They tried, but VISTA won't go away In service to America

Robert Kuttner

June 28, 1993|By Robert Kuttner

WITHIN a few weeks, President Clinton will add another legislative notch to his belt. The House and Senate committees have just completed action on what Mr. Clinton likes to call his "signature program" -- the National Service Initiative. The president hopes national service will symbolize the youthful idealism of his presidency in the same way the Peace Corps stood for the spirit of John Kennedy's New Frontier.

The program combines practical help to people in need, with stimulus to a national ethic of voluntarism. It gives volunteers a $5,000 stipend for each year of service (maximum $10,000) to help volunteers pay for college. The new National Service Corporation will be outside of civil service as part of Mr. Clinton's new, more "entrepreneurial" approach to government. In every sense, national service is the quintessential program of a "New Democrat."

This happy prospect, however, nearly foundered on the awkward matter of what to do with federally sponsored volunteer service programs that already exist, namely those administered by the ACTION agency: These include VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), and several older American volunteer programs, as well as more recent small programs added under the auspices of President Bush's "thousand points of light."

When Mr. Clinton's advocates for national service took office, VISTA in particular seemed to stand in the way as an awkward embarrassment.

Here was President Clinton boldly proposing national service, but it turned out that national service already existed. VISTA implied that Mr. Clinton, bold rhetoric and all, was reinventing the wheel.

VISTA had two other strikes against it. For one thing, its subtext was all wrong. VISTA had its origins in the anti-poverty program of the 1960s. If New Democrat Bill Clinton's conception of national service was polite, universal and middle class, VISTA seemed to smack of class warfare, anti-poverty, and "old Democrats."

During the Great Society and again under Jimmy Carter when the leftish Sam Brown headed ACTION, the volunteers of VISTA didn't just teach literacy or sponsor neighborhood cleanups. They associated poverty with powerlessness; they read up on the teachings of community organizer Saul Alinsky, and organized rent strikes; they promoted that sublimely subversive act -- voter registration of the poor.

And if VISTA was not sufficiently damned as an unwelcome child of a different Democratic era, it was doubly damned for surviving 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Once too radical, VISTA had been stripped of its organizing agenda and now seemed too Republican.

On all counts, the initial impulse of the Clinton administration was to quietly bury the holdover volunteer programs. Under early drafts of Mr. Clinton's legislation, most ACTION employees were to be laid off over an 18-month period. VISTA was to be submerged into the new National Service Corporation.

However, the Clinton people discovered that VISTA had wide respect and powerful friends. Former VISTA volunteers, nearly 100,000 strong, organized a campaign to keep it alive and strong. In both houses of Congress, Democrats who had fought hard to keep VISTA from being gutted by Republicans were determined that it not be gutted by a Democrat.

In the end, committees in both the House and Senate added language retaining VISTA's identity within the new national service initiative and even increasing its funding, and making sure that "voluntarism" meant not just conservation corps, public safety, and earning money for college -- but also helping genuinely needy people. At the same time, the liberals in Congress and the White House resisted a rather cynical move by some Republicans to turn the program into a means-tested one, in which only the poor could earn money for college.

So, the president will get his signature "New Democratic" program -- but without sacrificing what is still worthwhile in the legacy of old Democrats who went before him. Credit for this outcome is due to the liberals in Congress, to Friends of VISTA (an organization of former volunteers), and to Eli Segal, who heads the national service office at the White House.

A Clinton loyalist whose political roots go back to the McGovern campaign of 1972, Mr. Segal has sympathies for both the old and new Democratic agendas.

In touring existing VISTA programs, Mr. Segal says, "I was astonished at the quality of the VISTA volunteers. They have been belittled and mocked during the past 12 years, but they are amazingly healthy at the local level."

National service, Mr. Segal notes, is an idea that can command wide political support: "A Ted Kennedy, who is concerned about giving 17-year-old poor kids a fresh start, a Sam Nunn who thinks young people should serve their country, a Bill Clinton who wants college to be available to everyone."

Mr. Clinton's weakness is said to be a wish to please everybody, which suggests merely a trimming of views or a splitting of differences. But the essence of leadership is defining a new vision that people on opposite sides of older schisms can unite behind. In this sense, if national service truly bears Mr. Clinton's signature, it portends good things for party, presidency, and nation.

Robert Kuttner writes a syndicated column on economic matters.

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