Gonna Have to Serve Somebody
his final, frantic—and ultimately wildly successful—15-states-in-five-days
campaign spree, President Bush repeatedly exhorted Americans
to be “willing to serve something greater than ourselves.”
But, in truth, it’s pretty obvious he didn’t really expect
us to listen. As Bill Maher writes in his just released book
When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden: “We were
asked to do very little and we responded. That’s the bargain
we tacitly make with our presidents: We won’t ask too much
of you, if you don’t ask too much of us.”
And true to form, in speech after speech, the president has
been asking very little of us. At one stop he recommended,
“Be a Boy Scout leader or a Girl Scout leader.” At another
he suggested that Americans “put their arm around somebody
who hurts and say ‘I love you. What can I do to help you?
How can I make your life better?’ ” Unfortunately, he failed
to mention what to do when the answer to that question is:
“Take your damn arm off of me and get me some affordable health
Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with being
a Boy Scout leader or telling people that you love them (even
when you don’t—by the way, Mr. President, I love you). Indeed,
I’m all in favor of these things. But there is a world of
difference between urging mild, spare-time charity and championing
a cause that will transform our society. It’s the difference
between flaccid, patronizing stump-speech rhetoric and invoking
patriotism to rally us as a nation to a common mission.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy stood in front of a joint session
of Congress and laid out a vision for the future: “I believe
this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before
the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” He used
his bully pulpit to gather the political will to meet a monumental
challenge—and backed it up with financial muscle.
Eight years later, after a mobilization of resources, exceptionally
talented people and that extremely American can-do quality,
we achieved the science-fiction goal when Neil Armstrong bounced
across the lunar surface. People, no doubt, still told each
other “I love you,” but love doesn’t get you to the moon.
So what if President Bush were to use his newly won political
power to do the same—to call on the American people to commit
themselves to a large, collective purpose? There’s no shortage
of needs. I have two that immediately come to mind.
He could borrow President Kennedy’s language and call on the
nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before the
decade is out, of becoming completely independent of foreign
oil.” Or he can call on the nation to “commit itself to achieving
the goal, before the decade is out, of closing the ever-widening
gap between the children growing up with hope for the future
and those growing up in despair.”
OK, I realize that, given the president’s oily background,
there is probably very little chance of his choosing the first
cause even though the cause of energy independence seems to
offer plenty of opportunity for an oil industry willing to
harken, no pun intended, back to its energetic wildcatting
roots. But what about the second goal? After all, he and his
wife have already shown an interest in the subject.
Last week, over 1,000 people gathered in Washington to celebrate
25 years of Communities in Schools (CIS), a remarkable organization
that has turned around the lives of hundreds of thousands
of at-risk children throughout the country.
Among the group’s high-profile supporters is First Lady Laura
Bush, who has praised CIS as “a terrific model for people
who want to make a difference. It’s an organization that has
proven for 25 years that they can turn kids on to learning
by turning them on to life.”
Bill Milliken, CIS’s founder, was himself a troubled kid growing
up in Pittsburgh in the ’50s. He’s now putting into practice
the national exhortation Bush has yet to make. “Our communities
have been blown apart,” Milliken told me, “and we have kids
running around looking for help. We’re responding to this
by bringing caring adults into one central location—the schools—to
meet the children’s unmet needs. Our work is based on the
belief that programs don’t change kids—relationships do.”
Communities in Schools currently has over 45,000 volunteers
working in 2,550 schools—putting in 1.8 million hours a year.
Those are impressive numbers—until you consider the magnitude
of the problem: There are over 96,000 public schools and roughly
13 million at-risk children.
And that’s where the power of the presidency comes in. We
cannot go from where we are to where we need to be with individual
acts of charity and touchy-feely speeches alone. To create
the critical mass that will truly transform the lives of a
generation of children, we need to make a Manhattan Project-level
commitment of resources and resolve.
So let’s strike a new bargain with our leaders: We will expect
a lot more of them and we’re ready for them to ask a lot more
of us. President Bush claims to believe in the country. So
why doesn’t he believe in us?