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Time Embraces a Timeless Idea By: Andrew Ferguson
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, September 18, 2008

Time magazine, the superannuated newsweekly, seems to reinvent itself every few years with slackening energy, in one vain attempt after another to postpone its inevitable, rapidly approaching, and much-anticipated demise. Its most recent incarnation has largely dispensed with the snoozy business of gathering and conveying fresh information in favor of political advocacy. Not surprisingly, the ideology that the editors display is the boneless neoliberalism that most of the better-paid members of the journalistic class find comforting--not too left, not too right, but definitely more left than right. It's the kind of liberalism that considers itself practical, wised-up, unromantic. Neoliberals love it if you describe their views as "muscular."

"National service"--the idea that Americans would be better off if someone, preferably the federal government, paid them to volunteer to help one another--has always been big with neoliberals, and so now it's big with Time magazine. The editors devoted a special issue to the subject last year. And that was just the beginning, apparently. This week's issue of Time is also a national service extravaganza. It's billed as "the second annual community service issue," which means that we can expect national service issues at regular intervals until the editors get fired.

To promote the new issue, the magazine somehow convinced the two presidential candidates to appear back to back in a special TV forum, where they answered questions about national service lobbed at them by a Time editor named Richard Stengel and the PBS news personality Judy Woodruff. The forum was sponsored also by Service-Nation, a consortium of charitable groups whose leaders don't know that most Americans find the worn-out marketing ploy of jamming two capitalized words together either annoying or confusing. The show came to us live via the cable news networks from a stage at Columbia University.

Columbia was an ironic venue for a chin puller promoting national service. The most common and traditional form of serving the nation, needless to say, is soldiering: The modern American soldier does it all, performing the chores that liberals cheer--building schools in distant and godforsaken lands, handing out candy to children, changing diapers--while not neglecting the tasks that earn the undying admiration of conservatives, chiefly blowing things up. It's a nice mix of activities, sure to be a character-builder for anyone who tries it, and as service-oriented as anyone could ask for. Yet Columbia, like several other expensive universities, has banned military recruiters from its campus. Columbia's administrators evidently think you can carry this national service racket too far.

During the forum, the irony was noted by John McCain, who, it turns out, once served in the military himself (who knew?). "We're here in a wonderful institution," he said. "But do you know that this school will not allow ROTC on this campus? I don't think that's right." McCain has been a longtime advocate of national service, the niceties of which he prefers to leave undefined. His approach is typical of national-service advocates and is shared by his fellow candidate and enthusiast, Barack Obama, whose campaign has issued a "detailed" proposal for national service without saying too precisely what it is his newly minted national servants will be expected to do.

Though they don't like to admit it, our presidential candidates are taking their places in a familiar campaign tradition. "Whoever raises his right hand to take the oath of office as President next January," Stengel wrote in this week's Time, "will have already promised to make national service a priority for his Administration." Stengel seems to think this is a fresh development in American politics--otherwise he would have noted that his observation could have been made about every presidential election since 1988, when George H.W. Bush promised to mobilize his "thousand points of light" to serve the nation. The old Bush tried to keep his promise through an expansion of the Peace Corps and an endlessly touted "points of light" initiative to promote voluntarism in nearly every community he visited. Bush pretended his idea was something fresh, too--a "kinder, gentler" departure from that of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who, Bush failed to mention, had promoted a "voluntarism initiative" of his own for the eight years of his presidency.

Bush's opponent in 1992, Bill Clinton, pretended that Bush's efforts were nonexistent and vowed to establish a national service initiative called "Ameri-Corps." Clinton's efforts did have the novel twist of adding another layer of bureaucracy that would pay people for the voluntary work the government had enlisted them to do. In 2000, Clinton's AmeriCorps was acknowledged but deemed ultimately inadequate by George W. Bush, who outdid his opponent Al Gore in his praise for the idea of community action, voluntarism, and national service.

And now, eight years later, this campaign's national service enthusiasts--our presidential candidates, the editors of Time, and the others--continue the tradition by pretending that the idea of national service is being newly revived, by them. It's an easy trick, since to succeed it requires only the perpetual amnesia of our country's political class. For example, both McCain and Obama scold the present President Bush for failing to implore his countrymen to community action in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. "Rather than tell the American people to shop," Obama said at Columbia, "what I would have done is to say, now is the time for us to meet some great challenges." If Bush had done that, Obama went on, "we would have had a different result."

But Bush did do that, and continues to do it. Bush calls his countrymen to "serve causes greater than self" so often it sometimes seems as if he's wound the phrase on a tape loop (he's used it dozens of times since 2001). He not only continued AmeriCorps, delivering dozens of impassioned speeches on its behalf, and tried to increase its size by a factor of five; he even added a few more corps of his own, including Senior Corps and Citizens Corps. Then he bundled them all under a supercorps called Freedom Corps. More to the point, in speeches following September 11, 2001, he said precisely what McCain and Obama tell us he didn't say: "My call tonight," he said in his State of the Union address in January 2002, "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." He repeated the "call" in the next State of the Union address, and in countless speeches in between. "All of us," he said repeatedly, "can become a September 11 volunteer by making a commitment of service in our own communities."

It's too bad that our candidates today want to make believe this didn't happen. But you can see why they do. Bush pushed national service--and nothing happened. His experience, like Clinton's, like George H.W. Bush's, like Reagan's, suggests that national service, even with the support of a president, is a trickier business to pull off than a candidate might think. Then again, it might also suggest that "national service" mainly serves as a self-aggrandizing tool used during presidential campaigns, in hopes of lulling the public into believing that all their fellow citizens need in order to do good are the right federal programs, the right president, and the right magazine editors.

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