In his most Kennedyesque initiative to date, President Clinton has called for a national service program modeled, at least philosophically, on the Peace Corps. But whereas President Kennedy's focus was on a diplomatic innovation that won big propaganda gains for the United States during the Cold War, Mr. Clinton is concentrating on domestic needs and linking national service to college, job-training and apprenticeship opportunities.
Because of budget restraints, the new program will begin modestly but could expand dramatically if its performance matches the lofty rhetoric of its presidential sponsor. Its two-pronged approach promises to be uneven. Federal assistance for attending college is likely to go up only incrementally but opportunities to pay off student loans through community service jobs -- teaching, police work, health, housing, child care, elderly care -- may send thousands of trained persons into fields now suffering quantitatively and qualitatively.
The tuition-for-service program would begin with an allotment of $389 million for scholarships for 25,000 students in the next fiscal year. Four years later, if Congress approves administration requests, the program could grow to $3.7 billion for 100,000 students. In the selling of its program, the White House may well concentrate on high costs of current federal scholarship loans. Washington now spends $5 billion a year for past and anticipated defaults and subsidies for bank loans.
Under the Clinton plan, as it is evolving, more students supposedly would go to college because they would be less afraid of piling up huge debts. Instead, they would get vouchers of as much as $10,000 a year for community service; if they take lower-paying jobs after graduation, loan payments would be automatically deducted from their paychecks only in small amounts. Thus, the twin objectives of nurturing a highly skilled work force and tending to society's needs would be achieved.
To dramatize the Kennedy legacy, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and JFK's brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, first Peace Corps director, were with Mr. Clinton when the president announced his national service initiative at Rutgers University this week. Mr. Shriver said young people in the Nineties, as in the Sixties, have high ideals but today there is less money available. Actually, the Peace Corps also started slowly, sending a first contingent of 500 volunteers abroad in August 1961 and growing past the 12,000 mark at the time of President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963.
Before his death, JFK also called for the kind of domestic service effort later followed up by VISTA in the Johnson administration, ACTION in the Nixon administration and in various guises thereafter. Momentum faltered during the Reagan-Bush years. Now presidential authority is forging a direct link between higher education and community service. This is very much in the spirit of Mr. Clinton's inaugural call for "a new generation of young Americans to a season of service."