Domestic Peace Corps getting ready to serve

ON POLITICS

August 12, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Several weeks ago, President Clinton made the kind of news he can do without by criticizing ultraconservative radio and television talk show host Rush Limbaugh and his ilk for "a constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism" that clearly had gotten under his skin. That night on television and in the next day's newspapers, Clinton's gripe overshadowed all else he had done that day.

In the news and political business, it's called "stepping on your own story." The president aired his complaint in a phone interview from Air Force One as it flew to St. Louis, where he was headed to mark the beginning of a "Summer of Service" by 7,000 young volunteers in pilot projects of his new national service program. The idea was to spotlight the program, which is especially close to Clinton's heart. Instead, it got swallowed up in the ensuing airwaves flak between him and electronic America's biggest loudmouth.

Determined to give the whole national service effort a proper send-off as the first anniversary of the signing of the national service act approaches, Clinton and all or most of his Cabinet members will take part in a more elaborate kickoff next month, fanning out around the country to herald the full-scale beginning of what has been popularly called the "domestic Peace Corps."

The idea of young Americans doing various kinds of public service as a means of earning money for college -- a stipend of $4,725 for a year's work totaling 1,700 hours, plus the minimum hourly wage -- was easily candidate Clinton's biggest cheer line in his speeches during the 1992 campaign, especially on college campuses. At the end of his first year in office, he singled out passage of the program and enactment of the Brady gun control bill as the accomplishments that pleased him most.

But while the national service program, now called "Americorps," has generated considerable enthusiasm among prospective participants -- 80,000 young Americans have called its toll-free number with inquiries -- it has not approached the reception afforded John F. Kennedy's overseas Peace Corps, established in 1961, although it is already larger.

When the program is officially launched on Sept. 12, there will be 20,000 enlistees working in communities around the country, according to program director Eli Segal, a key administrator of the Clinton presidential campaign. That compares with 6,500 today in the Peace Corps and 15,500 in its highest year.

One reason the program has not ignited public excitement the way the Peace Corps did in 1961, Segal suggests, is that the Peace Corps began in an era marked by much stronger patriotic -- and anti-Communist -- feelings, and was seen in those terms. Today, he says, the new effort is starting "after three decades of failed social programs" and in the wake of such events as the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal that diminished public confidence in government generally.

Although some Senate Republicans first filibustered the idea, it eventually won bipartisan backing. Wide public support, Segal says, must await "a demonstrable measure of success."

The recruits -- all signed on locally by community coalitions that -- have been awarded federal operating funds -- will be undertaking such tasks as community policing, public safety, dispute resolution, environmental cleanup and teaching assistance. Pilot projects are under way now in a "Summer of Safety" by the first 7,000 enlistees in Americorps.

In St. Louis, for example, senior escort services help the elderly walk through high-crime neighborhoods as they go about their lives. Also, dangerous alleyways have been fenced off to discourage muggings and drug dealings.

"There's a panache to the Peace Corps," Segal says respectfully. "Hopefully there will be a panache for Americorps," but of a different sort. The Peace Corps attracted college graduates of middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The new national service corps reaches out to high school graduates and even dropouts, many of whom could not afford to go to college without earnings from it. On them rests Clinton's hope of achieving at home what JFK did for the American image abroad.

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