national bureaucracy.
There is a broad consensus Â from conservatives and liberals Â not just on national service but on making community service an integral element of school and college curricula. The Education Commission of the States is pushing the idea, and just last week a panel of distinguished private citizens, headed by former Sen. John Glenn of Ohio and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, made the point that working on projects in their own communities "reinforces and extends the standards-based (school) reform movement by ... giving students a sense of the practical importance of what they are learning in school."
Credit George Bush for recognizing an idea whose time has come.
Â David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.