LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--"This is one of the best-kept secrets in the country,'' said Bruce Corwin, the chairman of Metropolitan Theatres Corp., as he listened to Eli Segal, the man President Clinton chose to create and run national service programs. ''I want to put this up on my screens.''
A generous offer, considering that Metropolitan owns 800 screens in movie theaters across California. And it is true that the new National and Community Service Trust Act, signed into law by the president last September, has gotten lost in the clouds of media attention to Whitewater, Bosnia and Tonya Harding.
But President Clinton has his domestic Peace Corps. ''A dream,'' he said. In case anyone might miss the connection, he used the same pen President Kennedy used to sign the executive order that created the Peace Corps back in 1961. (R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, lent the president the pen for a day.)
Now Mr. Segal, a businessman who was Mr. Clinton's campaign chief of staff, is on the road campaigning for himself -- for his agency, officially the Corporation for National and Community Service. The corporation's management mandate includes the 3,400 members of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), created by President Johnson in 1964, and a new 800-member Civilian Community Corps, young people working in national forests and parks. What's new is AmeriCorps.
AmeriCorps will begin recruiting 20,000 young men and women in May. Before that, Mr. Segal and a very small staff will be out collecting applications from non-profit organizations putting together programs to employ AmeriCorps members. Government agencies from states as big as California to small towns in Idaho can also apply for AmeriCorps workers, but emphasizing private-sector involvement was the price of winning conservative support for national service. The idea that every unit of the society must be geared to the needs and whims of the ''private sector,'' must ''pay for itself" or, even better, be a ''profit center'' has become embedded in the American mentality. Doing good or investing in the future is no longer enough; government has to make money, too.
So, in Los Angeles, Mr. Segal met with representatives of government agencies, schools, the United Way and others looking for bright-eyed help in teaching literacy or cleaning up streets, even in helping old ladies cross them without being mugged. In the spirit of the times, local sponsors will put up 15 percent of AmeriCorps costs.
''I'll take about 50 of them,'' said Darrell Stephens, the police chief of St. Petersburg, Florida, when Mr. Segal's folks came calling.
AmeriCorps members will be paid twice for a year of their time and energy. First they will get something like the minimum wage for 40 hours a week. Then they will receive grants of $4,725 toward college tuition or other skill training for each year of service. (There will also be summer corps programs for 3,500 students a year.)
The total budgeted (but not yet appropriated) for the service programs over the next three years is $1.5 billion. That would cover total service-corps membership by then of 100,000 -- if Congress can be persuaded each year that every project is serving a larger (profitable) purpose than just reinforcing the idealism of the young and the good of the community.
I suspect that this is the best the president and Mr. Segal can get now. If AmeriCorps works -- that is, if local communities approve of the work done -- it will expand, possibly, one day, into universal national service.
The first syndicated column I wrote, 15 years ago this month, argued that such national service was an idea whose time had come. I was wrong then -- and often later, too -- but something like this is better than nothing. ''National service can tell us what it is to be an American,'' said Mr. Segal. I still hope he and the rest of us can make that happen -- show one another that there is more to life in these United States than marketing and consuming.
9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.